The Pixel Perfectionist

pixel-pefectDon’t debate the debaters, but instead, influence the influencers.

Product managers are leaders and influencers of features, ideas, and epic tasks. Some have direct and backed authority, many others have variants that are partial or merely implicit. Either way, to achieve the greatest success, do you rule with force? Or influence, and guide, and allow for shared discovery in support of your product’s end goals?

Functional Forms

When your designer says “no”… how do you get them to “yes”? Let’s look at this challenge with respect to a few designer types that many of us have had the pleasure and privilege of working with.

The Perfectionist
The Innovator
The Mixologist
The Standard Barer

The Perfectionist

Perhaps your idea isn’t perfect, or is suffering from The Perfectionist’s attempt for design perfection. Or, perhaps, the design is spiraling into endless edge case bottomless pits of despair.

The Perfectionist can be difficult to influence by anyone less perfect than themselves (nearly everyone else). You may recognize The Perfectionist by these additional traits…

  • Has to be in control
  • Gets carried away with the details
  • Frequently criticizes others
  • Refuses to hear criticism
  • Checks up on other people’s work
  • Has a hard time making choices

Leverage the Peer Group

At their core, The Perfectionist seeks acceptance and approval. Encourage praise from their peers and coworkers for their work; satisfaction breeds productivity and openness to more ideas (especially those that may have received firm “no’s” in the past)

Create an environment that rewards good ideas. Perfectionism can often be curbed through healthy, time-constrained competition – encourage speed and near perfection over 100% and lagging delivery. A mix of some competition with other individuals / groups coupled with tracking and metrics can help lower the individual’s reservations about taking risks while simultaneously establishing a structure for setting and achieving more realistic goals.

The Innovator

Innovator may find your ideas too bland and normal… that’s fine, provide avenues for their creative spirit.

The Innovator can be pushing the limits of design so far that their designs lose the ability to communicate form and function, usable value. The Innovator often seeks to inspire, rather than motivate – motivate the product users to action, to buy, to come back.

Set objective, measurable goals. For example, change the challenge from improving usability by moving the login button to a new location, to increase the rate of logins by 20% and time on the website by 40% for each logged in user. When you redefine the problem in these terms, you then empower The Innovator to iterate, to innovate, to dazzle, to do whatever they can envision… as long, at the end of the day, the goals are met.

Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing various examples and approaches in wielding strategic influence as a successful product manager. Next week, we will look at …

The Mixologist
The Standard Barer

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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How to Hold Kickass Virtual Meetings

clip_image002_thumb1Guest Post by Saeed Khan

One of the core activities for Product Management  is to get out of the office and gain first hand understanding of needs of customers and partners, and other issues in the market  There’s little that can substitute for good field research.

Having said that, getting out of the office to collect primary information is not always possible. There are many reasons including lack of travel budget, lack of time and distributed teams (on your side as well as for your customer/partner).

So, whether we wanted it or not, we had to deal with these issues and still get the research done. Here’s how we did it.

Planning & Recruiting for Kickass Virtual Meetings

Holding the virtual meeting

After all this effort, make sure you make the best of the time you have with the customer. The fact that they are virtual means you have to keep them engaged during the meeting or they will drift off and do other things and you won’t get the information you need.

I had one virtual meeting where one of the participants was furiously typing away in the background. Clearly they were not paying attention to what we were discussing. When I mentioned the background typing noise — hoping they’d stop and listen — the person apologized and announced he’d mute his phone! Not a good sign. Needless to say we didn’t get much from that person.

So here’s what you can do to maximize the value of the virtual meeting.

1. Guide the discussion with a simple slide deck

The purpose of the deck (prepared in advance) is to structure and guide the discussion and should contain the following:

  • Agenda with topics of discussion and allocated time
  • 1 slide per discussion topic
  • Key questions to answer for each topic

This deck should NOT be a marketing or detailed technical slide deck. That’s a mistake that many people make. The purpose of the meeting is to hear from the customer, not to present to them.

The agenda should list the allocated time for each discussion topic and this will be used to control the discussion and ensure the meeting time is used wisely.

The key questions come from the planning phase of the project.

Overall, keep the deck short and simple. It should facilitate discussion, not be the focus of it.

