What Playing Rugby Taught Me About Leading a Remote Team

Before we get into how RBL approaches our remote distributed team, some background about me.

My first love was baseball. By about the age of 12, I was obsessed with the sport. I read Ted Williams’ book on hitting and was practicing my swing daily by the time I was 13. In the fall my baseball friends were taking up football and soccer, I was seeking out fall baseball. While baseball is generally considered a team sport I would argue in many ways it is a collection of individual activities.

Something changed for me when inspired by my mother’s mastery of the French language and my family roots, I decided to study abroad in France right around the time of the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

One day, during my time abroad in Bordeaux, the French national team upset the dominant and legendary New Zealand All Blacks in the semi-finals of the tournament. Now considered one of the greatest matches in World Cup history, it inspired me in ways I am still discovering. The sport had speed, power, endurance, passionate fans, and a connected global community. It had a guy by the name of Jonah Lomu. Rugby combined the strategy and physicality of American football with the nonstop, free-flowing elements of soccer. I was hooked. Or as the French say, J'étais accro.

The 1999 Rugby World Cup. Christophe Lamaison and the French scored 33 unanswered points in 20 minutes and would emerge 43-31 winners over the New Zealand All Blacks.

The 1999 Rugby World Cup. Christophe Lamaison and the French scored 33 unanswered points in 20 minutes and would emerge 43-31 winners over the New Zealand All Blacks.

I played for a while in France and then, years later, for San Francisco’s Olympic Club team. Through those experiences, I discovered a sport that required at least as much brains as brawn. It particular, it required efficient interpersonal collaboration and communication. I know what you’re thinking most team sports require communication. But rugby requires communication as part of real-time coordinated effort. Sounds like remote work already doesn’t it?

Like American football, set plays and patterns are deployed. But in rugby, when a play breaks down, the action doesn’t stop. Rugby players need to continue to adjust and improvise. This requires clear communication and alignment with the player to the right and left of you.

This need to communicate efficiently as a similarity between rugby and work in technology was not lost on two early tech product leaders. Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka who made use of the rugby term “scrum” in their 1986 paper The New New Product Development Game. Their point was that teams and communication are crucial to complex product development.

Source: Gunther Verheyen’s   Scrum: A Pocket Guide

Source: Gunther Verheyen’s Scrum: A Pocket Guide

Scrum project management is a methodology for managing and shipping software. It’s part of agile project management. Scrum provides a lightweight process framework that embraces iterative and incremental practices, helping organizations deliver working iterations of software more frequently. Many who have followed marketing’s evolution and the expansion of growth marketing have noted the impact of ‘agile’ on everything in business. Not just in software development but also in marketing. RBL and many teams like us are operating utilizing agile methodologies.

Learning the game of rugby was a crash course in teamwork and communication.

I recall a defensive drill in which the entire team was strung, one to the next, by a rope. The idea being as you prepare for the offensive attack, the defense must stay connected and aligned. Defenses need to maintain even spacing and “flat” regardless of the attacking players’ position. A misaligned or staggered defense can open up holes that your offensive opponent can easily exploit.

Similarly when in attack, regardless of your speed, you can’t go alone. If you do and are tackled, there is a high risk of turnover. Rugby players are encouraged to attack as a team and often in pods of three so you can offload (pass) to your teammate and keep the offensive attack going.

The All Blacks rugby team on offense attacking in a pod of three players supporting each other against the Springboks of South Africa .

The All Blacks rugby team on offense attacking in a pod of three players supporting each other against the Springboks of South Africa .

The creation, development, and expansion of remote work and distributed teams requires an additional level of discipline, structure, and in particular, communication.

Tom Tunguz has a great article on the topic observing:

Remote forces you to do the things you should be doing any way earlier and better
— Sid Sijbrandij

If work requires good communication, remote work requires GREAT communication.

At RBL “micro communicate” is a term that is used frequently. I often define this as a quick check-in to ensure clarity and that all parties are on the same page and headed in the right direction.

The book One Minute Manager is a good resource on the topic highlighting the importance of ensuring that time does not go by with misalignment and that immediate feedback creates better teams and performance. Client service businesses live and die on communication, and so do distributed (remote) teams. RBL is both. So in order to survive and perform well, communication with each other and clients is at the core of all we do. On a rugby pitch, winning teams will be constantly in crisp communication with each other. They won’t waste any time if they need to quickly course-correct a situation, task, or a teammate for the benefit of the team.

