Distance and language make communication difficult.

Distance and language make communication difficult.

Distributed teams are a fact of life in many, if not most, IT organizations. Distributed teams are always less efficient than a co-located teams, all things being equal. Distributed teams have more challenges in making team decisions than co-located team due to potential culture differences and physical separation. But, it is the last phrase, “all things being equal” that causes organizations to leverage distributed teams.

Culture describes typical behaviors and the intention ascribed to those behaviors. All groups have a culture. Within a group, culture allows members to interpret behavior and communication, therefore building a bond of trust. When team members perceive differences in the behavior they anticipate a disruption in the bonds of trust occur. Since trust is a prerequisite to effective decision making, disruptions are serious issues for the health of a team. In corporate scenarios three types of cultures are generally considered to be important. Team, organization and national cultures are most often mentioned. Research has shown that organizational culture generally trumps all other types of cultures.

One mechanism to avoiding culture clashes is to ensure that the goals of a project are strongly tired to the goals of the organization. A second is to make sure that the techniques the team is being asked to use do not cause behaviors that are seen to be at odds with the corporate culture. Ensuring that no one is surprised by how the team will act or that it will be making decisions (or requiring them) will help establish a base of trust. When team and organization cultures are sympathetic they reinforce each other supporting a trust relationship and a more efficient decision making processes.

Physical separation influences decision making in a number of different ways. The first is the affect on communication frequency. Distance reduces the frequency of interaction (time zones only exacerbate problems).  Herbsleb and Grinter found that communication frequency contributes to the inefficiency of distributed teams, thus decisions must often be made quickly with the limited information available[1]. Inefficient decisions can lead to defects and rework which reduces the value a team can deliver or force them to embrace unsustainable practices. Red Bull anyone?

Solutions for physical separation are many. First, don’t do it. If you your organization is distributed try to organize teams in each location and leverage a scrum of scrums to coordinate. A second technique is to leverage video conferencing as continuously as possible to emulate physical presence. Tools like instant messengers and other forms of chat are also very useful, but are best when used in combination with video. A third technique where significant time zone differences exist(more than 5 hours) is to ensure some shared day and the shared day should inconvenience everyone (everyone should share the time zone pain).

Research[2] has shown that a distributed team, especially when team members are predominately from collective cultures, tend rely on a leader act as the focal point for decisions. This can be problematic for Agile teams where self-organization has not become an ingrained behavior. Reliance on a leader becomes a problem to an Agile team when they start to generate a hierarchy, which tends to reduce team cohesiveness. One solution is for the Scrum Master or coach to make sure that all team members get involved with decision making and that the right person drives the process. When one person starts to be the only decision maker, the coach during the retrospective, should help the team discuss how the team can broaden its capabilities so that it avoids developing a single point of failure.

Distributed teams have all of the same issues that co-located teams have when wrestling with decisions, plus potential culture issues and issues caused by physical separation. In a perfect world we would not have a distributed team but rather have distributed teams. [NEEDS EXPLANATION] The added problems that a distributed team has making decisions are not insurmountable. They do require that we recognize the risks, ensure as continuous communication as humanly possible and have active coaching available to help the team learn and institutionalize the concept of self-organization.

[1] Herbsleb J, Grinter R. Architectures, coordination and distance: Conway’s law and beyond. IEEESoftware 16(5): 1999, 963–70.
[2] Investigating Decision Making Processes in Distributed Development Teams: Findings of a Comparative Empirical Study, Ban Al-ani , David Redmiles