Distributed Development Enablers-Part 1

7 Aug

Having examined the challenges of distributed development, let us look at some enablers that can help in alleviating the challenges under three broad categories – People, Process, and Tools and Infrastructure.

 

In this post, let us look at People related enablers.

 

  1. Proxy Product Owner

We all know the importance of having a Product Owner(PO) in the team. Product Owner provides business context to the team, ensures requirements prioritization and provides sign off on the developed features or stories delivered. However, in a distributed set up, it is most likely that the PO is located away from most of the team members. In this scenario creating a Proxy Product Owner role helps. Proxy Product Owner needs to be co-located with remote team(s). She needs to spend adequate time with the PO to understand the business context, the drivers for the solution and the key requirements in detail. Most important, she needs to win the trust and confidence of the PO.

The Proxy PO should be in a position to provide context and clarifications to the team, to a large extent. She will take the responsibility of being the single point of contact with the PO, and will continue to interact regularly with the PO on operational matters. While the PO may still be involved in bringing in new requirements in the backlog, making prioritization decisions in release and sprint planning meetings and signing off developed features, the Proxy PO can shadow the PO very closely in all of these and thereby, over a period of time, may play a key role in significantly reducing the dependency of the team on the PO.

 

An effective Proxy PO will lead to better collaboration with the business, faster decision making and an increase in end user satisfaction.

 

  1. Cross Pollination

 

A key to working effectively in a distributed environment is the level of Trust between the team members. People meeting face-to-face and spending time together is the first and most important step towards building trust. There are 2 major anti patterns, which need to be avoided:

  • Only onshore team members visiting offshore, implying that offshore teams members need not visit onshore. This is ‘one way street’ and will not bring in optimal results.

People traveling both ways, i.e. people onshore traveling offshore and vice versa is necessary for cross pollination to be effective. It gives people across locations an opportunity to understand and appreciate the context and constraints under which the distributed team members are working. Moreover, it helps in building stronger relationships among distributed teams.

The value lies in people spending time together not only in office, but also when they socialize together outside office hours. That is a huge enabler towards building trust.

  • The visits are for a very short period time, perhaps just a week. This is especially a waster when people are visiting from very different time zones-the jet lag does have a negative impact on the visit. In a week-long visit-the first day is spent in warming up and getting to know people, the next 2-3 days is when work momentum begins to gather pace, and the last day is spent on wrapping up and good byes.

Subject to visa and family constrains, the duration of visits should be anywhere between 2-4 weeks long, with preference for the longer time. Assuming that the necessary infrastructure, including communication channels are in place, the people traveling away from their home office should be able to continue their work with minimal disruption while they are on the road.

The main obstacle to people being able to travel is the travel budget constraint. Typically, leaders look at money spent on travel as an expense. In distributed development, the money spent on travel is not an expense, but an investment. This investment is necessary for people to be able to work better, in a distributed environment. And the payoff on this investment is huge.

  1. Cultural Sensitivity

When we discussed the challenges of distributed working, we examined how lack of cultural sensitivity can become a huge impediment towards people gelling together.

It is important to invest the time and effort to educate people travelling, especially for the first time, to a location which has a different culture from theirs. These orientation sessions can be done by outside experts in this area or even by those within the organization who are well travelled and have good exposure to the particular region in reference.

It also crucial to hold cultural awareness sessions in general, across locations, to orient team members about cultures in other locations. This is because culture will come into play when people communicate. E.g. many people in India nod their head in a particular way to communicate a yes, which is very different from how people nod their head in many parts of the world for the same reason. If, for an example, a team is distributed between India and USA, it is advisable to educate the people in USA about this particular aspect of way of nodding in India, and also to people in India, it is important to make them aware how this specific way of nodding can be misinterpreted as a No by people in USA.

 

  1. Feedback Culture

Feedback is one of the key elements of Agility, and it becomes even more important when the team members are distributed. Positive feedback to team members helps a great deal to strengthen relationships and creating a ‘one team’ feeling, while feedback on what is not working or right helps to avoid misunderstandings and resentment.

Team members should be encouraged to give feedback, both positive and otherwise, as appropriate to other team members. The timing of the feedback is critical-feedback given late can actually become counterproductive.

Here is an example of how feedback on a small but important thing helped a team. The team was distributed between USA and India, and was quite new to working in a distributed manner. During joint meetings, the team members in USA would sit at a rectangle shaped table with the telephone in the middle of the table. The team members in India would be able to hear the people who were sitting closer to the telephone but could hardly hear those who were sitting at the corners of the table. This not only impacted the effectiveness of the meetings, but also made the team members in India quite frustrated. The team members in USA were absolutely not aware of this problem, until it was pointed out to them. Once they got feedback about the issue, the team members occupying the corner slots started either walking up to get closer to the phone or moved the phone instrument closer to them when they wanted to speak.

It is important to understand possibly why the team members in India did not give the feedback to their USA colleagues, until they were prompted to do so. It could be because of the ‘onshore-offshore’ syndrome, where the offshore team members have an inferiority complex (and the onshore team members have a superiority complex). Or it could be because it did not strike them that the problem can be resolved with some very minor adjustments. Regardless of the reasons, the team was getting negatively impacted. If the problem would have continued further, it might have led to the team members in India feeling even more frustrated and also perhaps resentful towards the USA team members.

 

  1. Leveraging Effective Communicators

It is a fact that working in a distributed environment requires superior communication skills.. It is also a fact that not everyone in a team has the same level of proficiency in communication skills.

It is important that a team takes stock of the communication skills of all team members and ensure that team members with better communication skills lead the conversation/communication. This is particularly important when

  • Team is new to distributed way of working
  • Trust is yet to be established with team members who are not co-located
  • Something unpleasant or negative needs to be communicated

 

Communication, particularly verbal, is not just about fluency but also about using the right vocabulary and tone. These can become very important in situations mentioned above.

 

While some people have a natural flair for communication, it is not a rocket science and the skill can be developed over a period through observation, mentoring and practice. While the team members with better communication skills may take the lead for some time, they need to consciously work towards capability development of other team members.

 

In the next part, we will examine Process related enablers.

 

 

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