2. Appoint a lead speaker from your side

If you have multiple people from your company attending the call (in my calls, we had up to 6 people from our company), appoint 1 person as the leader. It will likely be the Product Manager, but whomever it is, set the ground rule (in advance amongst your team) that the leader guides the discussion, and keeps it moving forward. Others can certainly chime in and ask the customer follow up or clarification questions as needed.

This has two benefits. First it stops people from your side from stepping on top of one another during the session; and second, for the customer, it provides some coherence in the conversation flow. Overall, it keeps the discussion organized and flowing.

3. Appoint a time keeper

Have someone (other than the leader), be a timekeeper. Whether the meeting is short or long, this person’s role is to watch the clock and remind the leader when the agenda is falling behind schedule. The agenda timings are not set in stone, but if time is short, use it to focus on the important areas of discussion.

4. Record the call/webinar

Something you can do with a virtual meeting that you can’t do with a face-to-face meeting is record the entire event.  Recording the event frees you (and others) from furiously taking notes during the event. I’ve only met a few people who can take good notes in real-time.  One had a previous career as a stenographer!

Make sure you get the customer’s permission to record the event. Make it clear to them that the recording is only for note taking purposes and it won’t be distributed or used for any other reasons.

Some customers may decline but most won’t, and take my word for it, particularly for a longer meeting, when you review the recording after the fact, you’ll hear comments or statements from the conversation that you missed when it was live.

5. If taking notes, have more than 1 person take notes

If the customer declines to be recorded, then have at least 2 note takers ready and waiting. Why two? Neither note taker will be able to capture 100% of the call. With 2 people taking notes, each will capture points that the other missed.

Also, when consolidating notes after the meeting, if there are discrepancies between the two, it may identify areas of confusion or that need follow-up with the customer.

6. Have interactive exercises to collect input

A dialogue and Q&A type meeting will help you collect information, but information can be collected in a variety of ways. And particularly for a more in-depth (i.e. longer) meeting, exercises help break the tedium of a long discussion.

Exercises can be quite varied, but anything that helps collect data you need in your research, AND is simple to execute online is fair game.

In my work, we conducted some simple stack-ranking exercises of potential product features — including items that the customers had raised themselves earlier in the call. This was well received by the customers and it helped us collect some quantitative information that we could use in our requirements process.

The kinds of exercises are up to you, but make sure they are easy to understand and execute online, and the collected data can be consolidated easily and analysed across the customers you speak with.

7. Finish on time

This goes back to point 3 above (Appoint a time keeper), but make sure you finish on time, or worst case, if you see you are running behind, ask in advance if the customer can extend the call by 5-10 minutes. Most customers I’ve met are very busy and don’t have a lot of extra time.

Additionally, it’s unprofessional in my view to let your own meeting run over. If you can’t finish the full meeting in the allotted time, AND the customer can’t stay on, thank them for their time and either request a short follow up, or collect the rest of your info via email.

And finally…

Once you’ve completed each call, hold a short debrief with your team to review the call and identify anything notable that was learned, as well as anything that should be improved on future calls. This is especially important in the first couple of virtual meetings you have with the team. Once you work out the kinks, you’ll find the meetings flow well, end in a timely manner, and you collect valuable information from your customers.

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series exploring the art of the Customer Virtual Meeting, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.

 

Saeed has over 20 years of experience in the software industry with experience in , product management, product marketing, development and education. Having worked in both Toronto and Silicon Valley, at both technology startups and public companies, Saeed has contributed to the success of a broad range of organizations. He has written a number of articles for Pragmatic Marketing’s publications and is co-founder of ProductCamp Toronto. Saeed is based in Toronto Canada, and can be reached via his blog at http://www.onproductmanagement.net

 

Interested in being a Guest Blogger on The Product Guy? Contact me.

Planning & Recruiting for Kickass Virtual Meetings

clip_image002Guest Post by Saeed Khan

One of the core activities for Product Management  is to get out of the office and gain first hand understanding of needs of customers and partners, and other issues in the market  There’s little that can substitute for good field research.

Face to face meetings are difficult

Having said that, getting out of the office to collect primary information is not always possible. There are many reasons including lack of travel budget, lack of time and distributed teams (on your side as well as for your customer/partner).

And it’s this last situation, with geographically distributed team that makes face-to-face meetings incredibly difficult.

