Distributed Teams are OK Because We Have Great Collaboration Technology…Right?

Not in my experience if it is how a company is rationalizing having distributed teams (a single team with members in multiple geographical locations).  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great if your company has great communication solutions that aid collaboration but they just shouldn’t define process or organizational and team design. The people’s needs and the problem domain should do that.

Fighting evolutionary biology is never a good idea.  Humans communicate and collaborate better in most cases face to face. Period.  Note, I’m not saying that complete open environments are the most conducive for productive for and satisfying work, but that’s another topic.

Distributed-Teams-collaboration-technologyHaving a single team distributed in multiple locations is just bad risk management.  You introduce the chances for more defects to creep in during requirements, increase the batch size of communication which delays response time (delay is waste) and also compromise the quality of life of folks because of the utilization of overlap hours for meetings. People resent this eventually if not immediately. That resentment has a cost.

It’s amazing to me how the financial folks that rationalize the cost savings never really are held to account of the true cost of these decisions.  Short run, sure, you can see savings, but because of dysfunction, frequent lack of transparency, and added waste, the costs savings can quickly evaporate.  I’ve actually had a finance person tell me “but we could redo it 2 or 3 times and still not have spent as much money.”  Really?

Having distributed TEAMS working in parallel to implement a big project is fine, as long as they are a complete (say Scrum) teams in each location.  This maximizes the opportunity for autonomy, the primary motivator in a knowledge based economy.  The need for cross time zone communication is limited more to Product Owners and Scrum Masters for issue and dependency management.

Having complete teams at each site can also help to minimize cultural and perceived fairness issues.  Frequently I have run into the situation where off-shore teams, away from the ‘Mother Ship’, feel like ‘second-class’ citizens.  They want to have their own identity, purpose and ability to succeed.  Often when another site is steering the ship, that is lost and it breeds distrust and a lack of openness.

My experience with devising a distributed teams strategy has always began with first understanding the organizational culture in terms of openness, safe to fail and the type of leadership.  Then take some time to understand the perspectives of the folks at different sites have about working in the culture.  Too often organizations make decisions based on what looks best in terms of money or management convenience.  This would suggest strongly that part of the organization making such decisions know nothing of Servant-Leadership, which, IMO, is a key for successful lean-agile execution because people are the key ingredient to building successful technology solutions.

Bottom line, make distributed team decisions wisely and don’t use technology as a rationalizing crutch when doing so.

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About Mike DePaoli

Mike DePaoli has been contributing to the IT community for over two decades and practicing agile and lean approaches to software development since 1996 in roles from programmer to CTO. His evolved approach to crafting successful lean-agile software development organizations was forged by the meaningful challenges he undertook at prior employers and as an Agile Coach at companies such as eBay, Adobe Systems, AOL, NetApp, Disney, Boeing, EMC, and Trizetto. Mike’s area of expertise is helping organizations craft strategic change initiatives that educate on and establish agile and lean values, principles and practices at every tier of the organization. Mike applies systematic thinking with a multi-discipline approach to his work. Mike is a Certified SAFe Agilist, Certified Scrum Professional, Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO). He is a highly-regarded speaker in the Agile community having spoken at Agile conferences in North America, South America and Europe. He is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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