How to deal with distributed teams

why does this matter?

On the tablet “work from everywhere” sounds a perfect fit for a global company, but the reality seems more trivial.

Co-location or team distribution addresses a couple of challenges that are not functional like communication, over alignment, over management, engagement.

“The collocation of software development teams undertakes to increase the ease, frequency and interaction of communication within the team, reduce the time taken to complete a project, and improve the productivity and performance of the team “. (Cockburn, 2002; Cockburn and Highsmith, 2001) 

what’s a team?

Teams are effective as the productivity of a team is greater than the sum of the productivity of the individual team members. –                                   (Smith, Harris, Myersclough, and Wood, 2000)

A team is defined here as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” – (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, p.45)

Here we can understand that a Business Unit can be a team if all the members are sharing the same goal. This isn’t genuinely the case for units in “structure” where people are gathered in functional silos, a virtual cluster of people sharing the same competences.

are 3rd parties part of the team?

Third parties are the consultants participating in the growth of your organisation. In “structure”, managers are buying resources (people) to execute the tasks they are not able to accomplish (delegation paradox).

In “organisation”, third parties are partners or colleagues engaged with the same goal. The only difference is who pays the salary which doesn’t matter in “organisation”. Here the term “resources” is only used for hardware and banished when addressing people: respect is vital.

location and performance

The heart of agile (not Alistair Cockburn´s approach) is a social network of interacting people. A shared purpose drives this social network.

Agile as a complex system value the interactivity of the agents in that system (people), the shorter the distance, the higher the interactivity. The higher the range, the higher is the risk of deviating from a higher purpose.


Complexity is related to the nature of work; communication in the system is a measure of alignment.


“The interest of a leader and your communication is to know the culture of the company that offers appropriate support to facilitate the successful outcome of decisions.

The cultural audit analyses the positioning of the organisation in terms of collaboration and formalisation. Then it studies the characteristics of that culture, namely customer focus, links with and between employees, the concept of performance, perceived cost management, collaborative innovation, the identification with the company and the nature of communication.

It allows the communicator to approach reality and, depending on the will of the leader, to build a useful and efficient communication, to choose the best means to sustain life and the evolution of the company.”               –                    A. Robitaille

Robitaille´s matrix model

communication matrix
communication example
project example
nature of working groups
leadership profiles

co-located/ Distributed

Co-location is a debate usually addressed by wrong arguments. In a result driven strategy, co-location is vital to ensure fast and sustainable delivery of wealth in a short period.

In a project organisational model, people are gathering together for the time allocated to such a project.

Wrong arguments or false constraints are often the consequence of budget-driven management where cost saving was a higher priority than value creation when both budget and preferences are poorly defined and understood.

In a model “work from everywhere”, we should emphasise the “cultural loam” with common-goal, strong coherence and shared ownership. This is what we call an agile organisation or AO.


  • All team members are sitting in the same room, in the same location and have the same objective
  • People who are not part of the team are not in that room
  • All necessary information is shared and made visible to ensure effective teamwork
  • Team members are actively collaborating in fast creation or problem-solving
  • Performance in the delivery of business value, knowledge acquisition and responsiveness is highly effective
  • Synchronisation and management efforts are reduced at its minimum.
collocated agile risks

distributed teams

  • The team is virtual and consist more of a collection of individuals than a single corpus
  • Individuals can work on a shared objective (stable team), but usually, they aren’t.
  • Due to the distance, team building activities are necessary as often possible to ensure co-working
  • A lot of interferences due to the distance and the possibilities of distraction by other teams demanding support
  • The need to access to more information, i.e. attending more meetings
  • The need to have at least one person in charge to coordinate individual work
  • Increasing need to invest in more management (non-productive workers) to ensure alignment and coordination
  • This works with mature team members working together for years
  • Distributed team performance is much lower than collocated teams

offshore, nearshore

Offshore raised in the 90s as an opportunity to reduce the cost of development. At that time, simple (obvious) activities or support were the main reasons for offshore to remain the core complex activities close to the Headquarters.

Cost killers are advising Early adopters or lean coaches with the idea of transposing a manufacturing process at scale. Ten years ago, S. Momin, former CIO of ABN AMRO in Luxembourg explained that while making a security and compliance check in India, he discovered that the outsourced activities had been partially hand-over to a third party to a more cheaper location, China at that time. During his presentation, he explained that the Bank relocated all their outsourced activities in nearshore East Europe. This relocation ensured better quality and faster delivery only due to better communication (better timezone shift) and the possibility to attend the location and flying back to the office in a day.

Nowadays, outsourcing for cost saving is a “red-herring”. The level of competences in former “emergent countries” reached the same standards than in Western Europe and North America and some are even better.

“follow-the-sun” example

The well known “follow-the-sun” model sounds to respond to “organisation” and the aim to respond faster and deliver in a short period. The model isn’t perfect, but it is an exciting alternative. Some points have to consider:

  • The development team should be in the same timezone +/- 2 hours
  • Product Owners and Scrum Masters have to work close to the team and located in that timezone spot
  • Organising teams towards a “collocated-like” distribution will ensure the delivery
distributed agile risks

distributed teams laws

Brook´s law

  • “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later” Fred Brooks The Mythical Man-Month
  • Know if and why a large project is required
  • Productivity increase comes from waste elimination, levelled workflow and removal of overburden
  • Do not be trapped in the thinking that “throwing people at problems” will speed up progress; apply jidoka instead.
  • Scrum tends to prefer incremental product innovation rather than big bang releases.

Concept of Jidoka

Jidoka highlights the causes of problems because work stops immediately when a problem first occurs. This leads to improvements in the processes that build in quality by eliminating the root causes of defects. Jidoka sometimes is called autonomation, meaning automation with human intelligence.

Organic Growth

Grow a multi-team project slowly in a piecemeal way

  • A common approach is to use a spearhead team that gets broken up into new teams.

Conway’s Law

Conway´s law

I use Conway´s law to move from “structure” to “awaken”.


Gravity quadrant

digital platforms organisational impact (will be detailed in another post)

points of attention

  • Monthly iteration fits into rest of the Business Cycle: alignment of quarterly roadmap burndown and value streams
  • Shorter cycles may be used overall or periodically to reduce risk.
  • Sprints from all Scrum Teams should synchronize.
  • Sprint length doesn’t vary to fit Product Backlog: Product Backlog is granularized to adjust Sprint length.

Published by PierreENeis

Certified Agile Coach & Trainer, Organization Developer & Advisor

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