Like many distributed teams, we use Slack, Trello, Google Drive, Airtable, Asana, Zoom. Yes, tools can help provide context, and help you better track and document your work, but ultimately it is on us humans to set standards and guidelines for how we best use said tools.

For task management, we have evolved from Trello to Airtable and then back to Asana. It is very interesting to see which tools can evolve with specific teams and which cannot. We have been impressed with the clarity, usability, and gamification elements of Asana. It is also being adopted more readily by our partners and clients than other similar tools. It’s a big part of keeping our communication efficient and agile.

Here are some other helpful approaches we have found to help us get the most out of remote work, so we can deliver best in class value to our clients. While we say “it all boils down to communication” the ten points below outline “the how” of our communication with a remote team.

  1. RBL Standards of Excellence (join us and learn more) This is set of standards inspired by sources like Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself, Amazon Leadership Principles, Ray Dalio’s Principles, the thoughtbot playbook, and Basecamp CEO’s Jason Fried’s management to name a few.

  2. RBL Creative Building and Testing Process: a defined set of standards and processes for creative building and A/B testing. This is central to our work on Paid Marketing and Paid Social channels such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snap, Pinterest, Twitter and more.

  3. RBL Welcome Kit: a step-by-step process and requirements for each of our clients, so the team and client know exactly what they are getting and when.

  4. Slack: We rely on Slack for chronicling updates, answering questions, getting quick updates and temperature checks, celebrating small wins, setting time-tracking reminders, getting and providing feedback on documents, and enabling clients to be more involved with us. It’s not that we use it, but it’s HOW we use it.

  5. Maker Time versus Manager Time. Paul Graham’s classic article on the topic illustrates the importance of allowing maker time. Remote work over traditional work allows for makers (builders of design, code, reporting, ads or ad copy/content) to maximize maker time. Remote work requires less time commuting and less likelihood of getting roped into non-essential work meetings. We have found this to be even more important for developers, User Experience (UX) pros, designers and content creators/writers. But we all need it and benefit from it. This is also communicated to allow teammates the freedom to block off space for maker time in their calendar. Boundaries help and are extremely important. Communicate the ask, seek to understand, get agreement and enjoy the space to do your best work.

  6. Client Management. As a growth marketing consulting firm, one of our biggest challenges is setting expectations. Like any service-based business, this really is our job in many ways. This is not possible without visual, written and verbal reporting, analysis, specific recommendations, quarterly reviews, and occasional sanity checks to ensure we are on track. These check-ins might as frequent as weekly depending on the project scope.

  7. Start with the good. Like good rugby players, we need to involve teammates that are already good communicators. Remote and distributed teams require strong communicators on many mediums like in person, by phone, on video, and via email. We often cannot wait for the next in-person opportunity before we need to be effective and resolve challenges, align on a strategy, or deliver a quarterly review.

  8. Empathy: Trello’s guide to remote work is great at highlighting challenges, opportunities, and recommendations for remote organizations. One that is a favorite and also a challenge of ours is “always assume positive intent.” Tone and nuance can get lost over chat, so assuming your colleague is coming from a positive place helps with any potential misunderstandings. Time zone is an example of this to ensure you’re considering your teammate’s schedule (visible on Google Calendar and in Slack), and what time it is for them. Setting your work / not work / ready to chat status in Slack is helpful and can even be synched with Google Calendar.

  9. IRL. We definitely need to set aside time for in-person, “In Real Life” time to just be humans and connect and talk about things unrelated to work, build rapport, celebrate wins and go deeper with creativity, strategy planning, and how we intend to work together. The RBL team will be in Austin this week for BBQ, 2020 planning and Austin City Limits this week.

  10. Tips 2.0: Take breaks to step away. It is amazing how much fresh air and water help when things are feeling hectic. When in doubt, use Slack / Zoom video calls to clarify and take in more data points through non-verbal communication and tone than you might with just audio or chat.

Just like in the field of play, many of them basics, like those laid out above, are easy to lose in the middle of a busy weekly sprint schedule. There are countless resources outlining the correlation between team success and communication, whether in sports like rugby or the workplace. You can’t have one without the other. At RBL we are committed to making the most out of our remote team for our own good and the benefit of our clients.

We’ll leave you with one of our favorite recent finds: A remote on remote work we love from the folks at FYI:

The FYI Remote Work Report