distributed team development

Successful distributed development — what you need to know

Distributed development is very much a reality as companies continue to get acquired and divested, and because costs and skill sets vary around the world, it’s also a necessity. The benefits include access to a larger pool of talent, the ability to increase the diversity of your team, insights into foreign markets and the potential for work to continue around the clock.

Distributed development, however, is difficult for a number of reasons, beginning with the complexities introduced by physical distance and multiple time zones. It can change the culture of the team, affect the strategy of the company and its cost structure, and it can impact the quality of the product as well as customer satisfaction.

To implement distributed development successfully, it means the organization has to approach the task with the full intention and continuously focus on the following five key components.

1.  Shared and aligned strategy

The groups involved have to determine a shared mission and vision to guide the efforts of the team. If people are physically located in different places, it’s harder to align on vision and goals and maintain focus. Team participants need to hear the mission and vision over and over again, and leaders need to ensure they communicate routinely and deliver a consistent message across all teams involved.

With team members in different places, it’s easy to miss signs and signals. It might feel like overkill for the leadership and management teams, but ongoing, consistent communication is the key to keeping the team members motivated and focused on the broader vision.

Key questions to consider:

  • How are the vision and mission shared regularly with remote offices?
  • What role or level of ownership do the remote offices have in the development and execution of the vision?
  • Who is the local go-to leader who can represent HQ?

2. Organization and division of work

The division of work is critical because it determines the overall structure of the organization. While there are many models to use, it’s important to distinguish between delegating ownership (e.g., component or a feature in the product) vs. delegating responsibility (e.g., doing testing).

With the division of work, you want to clearly identify the purpose of each office and the dependencies between the offices. In addition to considering the type of work that needs to be done, you have to also consider the cost of doing business in each market, as well as the skills and goals of the people in each office.

Key questions to consider:

  • What is the overall structure of the organization?
  • How to structure local offices for ownership, autonomy, and decisions optimization?
  • What is the critical role of each remote office? What do they do? What do they own?

3. Communication practices and tools

Communication is a crucial part of the success path for any organization, regardless of where people are physically located. Once you deploy people in different geographic locations where it’s not possible to meet face to face regularly, you have to ensure you have a formal recorded procedure to address planning and scheduling meetings. It’s not only about the processes to share and communicate information, but it’s also essential to establish meeting formats, identify acceptable decision-making styles and the hierarchy for decisions as well as developing the right communication tool infrastructure for issue tracking and messaging. Because team members must rely on communication technologies to accomplish tasks, companies must be committed to investing in software or technology to facilitate communication. With distributed teams, you can’t rely on water cooler conversations to solve problems.

Key questions to consider:

  • What are the “core” communication tools for efficient communication?
  • What is your strategy for reducing the complexities of dependencies?
  • How does the information flow and gets shared with ease?
  • What is the health of the network and conferencing systems for better communication?

4. Locations and cultures

As the name implies, distributed development frequently involves teams spread across the globe, in various time zones with multiple languages and cultures required. These factors are just as important to consider as the diversity of skills in helping you determine where and why you make resource investments in some geographic regions.

Culture matters! Understanding the local cultural dynamics that drive local employees’ motivation is the key to success (e.g., while monetary compensation is always essential for people, it is not the only yardstick to measure).

Because you may inherit teams in various locations, it’s essential to understand what the critical local challenges and reward systems are in each area and devise a plan that is intentional in managing those.

Key questions to consider:

  • What is the primary language of communication in global offices?
  • Which mix of cultures are present, and can they work well together?
  • What is the motivation for each local office and employees?

5. Team dynamics

Finally, team dynamics is also a critical consideration as it involves trust. Trust is not inherent for teams that are not collocated. An explicit effort is necessary to establish trust, and the same can be said for maintaining it. Trust might seem somewhat easy to gain, but it’s also easy to lose, especially when you’re not part of the “water cooler” discussions. In-person visits at regular intervals are a necessary part of best practices to maintain and grow trust.

It is necessary to bring people face to face regularly to continue to enhance the dynamics of the team. For example, SAFe techniques like program increment (PI) planning can be beneficial.

Key questions to consider:

  • How often should company leaders visit each location?
  • How often should local employee visit HQ?
  • Are employee benefits comparable and fair between location?
  • Are the team operating in rue-Agile mode?

Companies most frequently pursue distributed development as a cost savings initiative. The key to making it work, however, is ensuring that you’ve done it with extreme attention and invested enough initially to make it work in the long term. For example, money spent on travel or enhanced collaboration tools like a dedicated, always-on video conferencing system should not be considered an expense, rather an investment in the process to ensure the teams are successful and work collaboratively.

Distributed development, including onshore and offshore models, is frequently part of the process to organizational optimization after an acquisition. It is an essential aspect of what we evaluate as a component of a technical due diligence or a technical assessment engagement used to help surface optimization opportunities, efficiencies, and cost savings.

If your team is looking for assistance in integrating an acquisition that may involve distributed development, we may be able to help. Contact us for more information.