How to Effectively Work with Remote Teams on Complex Projects

The key to exceptional technical solutions is a solid brief and ongoing, high-quality communication. Our collaboration with Lulu showcases an effective template for remote teams working across continents under time pressure in agile methodology.

The new Lulu xPress service simplifies publishing processes to a level where they are open to everyone. But, from a business point of view, delivering simplicity is often a complex process. Here are our main takeaways that might help you deliver clean, usable solutions in a complex working structure.

Understanding Business, Product, and User Needs for Successful Remote Team Projects

Every good idea starts with someone getting frustrated with an existing solution. Lulu is no exception. “The company was founded in 2002 by Bob Young, who became popular by building RedHat. When he tried to publish a book, he faced a lot of difficulties,” says Lulu CTO, Chris Kepper. “He was looking for a better way to do this and wanted to remove all the obstacles he was facing, which is why he founded Lulu. When I came on board, I knew immediately that we need to do something fundamentally different.” The business was still working well but it needed to adapt to the mobile-first market and make the publishing process even easier and more accessible if it wanted stay ahead of the competition.

Nearly a million books are self-published each year and writers now have a choice of applications to get to market. But perhaps the most significant change since 2002 has been the rise of print-on-demand services offering physical copies of books. Printed books remain enduringly popular with readers, in spite of the competition from e-books, and writers also want to see their hours of hard work translated into a physical product they can hold in their hands.

This was where Lulu could influence the market. While their own e-books solutions are on a level with the best in the business, the print-on-demand platform we have created with them is the evolution that the industry needed. It employs new logic to the marketing, printing and shipping process, significantly limiting costs to the customer while delivering physical content in a digital world. To work on that solution, we first needed to understand the dynamics of the market and also work out why other print-on-demand services fell short of customer expectations.

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The response has been immediate. The Lulu xPress platform started generating revenue as soon as it was launched — and not just from the same old sources. “65% of our customers in the first three months were non-Lulu customers. For us, this is very good news as it shows that xPress is attractive to people who weren’t using Lulu before.

Chris Kepper
The results validate the research into the market gap and prove that people were searching for a better solution.
The single-page application for Lulu xPress

A couple of views of the single-page application for Lulu xPress

Best Communication Tools and Face-to-Face Strategies for Remote Teams

Communication tools are powerful, but face to face interaction is still the strongest link

We got that successful solution through hard work… and a lot of talking. Like most companies — especially open source focused companies that thrive on cooperative improvement — we like to boast about our collaboration tools. Jira, Slack, Docs… they are all absolutely great for business. However, even when working with a client on a digital solution, where the product you deliver does not exist in the physical world, there is still something powerful about:

  • Taking the time to meet face to face at the beginning of a project
  • Assigning a single point of contact to work with the client
  • Meeting up in person as the project progresses to take inventory

And if meeting in person means jumping on a plane, then you need to do just that.

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The bandwidth you can achieve when having just a ‘go-to’ meeting, a web conference or whatever communication tools you use on a daily basis, can never replace face-to-face interaction. You can really listen much better to some half-voiced concerns and some of the undertones that normally get lost in calls. We can talk about changes in strategy or in direction, new ideas, and innovations that may guide the next six months of our project. This quality is something that you often don’t get any more but it is so important.

Chris Kepper
Technology often tempts us to take the easy option but it is usually worth going the extra mile (pun intended). You build relationships that help you understand one another better and also help avoid the miscommunication that sometimes occurs through technology.

Effective Change Management in Remote Team Project

When building Lulu Xpress, our goal was a highly interactive yet simple, single-page application sitting on top of the microservices back-end. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your code is, unless someone can use it and turn it into some value. It’s just the same for books; you can have a great story, but you need the right channel to market; otherwise it is all for nothing.

However, creating something simple to use usually involves a more complicated process than creating something that is complex. What’s more, as the project goes along, new ideas for functionalities and desired features appear and add to the scope. Keeping simplicity but adding functional complexing is a skill that takes patience and a deep understanding of the way an end user interacts with the product.

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A lot of projects talk about scope creep over the course of a work. When talking with my other stakeholders, I often hear ‘things take longer’. However, the real reason things take longer is the growth of understanding. We all understand our problem domain better and we learn how our customers react. And tying our efforts to the customer needs — not to me as a customer of Mirumee, but to my customers, the people who use services — is vital for our success. As a service provider, you have to be a part of this customer conversation. You have to understand the challenges that end users face, as well as the challenges to business.

Chris Kepper
Technology often tempts us to take the easy option but it is usually worth going the extra mile (pun intended). You build relationships that help you understand one another better and also help avoid the miscommunication that sometimes occurs through technology.

Mastering Remote Team Collaboration

At the end of the day, the value of the service you give will be measured not by how engaged and how skilled you are, but by how much value you give to the business. There is no definitive guarantee that it will always work, but you have a great chance of elevating business if you: understand the business, the product, and the end users; set up communication channels that make for effective work; and manage changes in scope and requirements fluidly and treat them as a welcome challenge rather than a chore.

As Chris Kepper says: “I needed a team that is not only technically savvy, but also willing to engage with my challenges and is actively interested in solving them and thinking ahead of what may happen if I introduce a new feature. That helps me shape the experience that my customers are facing and they respond. We have seen many high-volume orders. Although the platform is new, many people don’t seem to have a problem placing orders of over $1,000 in value. To me, this says something about trust, design and the build quality of Lulu xPress.”

Mirumee guides clients through their digital transformation by providing a wide range of services from design and architecture, through business process automation to machine learning. We tailor services to the needs of organizations as diverse as governments and disruptive innovators on the ‘Forbes 30 Under 30' list. Find out more by visiting our services page.

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