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Agile in the Big Wide World: Part 1 – Bringing People Together with Robots

Small operations rarely need much guidance for the basics. A business like an espresso cart gets such immediate feedback from their environment, from their customers and location they can connect fluctuations in supply, demand, and customer happiness nearly instantaneously because it is right in front of them. They see the delighted (or not) expressions on their customer’s faces as they drink the coffee. They notice when another vendor opens up nearby and draws customers away. Their customers talk to them directly about their degree of satisfaction. The first time  they run out of sugar or cream and they hear the complaints they know they need to ensure that never happens again,and the fix is simple: a trip to Costco.

Larger operations typically exist in a massively mediated milieu. Customers are rarely seen and served at headquarters where many decisions are made. Workers are strewn across the globe in various time zones, most never having met each other.

What can we do to retain the immediacy of a small operation yet obtain the power to serve on a larger scale?

As companies scale there are demands for more and diverse talent to address more diverse needs. Drawing talent from a larger pool helps, but introduces a new problem of collaboration over distance. Several solutions are typically tried:

  1. Create Satellite offices or branches
  2. Establish Audio and Videoconferencing in meeting rooms to extend to those offsite
  3. Bring people in to meet and work at headquarters or a conference facility

These all can help, but have their limitations. Satellite offices typically do not contain a fully independent work group, requiring tedious teleconference meetings to stay in sync. Bringing people in disrupts their local lives, burns a lot of fuel and expense, and  is exhausting to most so that when they arrive they are not at their best.

How many of you have watched expensive video conferencing facilities gather dust in the corner of a conference room? Why is this? I think it is because the work does not get done by sitting in a conference room for an appointed time. It is done throughout the day, in front of a large chart or visual project tracker, by a couple folks at someone’s workstation, in a discussion while getting coffee with workmates. That is where the meeting of minds occurs, through courageous personal discussion and casual osmotic communication.

How to make this happen in a distributed situation?

One unexpected solution I’ve come across is a tele-presence robot from AnyBot a Silicon Valley startup. It can exist with the team, go where the team members go, see and hear what they see all while conveying its perspective to an operator who could be clear across the globe or down the street, at home with a twisted ankle. I’ve tried this out and am amazed at the feeling of being there that this conveys. An operator can use a web browser to log in to the robot, see and hear from the robots location, drive it around, speak through it, display their live video feed, and point at things using a green laser. People seem to accept it readily after the ‘Gee Whiz’ factor wears off.

I can see using this when working with clients who are across the country from each other.  After establishing a strong foundation in person for several days, I could leave behind my trusty Anybot and either go to the next client or return home, attending to the team during certain time slots without requiring them to stop what they are doing to file into a conference room. They would be able to ‘show me around’ to the various workgroups, workspaces and visual management tools just as if I were there. What a great way of being in two or more places at nearly the same time! I’ll have an opportunity to trial this soon and will update you on how that works out.

What do you think? Would this solve any distributed team challenges for you? Would you use it for telecommuting? Serving customers better? What would the pitfalls be for you?

In the next installment of this series I will be talking about the structure of organizations for optimum sustainability in Chaordic times, involving attributes such as robustness, agility and variation.

Posted in Scaling.

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