What do I do with a Distributed Team?

Question: How can I help a distributed Team be more productive?


First, one of the most important things about a small team of knowledge workers is communication.

Why is communication so important?   There are many ways to answer this question.  In creating knowledge together, the team is always learning. As they get to know each other, and what each other knows, they learn a short-hand for talking. They don’t waste time reiterating what is already known, but focus on the essential knowledge for today, that moves the product forward.  Well, that’s a short way of saying it.

With a distributed team (a team that is not fully collocated) communication is diminished. How much it is reduced varies a lot.

Here are some recommendations.

#1 Evaluate whether a distributed team really will help.

Usually a distributed team is cheaper (or some members are cheaper). Always the communication is reduced. That means more hours are needed (both for the inexpensive people and for the expensive people).  That also almost always means that the product will be somewhat delayed.

Please evaluate, ahead of time, the benefits and the costs.  And then evaluate afterward how accurate your projections were.

I am not saying never do distributed.  But I do find that many companies look at the benefits (reduced cost) and do NOT look at the overall situation. I think many times distributed is not really helpful.

#2 Distribute into 2 evenly sized teamlets.

For example, have one teamlet of 4 in New York City and another teamlet of 4 in Bangalore.  Each teamlet is collocated.

Because they are equal in size they will be seen as equal in importance.  Neither team will be tempted to ignore the other half of the Team.  Both “sides” need to keep each other informed.

This recommendation includes a local team room for each teamlet.  And making the team rooms look similar, so that there is no sense of divide between the teams.  Each team spends roughly 4+ hours in its own team room.

#3 Collocate the Team initially.

You must collocate the Team initially.  There is no choice.  They must get to know each other as real people. It is so important that they get to know each other in person, and spend some time eating together and talking about non-work subjects.  Probably the best way is to spend most of some days working on getting the work started.

There is a good argument that you get them collocated for 6 sprints, so how high you can get the velocity, and then ask them to maintain that high velocity while distributed.

#4 Get together again later.

It is important to re-collocate.  For example, to have one team member in NYC go to Bangalore for 2 weeks.  Get to know them as people again.

This helps with communication. One appreciates the other person more. One is more patient with the inevitable problems of communication.

#5 Improve the technology around communication.

This might be a better polycomm. It might be improving the “virtual presence” technology so that the video conferencing works even better.  It might be adding video cameras for each person.

#6 Train the people to communicate better via the technology

I find that many companies have good technology, but they often do not train the people (enough) in how to use it.  So that the full benefits are not realized.  You cannot assume people have studied communication and how it works best, nor have they studied the new tool and mastered it.  One or two might, but it is very typical that they do not.

#7 Overlapping hours

Identify when the two teamlets overlap in terms of work day.

When the teams overlap, keep the Polycomm open for those hours.  That way they can instantly communicate with each other, eg, by tapping on the Polycomm.

#8 A common Scrum Tool

If you are distributed, you must agree on a Scrum tool (or agile tool) to use.

There are many of these.  There is not a clear winner.  Probably you decide this way: “Anyone here know a specific Scrum Tool?”  “I know X.”  “Well, then X it is.”  And this is likely the correct decision because that person can help you use it better.

One aspect of this is visual display of the Scrum Board and similar things.  This requires, usually, a big TV monitor for both teamlets.  Well worth it.

#9 A common tool set

Many aspects to this, although most of this seems obvious.

One aspect is a common place for documents.  This might be a wiki or Sharepoint or who knows what (obviously, I am not speaking of the codebase itself now).

And the training and communication to organize the documents well, so that they then are used well by the Team (and others).

#10 Texting

There are now many tools.  Slack is one.

Agree on a tool.  And take the time to train members of the team to use it well.  And train them when NOT to use it.

These texting tools do NOT obviate phone and video conferencing.  We still need those a lot.

#11 An Impediment List for being distributed.

I recommend, at least for a while, that the Team keep a special impediment list just being distributed.

And maybe a list of fixed or mitigated impediments.  “What have we done so far…eam

Prioritize the list and actively attack the top impediment.  Not being collocated is hard.

