Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thoughts on Distributed Team

JOYOn one hand budgets are getting tighter day by day and on the other business demands are growing. This is a big challenge for every business. One of the way to deal with this situation is Strategic offshoring; currently the most common and popular one. As offshoring or global sourcing has evolved from a tactical to strategic role, distributed teams are everywhere. And it’s happening for the rights reasons. High-quality yet low-cost skilled resources, round the clock availability, and flexible scaling due to greater talent pool are few of the benefits hard to ignore.

When distributed teams are omnipresent, chances are either you are already part of a distributed team or you will be at some point in the near future. For most of us mortals, it’s a real challenge to work in a distributed team. And some time frustrating too. Geographical separation has so much effect on team dynamics that everybody in the team seems to forget the basic tenet of working together. The Basic Tenet, which suggest, Shared Goals, Transparency, Team Spirit, and Respect for each other, looks too good to be true. I believe that’s why it’s tough to find Joy and Enthusiasm in most of the distributed teams.

If you are ready to accept this paradigm and take small small steps it’s possible to have a well-distributed team, performing at the same level as co-located ones. Here are few learning, observations, and thoughts, I believe can help while working or forming a new distributed team.
  • The goal is to build empowered, distributed teams with a shared vision, shared goals and shared responsibility aligned with the business goals.
  • Knowledge workers are motivated in an environment which allows them to take responsibility. Build an ecosystem, which provide a concise set of strong principles to stimulate intelligent, and responsible behavior. This will empower them to make the right decisions.
  • Create a common Hiring Standard. People know what it takes to be part of this team. Hiring the same level of talent at both locations creates trust and respect. This improves the quality of the communication.
  • Not everybody is fit for distributed team. There is no harm in being choosy while picking up your team members. A best fit brings more than just technical skills. He brings communication skills, proactive approach to problem solving, and an eagerness to learn, to a team regardless of location or culture. Skills can be trained, but they will be meaningless without the right mentality.
  • It’s natural to have ‘us-them’ relationship in a distributed team. But to successfully achieve a Shared Goal the whole team needs to work together as a homogeneous, interdependent group. Identify the factors contributing for the ‘us-them’ mentality and eliminate them.
  • Any solution that includes isolation of tasks or responsibilities at one location is not acceptable. Isolated knowledge will break communication and slow the team down on the long run. It actually contributes to create ‘us-them’ feeling.
  • Everybody value open culture and relationships based on equality and offshore knowledge workers are not different. Challenges due to different time zone, cultural differences, linguistic distances, and physical distances can be overcome by openness, transparency, equality, and sharing of work.
  • Establish equality while distributing the work. Team members at both locations need to have an equal say in software architecture and design Architecture is a team activity in which all members are expected to participate. The traditional model in which an onshore architect lays out working instructions for offshore developers is simply not done. Architecture and design decisions are described in living documentation, such as a Wiki. This allows the whole team to access and update them easily. All decisions are documented meticulously, complete with the reasoning behind it. The documentation also includes alternatives explored. Discussions involving multiple team members ensure that knowledge about the decisions is shared between locations.
  • It is important to share the same set of Standards to make sure equality in the team. Establish an agreement about the standard communication processes, tools, and working methods. The focus on forming a single team and on how people communicate most effectively brings the best out of team members, no matter where they are. Synchronizing according to the same standards and tools for development, collaboration and knowledge-sharing is very important. Keep on improving the working standards during the project. Don’t cast the standards in the stone.
  • At any cost co-locate the team in the initial phase. It helps to build a shared context and shared ownership. This step definitely helps to get the right start. The team is distributed afterwards.
  • Apart from initial co-location, team members should travel in both directions at regular intervals throughout the project life-cycle. This not only strengthen the personal bonding among team members, but also helps to refresh the shared context; the core of the One Team philosophy. Benefits of travel outweigh the cost. Moreover, if the person on the other side is someone you know personally, someone who shares your context, your way of thinking about problems, your working culture and technical standards – and that person is someone you respect – then distance is no problem at all. Afterwards the team members’ understanding of the other location’s cultural dynamics and strong personal relationships will overcome the barriers of distance in communication.
  • During travel on a project, the first priority is to share, to learn and to build relationships. Relationships formed enable team members to see each other as individuals and to focus on similarities.
  • Traditionally, offshore knowledge workers are limited to a microscopic view of the complete project. This limits their decision making power, hamper their daily work, and most of all dull their interest which eventually kills creativity. In an effective team everybody needs to know the bigger picture to make their work efficient and valuable. Geography can’t be the deterring factor to have a unified understanding of the project.
  • Progress measurement should be transparent. Everybody has a clear sense about where they are heading and it helps to create ownership.
  • Regular team meetings are very important where the whole team evaluates the good and bad happened so far. The intention is to remove waste and to improve upon communication, process and technology.
I can sum up all the above thoughts by saying that forming a single team, we need to create an environment of rich communication, shared responsibility, and same goals. This is an environment where associates do the same work and are dependent upon each other for the team’s success. This is an environment where team members strengthen each other. This is an environment where Joy and Enthusiasm is everywhere!!


  1. Very Well said.
    AS you have already shared that "we need to create an environment of rich communication, shared responsibility, and same goals."
    Yes that's really true. I would rather say that without sharing your thoughts/clear communication/day to day discussions on a particular product you cannot work in distributed teams. we should be clear & trust worthy to each other then only we can give the final out put. This applies everywhere whether it is a professional life OR it is a personal life.
    It's kind of a marriage which we do between us & them.
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts with us.

  2. Great article !!
    Offshoring is here to stay. It is important that we accept this fact. More and more companies are going on this path. This model can be successful only if the goal is shared, and both sides are working towards this common goal.
    You have given a good insight of the problems we have with this business model. And the points you brought for overcoming them are really fine points. Companies adhereing to these points will be successful in offshoring model. Else there will be no JOY!

  3. Hi there, finally I did manage to read the blog. great assimilation of thoughts I must say. off shoring and distributed teams is definitely a way of life today and while i think the thoughts are something that most people working in distributed teams would share, I think implementation of these ideas across various cultures and countries is where the real challenge lies, we definitely can work towards this goal to ensure that there is JOY in all our lives and keep up the good work :)