Leading Distributed Teams: Theory and Practice (Part 2)

Leaders must purposefully plan how they will engage and conduct business within their own distributed organization by defining each team’s role capturing exactly which teams are contributing to the mission.

Approximate reading time: 7 minutes

By Christopher L. Workinger

Editor’s Note: On Monday we published an article that proposed a new leadership model for leading geographically distributed teams. Today’s article builds upon that model by exploring methods for implementing the model. Although this article is focused on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)  operations, the concepts and skills discussed here are applicable to many organizations within the joint force.

Graphically Representing Distributed Teams

The distributed teams environment is vast and diverse, and it is difficult to find an organizational chart that depicts all of the teams and players on one document. This is especially true because different missions can require a different collection of teams. The importance of graphically representing the distributed teams that converge and work together on a specific mission is fundamental to applying the techniques proposed in this leadership model. In this case, identifying who is contributing to missions is important and this research revealed while most of the experienced leaders interviewed had strong mental models of their commonly encountered teams, very few had a technique to graphically display the teams. A key nuance here is experience – mental models of distributed teams are great for veteran leaders – but what about leaders who are new to the mission?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how a leader depicts the distributed teams that contribute to a mission, only that they actually take the time to graphically depict it and ensure all contributing teams are represented. The two techniques proposed here – the hub-and-spoke model and the honeycomb technique – are very simple, but they serve to start the process of identifying distributed teams.

The first technique is a basic hub-and-spoke or roundtable construct with the mission at the center or hub and each contributing team is represented at the end of the spokes. Leaders can and should tailor this model as they see fit, including representing missions at multiple levels, populating the team entities with leader’s names, locations, and points of contact, and color coding, as appropriate.

The second technique proposed is the honeycomb model. This hexagonal grid model provides leaders with the ability to depict teams’ relative hierarchical (e.g. chain of command) position as compared to their team. In the example shown, an ISR squadron is depicted at the center of the model (in black), with sister squadrons depicted laterally, up-echelon entities (e.g. group staff, group commander, air operations center) depicted on the row above, and sub-squadron elements depicted on the rows below the squadron (e.g. supported units and specialized teams within the squadron). Again, leaders are encouraged to customize the model as they deem necessary. It is important that leaders take the time to display their distributed teams in some form in order to prioritize leadership actions and communications.


Leaders of distributed teams serve in a challenging environment where all of a commander’s time can be consumed handling issues and challenges within their own organization. The ability to build trusting, habitual relationships with partners in the distributed mission teams environment is essential. First, leaders must purposefully plan how they will engage and conduct business within their own squadron and amongst distributed teams. The leadership model proposed in this writing is a starting point to guide leaders’ actions in the distributed teams environment. While the model proposed is certainly not the only solution to this challenge, leaders should have a pre-planned technique to lead teams effectively – building trust, communicating, and focusing on the mission.

Second, leaders must identify who is on the team – and make sure these team members are aware of this fact that you consider them to be “on the team.” The two techniques to graphically display teams shared in this article serve as a starting point, but whatever the technique, leaders should take time to capture, on paper or by digital means, exactly which teams are contributing and define their roles. Leaders should analyze commonalities, shared interests, overlapping mission areas, and mission gaps. And most importantly, leaders should identify who could be on the team. Today’s robust communications environment is capable of new and innovative mission partnering – all leaders need to do is identify the need and seek out the team. Ultimately, pursuing new team members, including the exchanging of liaisons, is dependent upon leaders identifying and setting priorities.

Third, as leaders decide who they must build and/or maintain relationships with, they will have to decide how to go about building the relationships. While our best means of communication is in-person, face-to-face, the distributed environment often makes this prohibitive due to travel costs and other restrictions (e.g. time). But where leaders choose to visit in-person sends an important message to the entire team (or teams). Leaders must visit key teams in person and leaders should travel early in a new leadership position. The next best communication is a virtual face-to-face utilizing a Tandberg, video teleconference (VTC), or other technology-enabled capability. Phone calls, e-mails and chat/text/messenger are the next three best options, in descending order of long-term effectiveness, but the key here is leaders must decide and balance their engagements. If a team is important, then leaders should travel and visit in-person. In a high-trust scenario, leaders can communicate by VTC, telephone, or e-mail, but if the relationship is truly critical, a balance between these techniques becomes even more important. Establishing an effective battle rhythm is absolutely essential in this environment and leaders should work purposefully to set a balanced schedule and communicate effectively during meetings. Lastly, leaders should identify how the organizations could benefit from the use of liaisons – both short term and long term – to enable communications and mission effectiveness.

Fourth, leaders should pursue the use of collaboration software. While this topic is beyond the scope of this article, the use of collaborative software is starting to take root within the 480th ISR Wing. Collaboration software stands to potentially revolutionize the distributed teams information environment and speed situational awareness, analysis, production, and decision-making, while helping to eliminate stove pipes and the need for “information pumps.” Ultimately, the concept of shared consciousness will become a reality when leaders are willing to forego the industrial-aged processes and information flow through a hierarchical chain of command.

Fifth, leaders should schedule time to think, reflect, and read. While busy schedules are generally not conducive for “taking time to think” leaders must make the time to reflect on missions, teams, organizations, processes, and environmental shifts. Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphasizes the importance of reflection and said, “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise. You have some external stimulus, then you go back to your experience, your education, and you see what needs to be done.”

Scheduling a quarterly leadership off-site is a great forcing mechanism and asking simple questions among the team such as “what are we doing well and what could we do better?” can generate great ideas. Lastly, the importance of reading cannot be overstated. Two great recommendations for leaders in the distributed teams environment are Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World and One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams.


Distributed teams are a reality for today’s military missions and while this research and writing focused on the Air Force ISR enterprise, the theory, practice, and recommendations presented here can be useful for other military entities as well. The distributed teams environment calls for leadership practices that capitalize on the inherent power in these teams and innovative future solutions could certainly expand to even more teams contributing to missions. Commanders and leaders must purposefully set conditions to maximize mission effectiveness, and while current military leadership models are not optimized for leading in the distributed teams environment, this article was aimed at providing leaders of distributed teams with a leadership model to guide actions. Building on trust and engagement, utilizing effective communication, and incorporating the elements of mission command, shared consciousness, problem-centricity, and habitual relationships, commanders and leaders can maximize mission effectiveness and innovate with the teams identified utilizing the proposed visualization tools. Future military mission environments will most certainly move with increased velocity, variety, and volume and the time for leaders to learn and apply the theory and practice of effective distributed teams is now.


Lieutenant Colonel Christopher L. Workinger is a career intelligence officer with multiple unit level assignments including operational B-52H and F-16C squadrons, both at home station and deployed. He is a graduate of the Intelligence Weapons Instructor Course and earned his Master’s Degree in Special Operations & Irregular Warfare from the Naval Postgraduate School in 2011.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.



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