Not everyone is on the same team!

Not everyone is on the same team!

I was recently reading the web and ran across a set of eleven characteristics of an effective team that were being referenced for Engineering: Leadership of Technology Ventures, a course at Stanford University in 2013. The material is a synthesis of two sources, The Human Side of Enterprise and The Wisdom of Teams[1]. It provides a framework that you could use to evolve or appraise teams. It focuses on a few specific characteristics that drive effective human behavior.  As with any model, this model is an abstraction and its power is to cut through the noise of behavior and provide guidance on how we should act. If we accept these as the characteristics of effective teams, then we can use this model to understand whether a distributed team can be truly effective.

Based on the distributed teams that I have appraised or interacted with, all of the characteristics of an effective team would also be important for a distributed Agile team. However, some of the characteristics are more difficult for distributed teams to perform.

Characteristics of Effective Teams

Distributed

 

Distributed:

Multiple Companies

There is a clear unity of purpose.

NP

SW

The group is self-conscious about its own operations.

SW

SW

The group has set clear and demanding performance goals.

NP

NP

The atmosphere tends to be informal, comfortable, relaxed.

SW

SW

There is a lot of discussion in which virtually everyone participates.

SW

SW

People are free in expressing their feelings as well as their ideas.

NP

MM

There is disagreement and this is viewed as good.

NP

NP

Most decisions are made at a point where there is general agreement.

SW

SW

Each individual carries his or her own weight.

NP

SW

Criticism is frequent, frank and relatively comfortable.

SW

MM

The leadership of the group shifts from time to time.

NP

MM

NP – No problem

SW – Some what harder

MM- Much more difficult

Inefficiencies of communication, differences in culture and geographic distance all impact distributed Agile teams.  All three of these attributes are interrelated and reinforcing.  These common attributes affecting distributed Agile teams don’t negate any of the eleven characteristics above, but some of these characteristics become more difficult to attain. For example, freely sharing criticism can be more difficult if the various cultures of the team members don’t find that type of sharing comfortable. In scenarios where communication is harder (for example finding meeting times across time zones) or less personal (teleconferencing versus video-conferencing) it will more difficult to connect, collaborate or share.

Helping Agile teams reflect the characteristics of effective teams becomes more difficult when the team’s composition includes multiple organizations. Teams that are comprised of multiple organizations often have different primary business objectives given that each organization will have its own culture and goals. This reduces effectiveness as team members pull in different directions. A classic example of this scenario can be seen when someone in a rowing crew is “off”.  Secondly, as noted above, cultural difference can make it difficult to express feelings and ideas or provide criticism among team members. This reduces the impact of retrospectives. When individual contractors are layered into teams, the contractor will feel that they have lower positional power, which can put them in danger of not getting additional work if they share their feelings honestly.

Scrum Masters, Agile coaches and organizational leaders need to create environments in which teams can be effective.  Each team should begin by making sure the team has one well-understood goal (consider Agile chartering). The organization must ensure that every team has the tools to communicate and the support to use those tools. Where multiple companies are supplying the personnel for an Agile team, the senior leadership of each company must ensure that the team members feel safe within the Agile team’s boundaries (much akin to the saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”).   The same eleven characteristics of an effective team can be used to help guide or judge both co-located teams and distributed teams. The degree of distribution and cultural diversity makes performing to these characteristics harder, but not impossible.


[1] Sources: The Human Side of Enterprise, by Douglas MacGregor, McGraw Hill Professional, 2005, 256 p.  and The Wisdom of Teams, by Kaztenbach and Smith, HarperBusiness Essentials, 2003, 320 p

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