But virtual meetings are no substitute to live, face to face meetings. You can’t read body language over the phone/web; you can’t just get up and "whiteboard" a discussion topic;  you can’t make sure the attendees aren’t ignoring you and simply working on email.

I recently completed a series of in-depth customer engagements (2-3 hours minimum per customer + follow ups) for some new product areas I’m researching. With the exception of one customer, all of the meetings were done via phone and webinar.

There were several reasons for this that included all of the reasons listed above.

In a few cases, the customer team members were geographically separate — London and New York, Boston and Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco — so it was impossible to actually be face-to-face with the customer.

In other cases, the meetings were broken over 2 sessions to accommodate customer schedules. It’s difficult for many customers to find 2 or 3 hour uninterrupted blocks of time.

So, whether we wanted it or not, we had to deal with these issues and still get the research done. Here’s how we did it.

Planning

As with any task, proper planning is key.

1. Clearly identify your goals.

  • What are the key questions that must be answered from these customer meetings?
    • Think of the decisions you will need to make with the collected data and then use that to formalize the questions.
    • What teams or stakeholders will need to use the findings of the research?

2. Who can provide the needed information?

  • Who are the people at your customer sites that you want to speak with?
    • e.g. What are their roles? Are they the users, buyers, managers etc? And in the case of the users, are there different types of users? e.g. administrators, business analysts, developers etc.?
    • Who specifically are the targets for your discussions?

3. Are there specific customer profiles you must speak with?

  • New vs. longtime customers?
  • Large vs. small
  • Vertical specific?
  • Use case specific?
  • Technology specific?
  • etc.

4. How many customer meetings do you need to hold to collect the necessary amount of information?

  • If your objective is to speak to enough customers to start to identify patterns amongst them, then you should target at least 5-7 customers of a similar profile.
  • Depending on your product, market, target audience and objectives, you may need more than that to get the data.

Recruiting

Getting customers to agree to meet — particularly for anything over 30-60 minutes — is like a sales process. You need to start with 2x-3x the number of customers you need to eventually speak with, and then get the necessary number to commit to meetings.

If you need to speak with 8-10 customers, you’ll probably have to solicit between 20-30 customers. Some may not want to speak with you :-(, for others the timing will be bad, and yet for others, particularly ones with distributed teams themselves, the logistics of coordinating schedules may be a problem. Timing — holidays (summer and end of year) as well as seasonal or quarterly busy periods — will also contribute to your success rate.

To maximize your chances, do the following:

1. Prepare a brief outline – 1-2 pages maximum – describing:

  • the purpose of the meeting,
  • the attendees from your side (product management, engineering etc.)
  • who you want to speak with on the customer side
  • the key questions you are looking to discuss,
  • what you will do with the information you collect

Usually customers will be interested in having the meeting if the topic is relevant to them, AND if they know something useful will be done with the information, such as influence into the product roadmap.

2. Leverage personal relationships with customers

If you don’t have strong personal relationships with a number of customers, you’re not speaking to enough customers! :-)  But if you do – and let’s assume you do – then contact some of them as a starting point in your recruiting process.

Not only will you increase your chances of getting commitment to the meetings, but these customers will likely make time for you so that you can get your first meetings completed in short order.

Be warned though, don’t abuse the relationships by constantly asking these customers for meetings. Not only will some of them start pushing back, but you also risk skewing your findings by talking to the same customer set time and time again.

3. Involve your sales teams in this process

Send an email or set up a short call with various sales people to let them know what you are doing and why. Ask for their help in making introductions to customers. Share the outline document with them and let them know that they can pass it onto their customers for background information.

4. Connect with the customer directly to assess their suitability

If you get leads (from sales reps or others in your company) contact the customers directly and have a brief information call with them. This will give you a chance to answer their questions, but also to gauge them to see if they fit the profile(s) you defined in your planning process.

This is particularly important if you are planning extended (> 1hour) meetings. You don’t want to waste your time (or theirs) by having a lengthy call and realizing half-way through that their input is not meaningful to your research.

Now that we have Planning & Recruiting down…

In Part 2 we will learn How to Hold that Kickass Virtual Meeting.

