How do you manage tasks across distributed or remote staff?

When I was in college I got to see a fire up close. It was a huge fire called the East Bay Hills fire and over twenty people were killed.

I don't know if you've ever gotten a chance to see firemen work up close, but it's completely different than I imagined it would be.

Do You Do It Like The NFL?

In most circumstances the deployment of a team that has to be coordinated requires some form of a huddle – like the kind NFL players do before almost every play.

It makes sense – as they gather and discuss who will do what, and all that good stuff.

But at a fire, decisions are made quickly – often in the first 90 seconds of arriving on site. And in that time, there's no opportunity for a huddle.

So you might ask yourself, if that's the case, how do these firemen attack a fire without stepping on each others' toes? How do they know who is going to do what?

Do You Do It Like an ER Room?

Another model of high performance in a stress environment is an ER room. I'm hoping you've never been in one but chances are, you've been there. And if you were in an ER for a surgery, you'll note that they're in constant contact. Talking non-stop. People are shouting the heart rate numbers, the blood pressure numbers, commands on the distribution of medicine and the delivery of hardware.

So at a fire, are they in constant discussion mode like in an ER? Maybe in some circumstances but it wasn't what I witnessed. And from the research I've done, it's not the routine – because fires are loud, move fast, and don't allow an entire team to be nearby of each other.

See, when we're thinking about high pressure and high-performance situations, football teams and ER surgery teams have one thing in common: they're together.

But at a fire – especially a big one or fast moving one – the firemen aren't all together. There is no single room where they find themselves in or a huddle where they can talk before they get started.

Our Model Should Be Firemen

Firemen don't distribute tasks the way we might think. And they don't communicate the way we might think.

Think about that. They communicate everything they need to (or have time to) in 60 seconds. And they follow a structure.

Quinn MacLeod, a known expert in fire training with over twenty years of experience, explains the structure like this.

Five-step Briefing Format

Step One: Current situation (this updates everyone's situational awareness)

  • The overall strategy and tactics are made known.
  • All crew members must communicate hazards they observe.

Step Two: The assignment

  • The assignment is described – the intent, the purpose, and the end-state.
  • Contingency plans.

Step Three: How to make the assignment safe

  • Recognition of the hazards by all crew members.
  • Ways to mitigate the hazards.

Step Four: How to support the assignment

  • Safety & logistical support.
  • Tools you need to accomplish the tactic/task.

Step Five: Does everyone know what we're doing and why?

  • Questions
  • What are we overlooking?

What Can We Learn From This 60-second Briefing?

I think there are three things we can note from this briefing.

First, even though they call it an assignment, notice what information is getting passed along. It's intent. It's a purpose. It's the end-state.

That's what I call the “goal” of the effort and it's what I try to keep my teams and leaders focused on, rather than the low-level detail of task articulation we often see in teams.

Second, notice how early they begin thinking about contingency plans. Firefighters can't get anchored on the original plan if the situation changes. So they have to have some ideas of next steps.

That's critical in distributed teams because we never know when a team member will hit a snag and not find anyone else available. They need to know what to do if they can't reach someone. That's where those contingency plans play out.

Lastly, notice that the last section is feedback.

It helps our teams know that leaders aren't omniscient and need feedback. It lets everyone work together to turn ideas into the best possible plans.

And that, the best possible plans, should always be our goal when working with teams – especially distributed and virtual teams.

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Chris Lema

Chris Lema is the CTO and Chief Strategist at Crowd Favorite. He’s also a daily blogger, a public speaker, and product strategist.

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