Wondering how to cut IoT mobile application development costs by 500% — and reduce hardware design expenses by an equal percentage?
The answer might lie in effective distributed team management.
Read on to find out why managing distributed teams involved in IoT solution development can make or break your project and, when done right, yield major cost savings for your company.
Table of Contents
- Why Managing Distributed Teams Effectively Is Key to IoT Project Success
- Top 10 Factors Complicating Distributed Team Management in IoT Projects
- How to Manage Distributed IoT Teams Effectively
Why Managing Distributed Teams Effectively Is Key to IoT Project Success
A Case Study on Failed Distributed Team Management
To put things into perspective, we'll reflect on one of the projects from the Expanice portfolio.
A US-based company approached the Expanice team to develop a smart HVAC system.
The connected solution was supposed to include custom hardware and software components, and we were initially tasked with creating both. However, the client later decided to hire hardware developers from India.
Thus, Expanice became part of a globally distributed team — and fell victim to the IoT project management issues this model entails.
Project Progress and Challenges
Looking back, we can safely assume that most problems in the project stemmed from having a single point of contact on the client’s side — i.e., a Product Owner, who was also managing other projects in parallel. But let’s get back to the distributed team management challenges we encountered.
We kicked off the project by developing an IoT communication protocol for the HVAC system.
The hardware team expected us to implement the DNS-SD + MQTT protocol based on a high-level description only. The changing protocol requirements and the establishment of a one-way communication pattern between the mobile app and the gateway added complexity to the task. This led to synchronization issues, making the initial development of the communication protocol meaningless and increasing costs due to repeated work.
Despite the challenges, we were able to make some progress during the idle time, including work on system installation flow, mobile application interface, and adding new features like QR codes for the device import process.
However, the extended negotiations and modifications required a lot of time and adjustments, significantly delaying the project's progress.
The project faced numerous communication challenges and expansions in the HVAC solution's feature set, leading to a 500% increase in the initial mobile application development cost estimates, amounting to $250 thousand.
The additional functionalities requested by the client further inflated the budget, requiring an extra $85 thousand to complete the project or a reduction of features to decrease the extra payment to $50 thousand.
Ultimately, the client decided to transfer the mobile app development to the Indian team due to a more competitive hourly rate.
However, the lack of updates on the company's website and releases on app platforms indicates that the project did not materialize into a market-ready product.
This case highlights the critical role of effective distributed team management in IoT project success. Dedicated project managers and clear communication channels are vital to ensure project goals and priorities are met and stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process.
We acknowledge our partial responsibility for the project's failure due to not insisting on definitive answers and bringing the ineffective communication processes to light earlier. Establishing direct contact with financial stakeholders and avoiding repetitive task assignments and delays is critical to ensure project success. The Expanice team commits to avoiding such mistakes in future projects, focusing on clear agreements and defined project flows.
Top 10 Factors Complicating Distributed Team Management in IoT Projects
Before discussing the specifics of multi-vendor IoT project management, we’d like to highlight the standard flow for coordinating IT projects — regardless of their nature and technology stack.
As you can see from the diagram above, the Customer and Product Owner are the ones who have the final say when it comes to feature and product releases, budgeting, and timelines.
A project manager (PM), meanwhile, plays a key role in communicating the needs of the decision-makers to the members of the IT team, keeping the project teams aligned, and tracking the progress.
When developing the HVAC solution referred to in the previous section, our communication with the customer's project managers was limited, and they did not entirely focus on the project. This led to numerous inefficiencies and delays.
When the leading project manager left halfway, our communication efficiency decreased even further, and we lost contact with the C-level managers and those responsible for managing the finances.
Essentially, we lost one link in the communication chain, which undermined the project’s success.
The challenges we’ve encountered are not unique to the Internet of Things projects.
Here’s what makes IoT product development tricky from the project management perspective:
- Complexity. Given the multi-level nature of connected solutions and various IoT-enabling technologies underpinning their functioning, different components of the Internet of Things products, such as hardware, embedded software, and user apps, may be developed by different teams. A PM might thus have a hard time managing distributed teams involved in the development process — especially if they operate in several countries and time zones and speak different languages.
- Resource allocation. To optimize project costs and timelines, a project manager must validate that skilled personnel, hardware, and software are available and allocated correctly.
- Risk management. Every IT project carries potential risks. Studies show that nearly 70% of all technology projects fail, and the percentage can be even higher for innovative technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. Project management aids in the identification, assessment, and mitigation of software development risks, which may vary from purely technical challenges to regulatory compliance issues in the IoT space.
- Time to market (TTM). In the rapidly evolving Internet of Things market, putting out a product fast enough can provide a competitive advantage. Yet, it often takes up to 18 months for your IoT concept to make it to production. Effective project management helps ensure timely product delivery by setting and managing realistic timelines and milestones.