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series exploring the art of the Customer Virtual Meeting, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.u

 

Saeed has over 20 years of experience in the software industry with experience in , product management, product marketing, development and education. Having worked in both Toronto and Silicon Valley, at both technology startups and public companies, Saeed has contributed to the success of a broad range of organizations. He has written a number of articles for Pragmatic Marketing’s publications and is co-founder of ProductCamp Toronto. Saeed is based in Toronto Canada, and can be reached via his blog at http://www.onproductmanagement.net

 

Interested in being a Guest Blogger on The Product Guy? Contact me.

The Benefits of Being Virtually There

netconnect A Virtual Office is just not the right fit for every company and every management team. Often, companies, when approaching the topic and considering a Virtual Office establishment for themselves tend to look at one half of the associated characteristics. Most frequently, I speak with companies that are either looking at only the positive, hopeful outcomes without consideration of the negatives and other elements that are red flags for incompatibility with respect to their current circumstances. Then, there are the other companies that only see the negatives and reasons to not move forward without seeing how the positives, for them, may actually outweigh the less than ideal accompaniments.

For now, I wish to briefly touch upon the benefits that can be gained through the successful implementation of a Virtual Office.

As with many large undertakings it is important to make sure your set of expectations are properly aligned with the reality of what a Virtual Office can deliver, and remember to…

…Expect good things.

There are clear cost savings to be had by…

  • Not having a physical need for office space. Large savings can be had, especially in a metropolitan area (e.g. NYC) where cost per square foot of space can get very, very expensive.
  • Not being limited to any specific geographic location for recruitment. Being able to recruit from places where the skills and the PRICE (employee salaries) align ideally with your own can also add up in the company’s favor.

One of the primary drivers, on the business-side, for a Virtual Office is cost savings. Through a Virtual Office you do not have to limit your recruiting search to a single geographic area, but can reach out to people, where ever you find those with the target matching skill-set. The cost savings benefit can often be best understood when evaluated in contrast to the non-virtual alternative. For example, in a city, or large metropolitan region, the business will assuredly pay a premium to hire local talent, where the cost of living is highest. Through the leveraging of a Virtual Office, the business can hire individuals with the same skills (or better) than the local candidates at a fraction of the price. The savings can add up fast; especially when hiring for high-skilled jobs like developers, where the salary difference between regions can be as great as $30k or more! Of course there are new and different costs associated with setting up a Virtual Office, phones, home Internet connections, etc., but they have negligible impact on the savings that will be gained through the cost savings of the reduced salary expenses, as well as the elimination of commercial office space fees.

Time and availability take on a unique meaning and provide special value through…

  • Flexibility of work hours and schedule that, with the right people hired, lead to significantly positive morale and dedication to the company’s work and goals.
  • Increased work hours resulting from the employees ability to optimally configure their work environment, as well as the aforementioned enhanced employee morale.
  • Expanded availability for the occasions where the critical deadline needs to be met or a critical emergency needs to be immediately addressed — it is much more convenient for the employee of a Virtual Office to have everything at their fingertips and work an extra hour or walk into the next room to address the immediate challenge at hand.

Engagement. Keeping employees engaged and focused is a challenge in any office setting. A typical employee situation that I have experienced and observed across multiple companies is that you will find the Virtual Office employee is a good deal more engaged with their work. There are no concerns about commute time or appearance. The employees are both more available to the company and, equally important, to their family. The Virtual Office employee can setup their office environment to suit their needs and optimize their environment to empower themselves to produce their best work. In start-ups the type of focus and extra hours generated from the more intense engagement are invaluable.

When structured and run well, a well connected Virtual Office further facilitates the engagement and the ensuing team spirit that develops; lowering the bar for putting in extra hours, when needed, or being available for support or emergencies. More time, more engagement, more accessibility — great things for all companies, even more valuable when resources are lean as is common in a start-up environment.

Sounds great. Let’s get started!

Remember, the Virtual Office isn’t for everyone. I have only painted about half of the picture so far. Becoming aligned with the rosier expectations associated with this model of a Virtual Office is the easier half of the equation to evaluate.

Today, take away from this part of the conversation…

  • The Virtual Office is not for everyone, and might not be the best thing for ‘us,’ the company,
  • And, the positive expectations may align well with the desired goals, but the need exists to equally weigh and honestly assess the negatives and challenges associated with the successfully executed Virtual Office.

Those downsides, and further guidance in assessing whether or not a Virtual Office is for you I reserve for separate, future The Product Guy blog posts.

