i’m-dan-mall.-ask-me-anything!

Looking forward to hanging out in NY, Michael!

I’ve inhaled all the writing about how to run successful remote projects from in-house teams (Doist, InVision, Buffer, etc), but I’ve come across far less with agencies. How is it different, if at all?

If the teams are parallel, I haven’t seen a lot of difference between distributed in-house teams and distributed agency teams. However, I do see a lot more agency teams that are primarily co-located with one or two remote team members. My friend Mandy Brown wrote a wonderful article called Making Remote Teams Work, and one of my favorite lessons from there is to act “remote by default.” If you have one or two remote team members, the whole team should act like they’re working remotely, even if they’re co-located. Otherwise, it’s easy for the remote team members to be accidentally left out.

I imagine the Hollywood Model adds another layer of complexity, as well.

I haven’t felt much difference here, but I’m sure some of that is confirmation bias, because it’s what I do! The Hollywood Model—another way of saying that it’s a team assembled ad-hoc for a particular project, the same way Hollywood makes a film—is really just a tax status. It means people have independent affiliations and choose to collaborate temporarily. If you have an invested team—whether or not they’re full-time employees—that’s the key ingredient for success.

Back when you did project work at SuperFriendly, how did you get involved with most of these projects? What were the outputs that you were personally responsible for? Did you still mainly spend your time hands-off, focusing on strategy and directing the team?

I tried many different configurations for myself over the years. I’ve done projects where I… – Designed and coded the whole thing – Designed comps and had engineers on the team – Directed other designers and engineers – Acted as principal or account person while someone else directed other designers and engineers

One thing I’ve learned is that, like movies, every project needs a director and a producer. When I first started SuperFriendly, I was the de facto director on every project. As I’ve been hiring more directors on projects that aren’t me, the work has gotten much better.

What are the most valuable tools or processes for running projects and developing products that you’ve found works for SuperFriendly?

I’m a big fan of this George Patton quote: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” I don’t dictate any tools or processes to teams, but there are a few concepts and principles I try to communicate:

  • Follow your instinct. If you hire good people, they have good instincts. Let them do what they’d do anyway. Otherwise, why hire them?
  • Take risks. We have smart clients. They already know how to do the safe, easy stuff. Our job is to help them do what they can’t do otherwise.
  • Learn something, and teach something. When I was directing projects, I tried to make it my job to create a safe place for people to try something new. I want every team member to do that for each other.

I’ve only started to articulate these, but there are 4 working SuperFriendly principles:

  1. Work together.
  2. Play together.
  3. Eat together.
  4. Win together.

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