You all know stories of offshoring and outsourcing experiences failing dramatically. Of course you have heard about successful ones also. Still listening to these stories of misunderstandings, poor quality and deadlines not being met, might give the feeling that global teams are a waste of time, money and energy. However, working globally with distributed or remote teams is inescapable due to the growing demand and unavailability of high quality software engineers in Europe and the US. Therefore we need globally working teams that exist for their success and high performance.
So, now you know why we need distributed teams. Next is to find out why we would aim for high performing distributed teams? There is a simple answer: Because great teams build great software.
Let me give you an example from the world of sports. New Zealand’s Rugby Team, the All Blacks perform a haka called “the power of Ba” before each match. A haka is a traditional ancestral war cry, dance or challenge performed by a group. It shows vigorous movements, stamping of the feet and shouting rhythmically. “Ba” is the state teams are in when they become focused, energized and high performing. There are several videos of this ritual that can be found online and they show you what it feels like to be part of a team that has reached “Ba”. The place where the team, the work and the product or result become one.
Team equals product. It’s as simple as that. Great teams build great software. Just like great sports teams win championships. If there is a problem in the team, there will be a problem in the software. If there is a problem in the software, there will be a problem in the team that has built this software. For instance, if a product is lacking new features or innovation, the team lacks room for creativity and innovation to flow.
So, how to build high performing distributed teams that build high performing software?
I have created a step-by-step model that is based on a decade of hands-on experience in building and maintaining high performing Agile teams. This experience is combined with the intellectual capital of gurus such as Patrick Lencioni and recent research by Google and MIT in the field of high performance. At DevOn, we use the model and an assessment as guiding tools to help our customers build and maintain high performing distributed teams.
Technology is at the base of building a successful distributed team, because a remote team can never reach its full potential without an optimal virtual work environment in which team members can communicate, connect and collaborate over geographical distance.
The first step is alignment on the vision and the goals of the team. Ideally this is done in a face-to-face Kickoff meeting. During this session, the team gets together with the Business Owner and Stakeholders to create clarity on the vision of the product and to align on the expected value and impact of the product to build. Also the team creates agreements on ways of communication and collaboration over distance, for instance when and how to do which meetings, and on sharing and storing information. At DevOn, we call this a KickON and in my previous blog you can find more elaborate information.
A case illustrates this first level:
At one of our customers in the Netherlands, working with offshore teams in India, one of our consultants came across the following situation: the teams were not meeting the sprint goals and Stakeholders were unhappy with the lack of results. He had a session with the team and the PO and it appeared that the teams and the PO weren’t aligned on how and when to communicate with each other. This led to the impression with the team that the PO was busy and not approachable. Also, the team thought she did not provide the clarity the team needed. The PO was under the impression that everything was clear to the team because they did not ask any questions and did not approach her. The distributed setup had become the barrier impacting the sprint deliverables, resulting in unhappy stakeholders and unhappy teams.
Our consultant facilitated a session in which a Communication Charter was delivered. In the Communication Charter, the team and the PO agreed that they would have a daily stand-up every day at a fixed time through a video connection, in which the PO would ask the team a few short and powerful questions like: “Hey Team, is there anything where I can be of help? Is there anything on which I can give my feedback? Do you need me to clarify anything that is unclear to you?”
This small act started bridging the gap between the PO and the team and started building trust that the PO was approachable and connected. This resulted in the team asking questions, sharing their thoughts and making good progress towards meeting their sprint goals.
2. Fostering trust:
The second layer represents the fostering of trust and openness amongst the members of a team. This encourages engagement and creates a sense of belonging and safety for people to contribute, open up, share and ask for help if needed. This is ideally combined with the first step and picked up during the face-to-face Kickoff meeting. There are lots of activities that help people to get to know each other, to bond an build trust. The most important goal for a global team is to get awareness and understanding of each other’s culture and habits. In a previous blog I spoke about how to set up a cultural awareness session with help of the Culture Map.
The third step is to reach the state of cross-functionality, where the team has all the required skills to deliver a releasable increment every sprint. There is focus on knowledge sharing and continuous improvement. Here is an example: A team at one of our customers was distributed with members in the Netherlands and India. The team struggled with getting increments done every sprint, since they were heavily dependent on the Architect, who was not part of the team and was located elsewhere. This Architect was serving different teams at the same time and could not give this team the attention it needed. Our consultant set up a weekly guild session with the team and the Architect to discuss and solve the challenges and to share knowledge on the architectural part of the development. The effect was that the team gradually gained insight in the architecture of the product they were developing. After two months, the cadence was changed to a guild every two weeks and after six months the team could start making decisions locally and the dependency on the Architect was reduced so much, that is was not impacting the release any more.
The fourth step in the model is a self-steering team. In this phase, the team has ownership of the work process, progress and results and holds each other accountable for performance and behaviour. The team is self-driven and highly motivated.
5. High Performance
The fifth step is high performance. This is where “the power of Ba” emerges, a state in which team members are so attuned, they collaborate toward delivering a valuable increment in a state of flow. High performing teams radiate their energy throughout the organization and are aware of the impact their work has on organizational level. High performing teams can accelerate the transformation towards becoming a high performing organization. This is a challenging process that generates positive energy and enriches all people and organizations involved.
Curious as to how High Performing your distributed teams are? Take a few minutes for our online Global Team Assessment and get practical suggestions for improvement.