#12 Language and accents and understanding

There are many reasons that people do not understand each other.  One is that they always speak a dialect of their “own” language.  The local Charlotte version of “Southern English”, as one example.

Next, everyone speaks in an accent…at least to others.  Accents can be very charming and interesting.  But our main point now is that often the accent gets in the way of communication.  I mean not only the accent, but the rhythm of speaking and where emphasis is put (eg, which syllable gets the emphasis).

This can start to be a touchy or sensitive subject. But still it is important, because it can notably reduce the communication between members of a team.

You may need to bring in an expert or a coach to help with this. First, to help team members speak up and explain their concerns.  And then to help them overcome the problem.

#13 Culture

We can have cultural difference between people within one mile of St. Paul’s cathedral.  (This is tease about some comments in the movie My Fair Lady. Perhaps most of the readers do not recognize it, which is fine. And kind of an example of what I mean.)

So, we always these days have cultural differences within the team.  I think in every team (at least that I can remember).  I suppose in theory it is possible not to have almost any cultural differences, but I do not see that often nowadays.

We all deal in stereotypes and cliches.  Our brains force us to simplify.  We must generalize about people and things and situations.  Everyone does this.

I am NOT recommending being mean to people.  I am just saying that people inevitably over-simplify life. Life requires that of our brains.

Inevitably, in real life, one notices that in many instances the stereotypes and cliches are not accurate at all.  Cliches that Canadians have about Americans or Americans have about Canadians are not, at least in specific cases, always true.  Even though the cliche probably is in general true (a simple example: “The typical city in Canada gets more snow than the typical city in the US.”….as a generality probably true).

We also know from experience that expressions of some cliches or certain words can be seen as insulting or hurtful, even though the person saying it may say it very innocently or without knowing.  And we have certain social rules about this… or each culture does.

As one example where difficulties might arise:  How to say “no” to another person one does not know well?  This varies from culture to culture.  I think, in almost all cultures, to answer a question with a blunt and loud “No” is considered impolite.  But exactly how to answer, in a polite way, varies a lot culture to culture.

This whole culture area is quite complex. One might like to avoid it.  But we cannot.

It is, I think, natural for a member of a culture to feel, deep down, that his or her own culture is the best.  And probably this is mostly a good thing.

Inevitably, case by case, the people in a team must decide which cultural norm to use now, or to come up with a new “cultural norm” that the team can use.

Net, net: You must discuss culture.

I recommend taking some time to appreciate and learn about each culture in the team.  Most people can find other things in a “foreign” culture that they like.  The food, the sports, the way of dressing, the arts, many many things. Almost always there are things that can easily be appreciated.  And say so.

And every culture is complex. Speaking for myself (partly), I find North Carolina culture to be very complex.  I have known it almost my whole life, and yet there is so much about it I still do not know, or do not fully know.

Does your team have cultural issues?  Yes!  In fact, that is has some is virtually inevitable.  And this can happen whether or not the team is distributed.  And the cultural issues lead to lower productivity and happiness.  Usually do to less or less effective communication.

Being distributed just makes the cultural differences typically bigger (as they usually say) and harder to communicate about.

Could your team need a “culture coach”?  Yes.

This subject can easily become quite sensitive and therefore hard to talk about.  Sometimes you have someone in the team or near the team who can help the team discuss these issues. For example, sometimes there is a Canadian who has lived in the US for a long time, who can explain Americans to Canadians and, equally, Canadians to Americans.  (“Two people separated by a common language” comes to mind.)

But sometimes no such person is there.  And one needs to bring in an outside “culture coach” (the role may have different names).  This person can help each side of the team express their concerns or “the problem” or the mis-understanding.  And then, we hope, overcome it so that then the team communicates better. Or collaborates better.

This is typically the goal: We need to overcome cultural difference so that we can communicate or collaborate better.

And…it also needs to be recognized that cultural difference are also advantages. Often the team “sees” more and learns faster due to the differences within the people in the team.  So, also respect the advantages that cultural differences can bring to the team.


Comments and suggestions about this post are welcome.


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