- Stakeholder management. IoT projects often involve multiple stakeholders — from device manufacturers to software developers, end users, and investors. A PM’s key responsibility is to align their expectations, facilitate communication, and manage conflicting interests.
- Cost management. Given that IoT costs usually start from $50 thousand for a minimum viable product (MVP) version of your solution, budget overruns can easily jeopardize the project's viability. With expert IoT project management, you'll be able to monitor and control expenses more effectively.
- Quality assurance. Quality is crucial for IoT solutions as defects can lead to malfunctions, glitches, and interrupted performance. In critical applications like medical or automotive IoT, such issues can put user lives at risk. A skilled project manager will help ensure that your distributed teams follow IoT development and testing best practices throughout the project.
- Scalability. Many IoT projects start small but are intended to scale up rapidly. Effective project management takes into account the future scalability requirements, ensuring that the IoT solution architecture and design are future-proof.
- Change management. Considering the evolving nature of technology and business requirements, IoT projects might require changes mid-course. A robust project management framework allows for these changes to be incorporated without derailing the project.
- Security concerns. IoT security challenges arise from the interconnected nature of smart devices. Ensuring security measures are implemented and maintained throughout the project lifecycle is crucial, and diligent project management plays an important role in this.
How to Manage Distributed IoT Teams Effectively
Below you will find practical tips for managing distributed teams — and an overview of IoT project management challenges to watch out for:
- Establish a clear communication strategy from the onset and ensure everyone understands it.
- Involve all stakeholders in the decision-making process, including the company's top executives, key financial stakeholders, and investors.
- Define clear agreements on every technical aspect and update timelines and budget of the project. For this, you could start your IoT initiative with a discovery phase and elicit the critical functional and non-functional requirements for the connected solution.
- Hire dedicated project managers with previous experience in IoT product development — or outsource IoT project management to a reliable technology company while assuming the role of Product Owner yourself.
- Devise a comprehensive budget management strategy covering all stages of the product development process.
- Maintain regular communication with all team members and stakeholders.
- Monitor progress and adjust the plan as needed.
Common Distributed Teams Management Challenges and How to Fix Them
Effective communication is key to successful distributed team management. However, communication can be challenging when team members are located in different time zones, speak different languages, and have different cultural backgrounds.
To address these challenges, consider the following:
- Establish clear communication protocols from the start
- Use collaboration tools such as video conferencing, instant messaging, and project management software (e.g., Zoom, Mattermost, Telegram, Slack)
- Encourage regular communication and check-ins
- Define clear expectations for communication and response times
Collaboration is essential for successful project outcomes, but it can be difficult when team members operate in different locations.
These are some ways to foster collaboration in distributed IoT teams:
- Use project management software to track progress and assign tasks (e.g., Redmine, Jira, ClickUp, and Notion). With an agreed-upon process, we usually go through the following steps: discussion, clarifying requirements, estimating, getting customer acceptance of the estimate, creating development tasks, conducting quality assurance testing, demonstrating, and deploying. All these steps denote a particular task status in your project/progress tracking systems.
- Prioritize regular check-ins and updates. Here at Expanice, we tend to organize weekly or biweekly meetings with the client to discuss the progress and pitfalls we’ve encountered.
- Establish clear roles and responsibilities for each team member
- Use collaboration tools, such as virtual whiteboards and shared document editing (at Expanice, we stick to Google Docs and InVision)
Again, building trust can be challenging when team members haven't met in person and barely communicate due to being miles away from each other.
Here’s how you could fix this:
- Establish clear expectations and guidelines for behavior and conduct
- Encourage open communication and honesty
- Recognize and reward team members for their contributions
- Foster a positive team culture that values collaboration and transparency
Managing time effectively is crucial for a distributed team, as team members may be located in different time zones and have different work calendars.
Here's what you could do to improve time management in IoT projects:
- Establish clear expectations for work hours and availability. It is not uncommon to have an overseas development team located in a different time zone than where you reside. And it might be difficult to reach all the team members during their working hours. It is therefore important to communicate with your supplier and discuss the necessity of team meetings in advance. Make sure to agree on a day and time that works for the entire team.
- Use project management software to monitor progress and make sure the deadlines are met
- Encourage team members to prioritize tasks and manage their time effectively
By addressing these challenges head-on, you can create a successful distributed IoT team that achieves its goals and maximizes its potential.
On a Final Note
Managing distributed teams in multi-vendor IoT projects is a complex task that requires effective communication, clear agreements, and stakeholder alignment.
Our experience has shown that, without these elements, IoT projects can fail, and you risk losing money, resources, and time. By following the recommendations we've outlined in the previous section, you can increase your chances of success. Or, if you’re still struggling with IoT project management, you can write to us and get expert help!