So, for now, read, understand, internalize, and come back for to learn more about the experiences that I can share regarding Virtual Offices, many of the common challenges and their solutions. To make sure you don’t miss those posts, and other posts by The Product Guy, you can subscribe to The Product Guy by following this link: http://feeds.feedburner.com/tpgblog

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Real Virtual Office Challenges

netconnect Today, I want to inject some increased reality and a clearer picture of the challenges of creating and managing a successful Virtual Office before I paint too rosy a picture of the great gains that can result in the areas of cost and time, especially since it is more typical that a Virtual Office at the core of a company is the exception. It is equally important to understand the positive aspects of a Virtual Office, as well as its challenges.

…And take careful measure of the downsides.

Most notably, the undesirable component that company management compatibility needs to be critically assessed against and typically leads to the failed Virtual Office exercise involves the additional overhead that impacts every one of the Virtual Office processes. If the individual or management team is not honestly up to the challenge or unwilling or incapable of addressing the issues of overhead then DO NOT PROCEDE — this is the primary reason for incompatibility and failure of either or both the Virtual Office experiment and the company, itself.

Over-communicate and plan.

With many companies, and especially start-ups, workflow is often highly fluid and dynamic; there is often, at best, an idea of what is wanted, no plan, but a process of iterate, iterate, iterate. This is not a very compatible approach within a Virtual Office environment where there is extra time required per iteration, sending-waiting, also resulting in more difficult course corrections due to the distances and time between the parties. Yes, there are many tools and other aides to assist in minimizing this shortcoming, but they will only minimize it; nothing beats face-to-face, in-person, working together, pointing, cycling, doing.

To be successful the management and employees of a Virtual Office must actually go beyond the normal same-office expectation of communications – they must over-communicate. Solid communication and information flow have to be there to minimize the misunderstanding or assumption that, in a real office situation, could have been noticed typically by walking by or in casual chatter around the water cooler. In this area, there are great tools to help from IM, to video, to phone, to chatroom (a personal favorite of mine being campfire) and more to minimize communication breakdowns and keep the processes moving smoothly. But, again, when used perfectly they are only asymptotic to some productivity level near, and short of, that of a non-Virtual Office.

Part of the over-communication picture is the need for clear and concise planning. Again, as just mentioned, it is the goal to minimize the chance for misunderstanding or other communication breakdowns that could send a project on a misdirected spiral. When people are heads down for any duration of time you want to maximize their chance of success by providing the best planning and direction that the time available will allow. If the communications and information flow between the same individuals working side-by-side is strained, or just on par with the non-Virtual Office needs, then, those individuals, that company, does not have the right people and management in place for a successful Virtual Office at the core of their operations.

As part of the planning process additional steps, additional overhead, can be put in place to further minimize the negative impact a misunderstood project or directive can have on the business. For example, after a project has been reviewed and assigned, have the individuals responsible for the project create a work plan, timeline, etc., sufficient to the point where you are certain they are on the right path.

Cutting corners on communication, or just not having the communication skills required for a highly distributed office environment, leads to mistakes, misunderstandings, and more time and resource investment to correct the resultant business / project problems. The organized process of planning and communication and creating a well lubricated machine that keeps everything running like clockwork requires a unique skill-set belonging to the individual creating and managing the Virtual Office, as well as a company compatible with the additional time overhead required to allow the machine to function smoothly.

To do. To hear. To see.

In the same line of understanding as the need for over-communication, there is also a part of the communication that is handicapped over the normal course of activities, namely the visual aspects of communication. Most importantly, when communicating with the employees of the Virtual Office, it is much easier to understand their perspectives, level of understanding, comfort with the discussions, emerging HR problems, and much, much more by seeing and reading their body language when communicating. But, it is a Virtual Office, and seeing everyone all of the time is a rarity, even if you do use some video conferencing software. When managing in this situation the manager needs to be extra sensitive to voice tones and further pursue the over-communication in both a working and friendship building manner, just like a real office, to know and understand and keep as open a comfortable channel of dialog as can be possible. If something is not right with the employee, they are losing motivation, they are having a problem with a person or the work, there is something at home that will impact the work, you don’t typically see that person, you don’t have the luxury of easily noticing they are avoiding people or other visual changes of manner or dress — you need to over-communicate, maintain a healthy work and non-work dialog, ask questions, and stay engaged and interested in the well-being of the team — a much greater challenge all around in a Virtual Office, but that much more important with the other senses of sight and sound greatly restricted.

