Within DevOn, we work with Agile teams that are distributed and therefore usually have a different culture. The Product Owner and often part of the developers are located in the Netherlands and the other team members are located in Bangalore, India. That’s why in my work, the focus is on specific cultural aspects between software development teams from those two countries.

I studied recent models on team dynamics based on research by Google and the famous “Five dysfunctions of a team” model by Patrick Lencioni and applied them on distributed teams. By doing so, I experienced that the primal focus of a leader of distributed teams should be to deal with the social and emotional distance that is part of working in a cross-cultural team. This means that a leader sets up ways to connect and align team members with each other on a personal and professional level. Culture plays a big part in this, because creating awareness on cultural differences, values and norms is essential in bridging the social and emotional distance.

So the question is: How to deal with this culture thing in distributed teams?
Through the following anecdote you will get an idea.

Recently, I conducted a training for a team consisting of six engineers and their Scrum Master. The team had three senior developers and a Scrum Master from the Netherlands and three junior developers from India. The Indians moved to the Netherlands and they were working at one location, so the challenges of a distributed set-up were not part of this team. Still, the Scrum Master noticed that the team was not acting as one, there were actually two teams in one. A team of Indians and a team of Dutch people. He had the feeling this was causing the meager performance of the team. He approached me and asked me if I could help him build one team by addressing the cultural issues that were causing the split in the team. The training would be a success if the cultural barrier was bridged. If the Scrum Master’s theory was correct, the performance of the team would increase in the sprints after the training.

During the training, I used the Culture Map, a visual model developed by Erin Meyer, to create awareness on the differences in culture between the Netherlands and India. The difference on each dimension was big and I asked each team member to share an example on where they felt that the difference was noticeable within the team. We came to the dimension Leading and spoke about the difference between Egalitarian and Hierarchical cultures. A Dutch senior developer described the following situation: he sometimes goes to one of the Indian guys to explain him something and then kneels down at his table next to him to talk to him. The Indian guy then gets very uneasy, gets up and urges the senior developer also to get up.

The Dutch developer doesn’t understand why he does that and notices that he feels more and more reluctant to approach him and explain stuff. Because the Indian developer does not approach him with questions the communication suffers, information exchange falters and collaboration lacks. We openly spoke about the behavior on both sides, where it comes from and what the consequences are for the communication, information exchange and collaboration. We did this on all dimensions.

Being open

Just talking about it, being open and becoming aware of their behavior, lead to a major breakthrough in trust and understanding within the team. During the training there was a lot of recognition, laughter and relaxation. The training was closed with a dinner in an Indian restaurant where the Dutch engineers experienced Indian food and the team bonded with each other over a beer.

After two sprints, I spoke to the Scrum Master again. He said there is a buzz in the team that he had not been there before. The social and emotional distance had decreased majorly and if there were misunderstandings, they were openly spoken about. Also, the performance of the team was increasing because of better communication and collaboration. The team itself had decided to include cultural awareness in the bi-weekly retrospective. Every Retro, a team member would share an experience on where culture impacted the communication and collaboration this sprint an how to avoid it next time.

All Dutch team members agreed that they were skeptical about the collaboration with other cultures and were not expecting that the training would change that. All team members agreed that getting insight in each other’s values, traditions and behaviors enriched their working experience and made them more aware of and curious about how culture influences their own behavior.

To conclude: consciously dealing with lowering the social and emotional distance between team members from different cultural backgrounds is essential to build a great distributed team. Trust and safety grow if there is awareness and understanding on both sides about values and behaviors of different cultures involved in a team. The Culture Map helps setting the stage to grow this awareness, that teams need to reach higher performance and add more value to their organization.

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Dianne Elsinga is Global Team Expert at DevOn. For a decade she has been involved in the adventure of setting up the connection between Agile teams in India and customers in Europe. Over the years she has gathered many do’s and don’ts in building great global teams that develop great products. This resulted in the development of the Global Team Framework. This framework offers training, consultancy and an assessment that gives you direct insight in the current state of your global team with regards to health and happiness and provides you with suggestions to improve your team’s performance.

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