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.
Teams must progress through the first three stages to become a performing unit—you can’t bypass the first three steps, no matter how much you want to.
While we have heard anecdotally of teams moving through the forming and storming phases into norming without actually meeting each other face to face, we have not confirmed any of those stories. In every circumstance—every single one—in order for a group to overcome its problems and become a real team, its members had to meet in person.
Part of what we do face to face is “identify the music with the words.” You can tell if I am being serious or sarcastic. We share a meal or several meals together. We don’t have to eat the same food to bond over food, but there is an important human interaction that happens when we eat together. It’s that bonding and face-to-face meeting that builds trust and moves the team members from storming into the norming phase of team formation.
Progressing through the stages of team formation can be difficult when the people are all in the same place. When the team members are separated, going through the stages can take forever. Some distributed work groups never become real teams because they simply can’t get past the storming stage.
Shane's Story of Team Formation in a Dispersed Team
The software education (SoftEd) trainer community is a dispersed team. The requirements of the trainer and coach role mean that team members are expected to work alone, away from any peer support, often traveling across multiple locations in a short period of time. The SoftEd team is comprised of fifteen employees and contractors from seven cities spread across Australia and New Zealand. The company has two offices with classrooms—one in Wellington, New Zealand and one in Brisbane, Australia. Most of our teaching is done in client meeting rooms or conference center facilities. The life of a SoftEd trainer is one of lots of travel—easily sixty percent of a trainer’s time is spent away from home.
Perhaps because we teach about these things, many members of the team are acutely aware of the importance of forming team bonds, so they actively seek out opportunities to spend time together. If any of us are in the same town at the same time, they get together—if not for a meal, then at least to chat at the end of a day. These sessions are social as well as professional. Sharing food and ideas, debating course content and stories, asking for advice, or just "chewing the fat" together.
The managing director sends out weekly staff newsletter that keeps the team abreast of what's happening across the company. There is a Google sire to which anyone on the team can contribute by suggesting course ideas and sharing thoughts to make each other’s lives easier—everything from where to stay in Sydney to what to pack for a trip to Perth.
We try to get the whole team together in person at least once or twice a year, taking time out from classroom delivery and recharging creative batteries. Last time they got together they spent one day discussing class logistics and business stuff, one day with an acting coach honing classroom skills, and a day with a curated tour of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, followed by a lunch cruise on the Harbor. These events are important for forging and reinforcing the interpersonal bonds that have to persist when they are separate from each other—activities such as building new courses and reviewing each other’s course material are made easier because of the understanding about who the person is behind the words on the page or images on the slide.
Despite the distributed nature of the team, the friendship and collaboration in this team is fantastic, and they are able to achieve amazing results because of the support available within the group.
Make Collaboration a Discipline and a Habit
When we're not in the same place as someone else, it's easy to forget about their needs. If our only contact with a colleague is via email, we tend not to consider them a "real" person—at best, we think of them as a "service provider" who is under an obligation to do what we ask of them as part of a contract.
Don’ t let this happen!
Schedule a regular conversation with the remote members of your team, use video-conferencing and look them in the eye, ask about their family and their interests, and learn to say "hello," "please," and "thank you" in their language and use these words frequently.
If time zones make regular conversations difficult, make a point of staying up late or getting up early at least once or twice a month to talk to the people you're collaborating with. If time zones permit, have a daily standup that includes all the remote team members as well. If you have the technology, then use a videoconference capability so everyone at all locations can see each other. Make time either before or after the daily standup for a quick chat across the groups. When you discover and ask about birthdays, festivals, and other events and acknowledge them across the distance, you build the social network that people need. You are no longer FTEs (Full Time Equivalents), but human beings with shared interests and passions.
Remote pairing also can be beneficial. Have members from different locations partner on doing some activity simultaneously to produce some of the deliverables, ideally using something like Google Docs that allows simultaneous access, or playing ping-pong with the piece of work, batting it back and forth every few minutes while talking through a video or audio link.
Be respectful of each other's time. If you're in a video or audio conference, be present—don't mute your mic and work on emails while others are talking, listen to them with your full attention, concentrate on what is being said, and give carefully thought-out answers.
For the Project, It’s ‘Us,’ Not ‘Them’
It’s likely your groups are referred to by some shorthand for their perceived status and location: "head office" and "branch office" or "Washington" and "Bangalore." Stop doing this! Johanna has long advocated for naming groups by the features they work on. Find names that resonate with the members and are status-free. One group Shane worked with had "Awesome" and "Sizzle" for the names of the two locations, chosen by the members themselves.
One of the big issues in geographically distributed agile teams is when to have the standup meeting. Be careful to share the pain. Don't make one part of the team get up at six in the morning every day to attend the daily standup. Make sure you swap the unsociable hours around so different members take turns staying late or coming early. It’s the same problem for release planning or the retrospective. Make sure you plan around everyone’s schedule, alternating inconveniences for the time zones as much as you can.
Geographically Distributed Agile is Possible
If you work to reinforce your collaboration habits every day, your geographically distributed agile team will thank you. We encourage you to meet at least once to put faces with names. Remember that just because you are different from each other, it doesn’t mean one of you is wrong.
Think about how distance plays out in your project and how you can minimize its effects. How can you all work for the good of the project?
You don’t have to be perfect all the time. If you keep trying and your teammates take note, they will keep trying, too. Isn’t “inspect and adapt” the name of the game? Perseverance and persistence will result in more engaged teams working together effectively, producing better products and improved outcomes for their customers.