Just because you have a Virtual Office doesn’t mean that you don’t have a “normal” employee training and acclamation process and routine. By “normal,” I am referring to the over-communicative, extra-trained, learning and setup involved within a Virtual Office setting, more intense and thorough than the other “normal” that would be normal for a non-Virtual Office. In a Virtual Office, training on procedures and clear establishment of processes are all that much more important than in a non-Virtual Office. There is no opportunity for looking over someone’s shoulder and identifying and fixing mistakes. Everything will take much longer if procedures are not clear and the skills of the manager and the employee are not up to the challenge.

Speedy is as speedy does.

Clearly, with all of the overhead involved in running a Virtual Office there is a significant hit to the overall productivity of the company. If the Virtual Office is the right fit for the company and the management is up to and willing to take on the challenge, then all the overhead can be optimally reduced. Typically I have observed the time impact on work, of course depending on the work, can add anywhere from 5%-30% overhead — attributed to a well run Virtual Office machine.

Sounds like a lot of work. Why do it?

Virtual Offices work where both sets of expectations, the positive as well as the inherent challenges, are perfectly aligned.

Virtual Offices are not for everyone. The positives need to be weighed against the challenges. The team needs to clearly understand what can be achieved from a Virtual Office as well as have the right person in place to successfully tackle its primary challenges.

Virtual Offices are just not as prevalent as many _other_ experts think they could or even should be, and, hopefully, you now have a better understanding of ‘why.’

To make sure you don’t miss future posts about the Virtual Office, and other cool and informative topics, you can subscribe to The Product Guy by following this link: http://feeds.feedburner.com/tpgblog

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

The Virtual Office & You. Belong together?

netconnect The 100% Virtual Office has been part of the promise of the Internet. Why is it then, that we do not see more of them being adopted by either/both established companies and start-ups? Simply put, the 100% Virtual Office is not for everyone.

What is a Virtual Office?

Remote developers and other remote employees. Outsourcing tasks to another company. Virtual Office can be used to describe these scenarios and various other forms and functions of a geographically diverse office environment. Of particular interest for this discussion, is the Internet idealized model, where the Virtual Office serves as the “core” (most important, strategic, etc.) operations and brains of the company. This ideal also describes a scenario where …

  • No significant number of employees work under the same roof,
  • The participants within the virtual office are full-time employees of the real company, and
  • In-person meetings are a rarity.

Not every company would or could be able to benefit from the Virtual Office, whether it is simply through the non-alignment of the company’s process and time sensitive goals with the capabilities of the Virtual Office, or the mismatched skill set of the manager charged with creating and running the Virtual Office.

A Virtual Office can be most successful in settings that meet the following characteristics…

  • Tight budget. The company simply cannot afford the number of people needed to accomplish the goals of the company within the geographically local market. Very typical scenario for start-ups.
  • Time flexible. Timelines are flexible and some time flexibility can be sacrificed if it can lead to large near-term budget savings.
  • Super-organized management. The type of process and planning-organization management is not typically something learned on the job, but brought to the table by the individual(s) creating and running the Virtual Office. If they don’t have this ability in their core, then this is a challenge they should consider passing on or seeking an individual with that built-in set of skills to serve in that capacity.
  • Creative and dynamic management. The processes and the overall Virtual Office machine need to be optimally organized and structured by the leader of that Virtual Office. However, that same leader must also be able to be flexible and adapt to new technologies and ideas as well as the teams and people that make up the Virtual Office. The Virtual Office is a living organism where many of its traits and features are not readily evident (especially since, due to the geographic dispersion of its participants, the normal in-office senses of sight and sound are dulled) and require a creative individual to comprehend, analyze, and modulate, to tune the environment within which the Virtual Office will best thrive. The challenge here is that the creative and dynamic individual is rarely simultaneously the super-organized one — finding the right person with both abilities further raises the bar in the challenge associated with creating a successfully functioning Virtual Office.
  • Employees. Those that are seeking the benefits of and adaptable to the company’s functioning Virtual Office mechanisms. (I will save a more detailed discussion of personnel management for a future blog post.)

