Distributed Team Degree of Difficulty Matrix

Distributed Team Degree of Difficulty Matrix

Distributed teams come in many flavors.  Distributed teams can be spread across floors, buildings, cities, time zones and/or nations. The term “distributed” evokes distance, but it is important to note that a distributed team can be housed within the same building but work apart.  An example of this type of distributed behavior can be seen when team members call into stand-up meetings from their cubes. As discussed in Distributed Agile: Cultures, the team, organization and national cultures contribute to the degree of difficulty when working with distributed teams.  Knowing where a team fits in the ‘Distributed Team Degree of Difficulty Matrix’ provides a means to decide if the effort required to make the team work out weights the benefits.

As distribution and cultural diversity increase, the time needed to ensure proper communication increases.  While techniques such as Agile chartering, which establish team norms and rephrasing agreements, don’t require a lot of effort they still add overhead to the development process.  Most distributed teams leverage software tools to create an effective communication environment.  For example, I use an online Kanban tool to manage my writing and podcasting efforts with co-contributors. Tool use requires an investment of money to buy or license the tool and effort to learn and maintain the tool. In a perfect world, that time would not be needed and rather it would be spent to develop and deliver functionality. Whether a distributed team has to learn a new technique or how to use a new tool, the impact is not instantaneous. Until the team gets over the learning curve they will be less effective than a non-distributed team.  Distributed teams require additional communication overhead to create and maintain a well-oiled distributed team.

Balancing the cost of distributed teams are the benefits. They include the ability to create teams with skills that can’t be developed quickly, leveraging team members in different locations lets organizations recruit more broadly, allows organizations to lower the salary profile of their IT department and when outside firms are used, it allows firms a mechanism to defray staffing risks across the economic cycle.  The benefits of outsourcing and distributed IT have been described in multiple publications such as The Benefits of Outsourcing IT. While we might argue about some of the benefits ascribed to distributed teams, their popularity suggests that CIOs and CFOs perceive that there are benefits.

Distributed teams are a fact of life in many IT organizations. The ‘Distributed Team Degree of Difficulty Matrix’ provides a mechanism to quickly visualize the degree of difficulty a team will face as they develop functionality.  The more distributed and cultural diverse a team is, the higher the communication overhead that is required for a distributed team to be effective.  Also more distributed and diverse teams will require more time to learn how to communicate so they reach their maximum effectiveness.  The matrix helps us predict team needs and behavior so we can tune processes, techniques and coaching to get them up to speed as quickly as possible.