Part 2 – Accountability in distributed Agile teams
As became obvious from the previous post, getting clarity among team members on what accountability is, and implementing it in any co-located team is already challenging enough. I mostly work with distributed teams: teams that have team members spread over two or more locations. A couple of reasons seem to make the accountability-thing even more challenging in a distributed team. What are those reasons and how can we create a culture of accountability in a distributed team?
First of all, the communication between team members in different locations is in most cases more limited than in co-located teams. This, combined with the greater physical distance, lessens the amount of opportunities to find common ground between people and to bond with each other. This generally leads to lower trust in distributed teams. This is when the team does not consciously work to build up this bond over distance by frequently travelling and doing online activities and celebrations together.
There is also the cultural aspect of working as a distributed team. In most distributed teams, people come from two or more different cultural backgrounds. In our global world, it is essential to realize that all humans are fundamentally the same. At a deep level, no matter where we come from, we all share the same basic needs and emotions. And yes, every individual is different. Each of us has a unique style and set of preferences, interests and values. No matter who you are working with, it always starts with the intention to understand that person and leave any assumptions on how that person must be according to his or her culture aside. Yet the culture in which we grow up has a profound impact on how we experience the world around us, which communication patterns we use, how we make decisions and to whom we listen.
A great way to come to greater cultural awareness in cross-cultural distributed teams is spending a couple of hours on a workshop based on a book called The Culture Map. The Culture Map is a model that consists of eight scales that map the world’s cultures. Each scale represents one key area. Awareness of each of these areas, obtained through insightful and bonding activities, helps teams and their leaders immensely to increase their effectiveness. It provides insights in what behavior to expect from the individual team members and tackle potential sensitive topics before they actually pop up and affect the collaboration.
Accountability is one of those potentially sensitive topics. As Patrick Lencioni states, accountability generally scores lowest when teams take his Team Assessment. This is because holding somebody accountable is being confused with giving negative feedback. Giving negative feedback is something we as humans like to avoid, because it is subjective and we don’t want to take the risk of damaging the relationship we build over time. This is true all around the world.
As I stated in the previous post, giving and receiving feedback (negative or positive) is not the same as holding somebody accountable. Giving and receiving feedback is one of the steps in accountability. The way we are used to give feedback is generally subjective: it’s a matter of how one person perceives the behavior of another person. Therefore, it includes the risk of damaging the relationship. If we replace subjective feedback with evaluative feedback, it helps in getting the culture of accountability in place.
The best way to take the subjective-ness out of accountability is to closely follow the steps Peter Bregman suggests in the HBR-article “The Right Way to Hold People Accountable”. As a cross-cultural leader, make accountability a part of the team culture. A team culture is consciously built by the team and the leader(s) during both face-to-face and remote meetings over a period of time. The team culture contains the setting and following of clear norms on the expectations and how and when to measure the outcome of the work done by the team. Also make sure the team members who execute the work have the capabilities to do it well and if not, coach and train them to enable them to do it well. Next to that, it’s essential to give feedback in a way that connects to the person who receives the feedback. Giving very direct negative feedback to somebody from an Asian culture will have no result other than complete loss of trust and dooming the relationship (and with that the work) to fail. Last but not least, be clear in advance about what the consequences are of either succeeding or failing at the job ahead. If you realize that there was some lack of clarity, repeat the mentioned steps. If the person succeeds in being accountable, there will be an appropriate reward. If the person fails to be accountable, while you are sure all above steps are followed, “then they are not good fit for the role and need to be released from it.”
This globalization of business culture – along with the expansion of online tools available – has made collaborating in a distributed team a lot easier. At the same time, awareness on cultural differences in the perception and connotation of concepts like responsibility, ownership, feedback and accountability is needed to deliver the quality needed to stay ahead of your competitors. By consciously crafting a team culture in which bonding and trust is high and clear norms for behavior are set and accepted by all members, your distributed team will overcome the dysfunction of lack of accountability and will exceed your expectations of performance and outcome.
 “The Culture Map. Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures.” By Erin Meyer, 2014
 “The Right Way to Hold People Accountable” by Peter Bregman, HBR, January 11, 2016