As a matter of fact, there are many companies that can benefit from having a Virtual Office, including a few start-ups with which I have worked. Many more established companies often do not have the types of processes in place that easily extend to address the direct needs of a Virtual Office. Some can adapt, most can’t. Typically, it will be easier to establish a Virtual Office for a specific sub-task or sub-group, not the company core, for example, through outsourcing.

If the management is not capable of the above referenced traits and able to not just communicate, but to over-communicate with the dispersed team, then it won’t work. Time spent on budgets will balloon, teams will become frustrated with management and with each other; it may hold together for a while due to some strong players, but in the end, will … end.

Additional Variables.

Recruiting and Hiring. After having the right and appropriately compatible management in place and expectations aligned with the reality of the Virtual Office, the next most important key to the success of the Virtual Office lies within the recruitment process and the individuals / teams brought on board. I will discuss Virtual Office recruitment and the types and trends being seen in future The Product Guy blog posts.

Decentralization. Organizational structure of the Virtual Office directly impacts the processes and the level and type of communication and planning that will best suit it. The more decentralized, the more work that can get done; but, creating a largely decentralized work environment from scratch, where many of your employees may be new and still learning where everything is located, while an ideal to strive toward, is not necessarily the right first few steps to take. Decentralize as growth occurs, as the team foundation solidifies, and the more experienced, higher-skilled employees reveal themselves and can be leveraged in the gradual decentralization of the various processes.

Organic v. Manufactured. I have seen quite a few organically grown Virtual Offices, with a great example being the Automattic people behind WordPress. By organic, I am referring to the recruitment and building of a virtual office from individuals that have had a long standing work relationship with the company in some facility that are, more out of formality, dubbed with a full-time position. For an organically growth entity, there are no new processes or acclamation, they have been working as an informal (or formal) Virtual Office for some time — a very ideal scenario. Note, there continue to be very few manufactured, 100% Virtual Offices out there, recruiting and training newly discovered team members. For the right variables to line up …the right management and team, with the additional alignment of expectations that is required remains uncommon… the right ingredients really (typically) have to be there from day one.

As the skills of people, that make use of the evolving products and tools of the Internet that facilitate the Virtual Office, evolve and become more complex, we can expect to see more 100% Virtual Offices at the core of real companies become reality. But, for now, the skill set and necessary alignment of all of the variables in the 100% Virtual Office model, the manufactured (not organic) model of the virtual company continues to be rare.

Promises.

The Virtual Office holds, for many, the promise of many efficiencies. Nonetheless, it is important to understand and align your expectations of what you will be able to achieve through the creation of a Virtual Office before you dive-in.

The prevalence and adoption of the Virtual Office as the primary organizational unit of the modern company, at this stage of the Internet, is neither a function of the current state of evolution of Internet products that are being created by these companies, nor the tools for the facilitation of the success of the Virtual Office, but is, in reality, a function of 2 parts…

  1. Time. Can the company support the efforts of the Virtual Office? Stand behind the individual responsible for running it? Accept the burden of extra time overhead, greater flexibility of deadlines, and some of the newer uncertainty introduced into the timelines through a distributed office where when miscommunications occur, their impact is magnified?
  2. Multi-skilled leader. Do you have the right person to successfully lead the Virtual Office? Does that person have the expertise with operations and their processes, as well as possess the hyper-organizational skills required to keep everything working like clock-work? Is that person highly communicative and able to convey complex information easily and with rare misunderstandings? Is that person also both flexible and creative, able to adapt/modify the processes and tools needed as goals and situations change?

Those companies that are not able to honestly answer ‘YES’ to both parts, are not right for the Virtual Office. Companies that can honestly answer ‘yes’ to both are rare, indeed. Remember, this is not a put-down to those incompatible companies. Every company has different needs and different groups of employees with different skill sets. It is rare to find all of the necessary skills in a single Virtual Office leader (often these skills are found amongst multiple individuals – not the ideal for a Virtual Office) where the time flexibility exists AND all of the good and not-so-good expectations are simultaneously aligned.

The Virtual Office is often misunderstood as the promise of the Internet, the idealization of the inherent empowerment of the Internet, but, in reality, the 100% Virtual Office, is just another tool, that, when it’s the right fit, can really produce positive and concrete results.

Good luck!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy