Last week I attended the distributed agile conference in Berlin. We had two days of inspiring workshops. I hosted my own workshop ‘how to structure your distributed team productively’. The interesting thing about the event was that the workshops had to be without powerpoint slides. So there was little lecturing (although some were creative enough to find a by-pass there) and a lot of ‘work’. Here are some lessons learned from my own workshop and some take-aways from the others.
Challenges In Distributed Teams
In my own workshop, we started with a group brainstorm on the challenges people experience in distributed teams. Everybody on the conference had experience working distributed. I asked the participants to put sticky notes within the blocks of our bridge canvas.
What was interesting to see was that every block in the canvas got some solid number of post it notes. I had skipped several blocks for simplicity. The blocks that had the highest concentration of challenges were: culture; team spirit and communication rhythm. That should hardly come as a surprise since anyone on a distributed team will mention ‘communication’ and ‘culture’ as the biggest challenge of teamwork. What did surprise me was the number of post its in the team spirit part. It seems that many teams are actively looking for ways to enhance the feeling of ‘one team’.
You can see the Bridge Canvas in action at Berlin.
Most teams will say that getting together is the best way to do team building. But that’s not always possible if people are in different countries. We’ll dive into some solutions below. I am also hosting a workshop which includes developing team spirit within distributed teams.
Here you can find the complete challenges board for distributed teams which we created during the workshop.
In another workshop, hosted by Jim Benson and Mark Kilby, people were also asked to stick post with ‘challenges in distributed teams’ to the wall. Here are some images of that exercise:
Best Practices For Distributed Teams
The next part of my workshop was generating best practices in groups of 5-6 people. Check out the instructions so you see what people started doing:
In today’s workshop, you will create a best practice board together with the other people at your table (your team). With your team, you go through each block of ‘The Bridge Canvas’. The goal is to share best practices, ideas, experiences, etc. Per block, your team selects the ‘best best practice’. At the end of the workshop, your team will present the best practices for each block.
To gather ideas, feel free to do whatever your team wants to.
- Discuss with your table team members
- Search on the Internet
- Ask other people in the room or even outside the room (the other speakers?!)
- Go for a walk outside
After this team brainstorm, each team presented the ‘best best practice’ for the whole group. A few fantastic ideas came up. One team invented the role of ‘intercultural ambassador‘: a person is responsible for bridging the cultural gaps. He actively seeks exercises to align the team, shares information about each other’s culture.
In the performance/metrics block I found the metric ‘buffer consumption‘ very interesting. Most scrum teams use velocity as a measure for team performance. The idea is that you schedule ‘buffer time’ in each sprint (as I understood the team, this could mean for example: we’ve got capacity to process 240 story points and we’ll use 10% of that as buffer and plan only 214 story points for the sprint). Team performance is then measured as the % of the buffer time used to complete all the planned user stories.
Another best practice that stood out for me was: if one of team members works remote, the whole team has to work as if they’re remote (even if they’re collocated). This stimulates the team to implement a communication rhythm and tools to accommodate fully distributed work. I often see that teams develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality. I think with this best practice, you open up the way to fight that. As everyone works remote, you feel more ‘equal’ and the team will also seek better ways of collaborating virtually. I think this idea came from Lisette Sutherland, who has done a lot of interesting interviews with distributed people.
If you’re interested in the complete best practice board, check it out here.
I attended the workshop of Jutta Eckstein ‘Overcoming Cultural Differences by Focusing on Similarities‘. Jutta presented some cultural frameworks, a.o. from Geert Hofstede. These frameworks can be used to map out the differences and similarities and can give people more insight into the other culture. An interesting thing happened during this workshop. Yegor Bugayenko of Teamed.io got a little restless listening to the theoretical models. He asked a few times ‘so if we use these models, what is it that we can DO as a team’.
The team could use the models to identify differences and similarities. For what that’s worth, they could then move on to change something or do something to bridge the cultural gaps. I have personally the same objections on the models commonly used. They give academics (and maybe large groups in corporates) a foothold to discuss the topic of cultural differences. But as a pragmatic person, I feel a team needs to really act. So a practical exercise to address the differences and then overcome them. Or some simulation to truly experience the other’s culture, so you’ll understand it better. My own best practice has always been: live in the other country for 6-12 months. I did that in India and I can honestly say that since then, I do not experience any problems working with people from India.
If you want to learn some practical intercultural ‘solutions’, I am hosting a webinar on cultural differences with Waseem Hussain on the 10th of December. We’ll come up with some practical stuff to deal with the differences in a sourcing environment.
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