Friday, January 17, 2014

Successful Distributed Development: Discipline, Awareness, and Initiative

For many of today's IT organizations, distributed development is not optional. Rather it is a fact of life. We should be mindful of the limitations introduced by this mode of operation, while working constantly to mitigate them. It is a challenge that we have to actively tackle. Focusing solely on the tools misses the opportunity for true collaboration. Tools should be considered an enabler; we won't be a able to work remotely without tools. But having the tools, by itself, doesn't guarantee success.

It's important for us to understand what the ideal is, so that we can strive to come as close as possible to achieve it, given whatever constraints our work environment imposes on us. There is no substitute for face to face interaction. There is nothing better than a co-located, cross-functional team. While we design our work activities, we should strive to converge as much as possible to these ideals.

I'm guessing all of this is not new to you. Yet time and again, distribute projects suffer from communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, unmet expectations, among many other dysfunctions, often resorting to heavy processes that only make things worse. There are successful distributed teams, however. Below are few of the traits exhibited by those teams. Adopting these traits in your distributed environment can help you converge more to the ideal.


I often hear project leaders complain that their teams are not working very well together despite having state of the art telecommunication tools. It is valid to question the tools adequacy, ease of use, usability, etc. It is more important to observe when, how, and even if, the team is using them. Compare your current situation to that of a co-located team. Play a what if scenario: what if everyone had been working in the same room?
You will need a dedicated facilitator, a catalyst of sorts, in every one of your locations, to keep nudging people to reach out to each other. It is not fair to simply expect everyone to remember to get out of their immediate challenge to seek help, or to solicit a different perspective. Software development is an intellectually demanding profession, and it is not uncommon for people to get consumed by their immediate task, and forget to reach out. There are a set of dynamics that can only happen if the whole team is co-located. You could hear a couple of coworkers arguing about a problem you solved yesterday, or perhaps solving a problem you'll face tomorrow. You could have just come out from a planning session, with a new understanding of the product vision, and you may just share that with your colleagues. And there is where the team's facilitator role comes in: to play the above what if scenario. How about we tell the other offices about this? How about we consult with other locations to see if they encountered something similar? But it doesn't stop there.

A disciplined distributed team will embrace certain values and adhere to a set of practices that ensure that the whole team operates as a single, cohesive unit. It's easy for us to fall back to our comfort zones, or be consumed by tasks, than to always remember to reach out. The facilitators role is to make sure that the distributed team never misses an opportunity to act as a co-located one, whenever possible.


Let's face it, we don't naturally know how to effectively work in a distributed environment. We may know we have teammates in other locations. We may be curious how they spend their days, wanting to learn the challenges they face, and looking forward to meeting them in person. This doesn't mean that this knowledge will be translated into changing how we perform our day to day work to adapt and address the limitations of this setting.

Well, our designated facilitator is there to change this reality. By actively seeking opportunities for cross-site collaboration, events, and feedback sessions, they continuously raise the whole team's awareness that a distributed setting requires a different mode of operation.

It's only when all the team members are fully aware, that location barriers start coming down. There are certain signs you can watch for to assess whether the team has reached such a level. For example, if you hear statements like "let's wait until you are here next week to discuss this", "I couldn't really explain myself to the other team over the video conference", or "I couldn't really tell if they were happy or mad with this change" are clear red flags. As a contrast, when the team has achieved full awareness, they won't let location be a barrier in effectively communicating ideas, or be a factor in whether or not they collaborate on a task. They become apt at explaining themselves and actively seeking feedback, thus consciously and proactively overcoming the limitations of the tools and the remote setting.


While all of the above is good by itself, and while an active facilitator can help tremendously towards this end, we will need to have a team of self motivated individuals to really conquer location barriers. Individuals are the ones that carry out the necessary tasks to accomplish the team goals, and they are the ones who experience first hand the pains and the joys of getting things done. Unless we all are willing to step out of our comfort zones, seek new ways to make things better and overcome the daily challenges, and push each other to continuously improve, we won't have a chance in achieving our collective full potential.

I'll leave you with a quick tip: when choosing a mode of communication with a colleague, consider upgrading to a higher touch one. If you are about to send an email, how about instant message instead. While you are at it, won't a phone call be even better? But then, what's preventing you from having the discussion face to face? Oftentimes, we overestimate the risk of being disruptive, while underestimating the limitations of more passive forms of communication, like email. If you've experienced long winded email threads, going seemly forever, consider perhaps getting together in a room, virtual as it may be, to discuss things over. The dynamic will be vastly different, in a good way.

If we can’t all co-locate, we should try to come as close to it as we possibly can. We must be deliberate and disciplined in how we adapt our work to this new environment, maintain constant awareness of the situation, and demonstrate the initiative to challenge its limitations.

No comments: