Between us, we have over 50 years’ experience building and working in information technology teams, covering almost every role the industry offers and working in all sorts of different team environments. Over that time we've learned a fair amount, mainly from making mistakes and having to fix them. One of the areas where we've consistently come across challenges is the impact of distance, be it cultural, social, linguistic, temporal, or geographic.
Two years ago we decided to collaborate, initially long-distance, and build a workshop about agile teams in which we work with teams and groups to identify and address the issues they are faced with. Through building and delivering this workshop together and separately, we've learned more about the challenges teams and organizations face and some ways to help them overcome.
Here are some of the important discoveries we've made (and we are sure we are not the first to discover these things):
- Make collaboration a discipline and a habit
- It's all "us," no them
- Distance comes in many dimensions
An important first step to consider when pondering ways to overcome the challenges is to understand the type of distributed team you're dealing with.
What Kind of Team Do You Have?
Some teams are dispersed and largely independent, with members in many different places, little dependency between tasks, and no "central" office. These teams may not often get together, but to be effective they often need to collaborate asynchronously.
Some teams are geographically distributed across distance, with groups of individuals clustered in multiple locations. We discovered in our teaching and consulting that this is the most common type. The variables impacting the teams’ effectiveness have to do with time and many aspects of distance—not just geographic, although this is typically what people think of when we talk about "distributed teams."
Some teams are divorced, meaning they might be in the same physical location, but they don't communicate effectively, don't collaborate, and are ingrained with “silo-based thinking”—when departments are kept separate and don’t share information well.
Many of the so-called teams we have come across are not teams at all. They are collections of individuals who are forced by some circumstance to do work which is in some way dependent on the different individuals doing tasks, either independently or together. These work-groups typically don't produce results that delight their customers or people downstream of their deliverables, don't foster environments of creativity and innovation, and certainly don't encourage joy in work.
A real team, on the other hand, starts as a group of individuals and becomes a single, cohesive unit working together to achieve a common outcome, innovating and delighting the customers, and forming bonds that can last a lifetime. If you are lucky, you have been on one of those teams.
Almost fifty years ago, group dynamics theorist Bruce Tuckman identified a model for developing a team with four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing:
- Forming: A group of individuals comes together and we tend to treat each other very formally—we are careful about how we communicate, often painfully polite and careful in the way we approach each other.
- Storming: We begin to relax with each other, and start to express how we want to be communicated with. This phase can be a small squall or a disruptive hurricane. With distributed teams the storming phase is often extended by the lack of face to face communication.
- Norming: We pass through the storms and adapt to each other, understanding the meaning behind words and starting to collaborate towards a common goal.
- Performing: The serendipitous state where the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts, where collaboration and cooperation is the norm and results are magnified.