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Chris King
July 28, 2020

How to launch new projects in a remote-first world

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Image: working remotely from home

When we start working with a new client at Difrent, the first thing we put together is a shopping list. Of everything we think we need as part of a project kick-off.

Post-it notes that stick. A whiteboard or wall. A TV on wheels. A meeting room for the right number of people. Key stakeholders: big and small.

Now imagine putting that shopping list together on the day the Prime Minister is addressing the nation; to put us all into lockdown.

What are we now going to do with 2,000 post-it notes, stuck in a room of a closed-off building?

This is exactly what happened when we started to work with Skills for Care to support a service design review of their Adult Social Care Workforce Data Set (ASC WDS).

Fortunately, our teams are designed to work remotely. It is in our makeup. A team of experts dotted all around the country. Able to work from home, just as effectively as if we were in the room - with you.

Yet project start-ups are traditionally a co-located thing. You need to meet each other. Get to know each other. Build trust as you work to design out the problems together. An enforced separation is usually something you manage with a pause; a delay.

What do you do when the delay is indefinite. For the foreseeable future?

Think big, present small

You have to act quickly. To work out how you convert the tools of your trade, into a series of remote alternatives. Post-it notes are 2019. Miro cards are the new normal.

It’s also time to think big, but present it small. Take the meeting room environment and condense it into a fashion that can be presented back through a 13” MacBook screen (standard within Difrent). Which means - don’t try and present the meeting room environment. That will never work.

Rip it up and start again

Start by taking the original plan (two weeks, usually) and hack away at it. Unfortunately, this often means removing some of the human angles. The icebreakers. Getting to know each other. We still need to do that, but getting everyone to stand up and move around is quite limited, especially if you are stuck in a single room at home; hoping a housemate or family member doesn’t walk in.

Tools such as Meet and Zoom allow for separate meetings or breakout rooms, so use those - but reduce the time. Make the sessions short and punchy - because, and this is big because - your job is to plan for burn out. It will come. You just need to be ready for it. You need to be prepared for when the room goes silent because they are sick of the sound of your voice. Of staring at a single screen all day.

Lengthen those lunch and coffee breaks!

Design it together

The other thing you need to be really careful of is designing the sessions all by yourself. Your immediate thought is that you are good at this sort of thing. That standing in front of a room and holding court is what you live for.

The tiny screen is a great leveller. The participants often have no idea who you are, or what you can do. Which isn’t helped if you are the kind of presenter who talks to imaginary post-its on the wall behind you. No one wants to see how thinning you are - at the same time as desperately needing a haircut.

So you have to bring them along with you. By asking them what they want from each session. Think in terms of outcomes. Segmented into four 60 minute sessions each day, for as long as the startup process requires. Agree on it together - then evaluate what you have achieved as a collective. Don’t close your laptop wondering if it went well. Find out. Adapt and change if it didn’t.

Why are we here?

Please don’t jump straight into ways of working. An introduction to the approach is fine, but let the knowledge in the room kick things off by outlining the problem. If you are replacing a tool or service, make the demo of that tool, the first thing you do. Ensure that their voice is the most powerful thing you hear that day.

An understanding of Agile, Kanban boards or burndown charts can sit on the back burner. Frame that problem by bringing everyone up to speed as quickly as possible. Then make sure you keep finding a slot to revisit the problem. Until it sinks in.

All good things come to an end

Make sure you plan for the end before you start the beginning. It seems obvious, but a lot of project startups are quickly consumed by Business As Usual for the team. The startup becomes Sprint Zero and into Sprint One. Before you know it, the team is off working up their designs or deploying the fundamentals of new infrastructure. Happy that they no longer have to join workshop number 78.

But what of the people left behind? The Product and Service Owners. The Delivery or Project Team members. In a time before lockdown, you may have all sat in a room together. Your presence is clearly identified. Now you are sitting at home not necessarily knowing what to do next.

Call it out. Define that at the very beginning. So that when the end comes. A new beginning arrives. You will know what you are all doing. The trust and support will still be there.

All of which is material from the lessons learnt or Retros we held after it didn’t quite go as well as planned. Where a session faltered. The client felt left behind. The team forgot to properly introduce themselves. Even when a Delivery Lead assumed always well until they unmuted their Slack notifications.

So, to sum up how you can manage a remote project kick-off, make sure to:

• Think big

• Present small

• Design together

• Deliver agreed outcomes

• Adapt when it doesn’t go as planned.

In many ways, those five points don’t just apply to start something new. They can be carried across all of the service phases - discovery, alpha, beta and live - we have been part of whilst being asked to work with teams remotely.

Why don’t you share your experiences of kicking off new projects completely remotely with us on Twitter.

For more information on remote-first service delivery, visit

Written by Chris King - Delivery Lead @ Difrent

Twitter: @NorthernWrites



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