This post is based on a lightning talk I gave at a client and is heavily inspired by the excellent book “A Practical Guide to Distributed Scrum” as well as my own experiences from working with distributed teams.
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Paula Underwood, a Native American (Oneida – Iroquois) historian, wrote down the 10.000 year old oral history of her tribe. Among the stories that she shared there is one particular learning story called “Who speaks for Wolf”.

Paula Underwood

Paula Underwood

The story describes a time when the tribe had outgrown its current habitat and was looking for a new place to live. They sent out many young men in different directions looking for the perfect spot for them to move on to. When the men came back the tribe evaluated the places found on different criteria such as access to water, suitability for growing their seeds, animals to hunt and so on. Finally they decided on an area that had the potential to fulfill their needs. The problem was that a large population of wolves also inhabited this very spot. One of the men in the tribe, called Wolf’s Brother, who was very close to our feline friends, spoke up against this decision. He told his peers that there wasn’t room enough for both man and wolf in this place, but his words were ignored.

Soon enough though the rest of the tribe realized the correctness in Wolf’s Brother’s prophecy, that too many wolves where competing with them for the same food and that they wouldn’t be able to chase the pack away. Instead they decided to hunt down the wolves and exterminate them from the area. Luckily, they came to their senses at the last minute and realized that this would change the people into something they didn’t want to become; “a people who took life rather than move a little”. With this insight they changed their decision and moved to another area and left the wolves alone.

In order to not let this story repeat itself, to make sure that someone always took nature into consideration when they made any decisions, someone would always raise the question:
“Tell me my brothers,
Tell me my sisters,
Who speaks for Wolf?”

Wolves
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When we are working in distributed teams, we are often confined to teleconferencing. And when we’re facilitating a teleconference it’s easy to forget that there are people on the other side of that line who don’t see what we see. It’s easy to fall into the trap and act as though everyone were in the same situation as we are. In order to not forget about our friends on the other side, it can be a good custom to make sure that there’s always someone who speaks for Wolf. Someone who looks after the interests of those on the other side of the line.

What you can do is to nominate someone in your team to be the patron of the people on the other side. Have someone, preferably someone who has also been one of the people on the other side, to watch for, and to call out non-remote friendly behaviors so they come to everyone’s attention.

So what are non-remote friendly behaviors?

One thing to look for is visual cues. Those usually don’t travel well across phone lines. Ask for visual cues that you don’t see or translate them when you do see them.

Say for example that you mention a new requirement that your team has been asked to bring into your next sprint. No one in the room opens their mouth but Paul and Jill are making gagging faces showing that they consider this to be a horrible idea at the moment. Let the people on the other side know what is happening.
“Okay, I don’t know what you’re thinking about this new requirement in Hyderabad but Paul and Jill are making really funny faces about it right now.

Or perhaps someone makes a reference to some tension that happened in your last meeting and you’re not sure if this is water under the bridge or if the tension is still there. Ask!
“Yeah, that was quite a disagreement we had last week. Jane, are you smiling now or does this still put a frown on your face?”

Every now and then someone forgets about the non-present part of the meeting and starts to point at the screen while commenting, or even worse; starts to draw on the whiteboard. Let people know what is happening.
“Ok, now Peter is pointing at the column with last years figures, just so everyone knows what he’s referring to.”
Or:
“I’m sorry guys that you can’t see this but Jill just drew a pie chart here showing that 45% of the functionality must be done this quarter. Perhaps Jill can take a photo of it and email it to you after the meeting.”

Anyone should be able to call these things out but if you have a patron of the people on the other side, responsible for keeping an eye on these things, it will make everyone more aware of them.

Another problem, especially for new teams, is that it can be hard to tell whose voice it is you’re hearing. So always try to identify the speaker. Before you begin to say something it’s good to identify yourself.
“Okay, Jane here. I think we need to reconsider those numbers you just presented.”
But if Jane forgets to present herself, the patron can move in with a short:
“Thank you Jane for that comment.”
just to let everyone know who spoke out.

These are just a few examples of misbehavior that cripple the communication within a team. There are many others and learning to see them takes time. But if your patron of the people on the other side, calls out these misbehavior people will begin to see the patterns and start correcting themselves.

So tell me my brothers,
Tell me my sisters,
Who speaks for Wolf on your team?

So we’re supposed to be working with continuous improvements now? Kaizen, Toyota Kata, Retrospectives, PDCA and what else? Don’t worry, I’m not going to bash any of these approaches, they’ve all got their merit. I just want to write some about the follow-up.

In order to see if our improvement efforts are giving us the expected benefit we need to measure something. It could be hard metrics such as velocity, cycle time or costs. Or it could be softer metrics such as happiness index, perceived workload or communication. We need at least to be able to express the metric in terms of “more of” or “less of” so we can see if we got more of what we wanted or less of what we didn’t want after implementing a change. But of course you already knew that.

What most people also know but have a tendency to forget is that there are no free lunches. There is always a tradeoff.

Tradeoffs

There is always a tradeoff and you need to identify it so you can ask yourself the question that Jerry Weinberg poses in The Secrets of Consulting;
“What are you willing to sacrifice?”

Don’t measure your progress in just one dimension, no metric should be evaluated on its own. Identify at least one possible tradeoff before you hop on your PDCA-cycle and start pedalling. Find a metric that allows you to follow-up on this possible tradeoff as well and then ask yourself what you’d be willing to sacrifice in this dimension to reach your goal in the dimension you wish to improve. Follow up on both of these metrics (or all, if you’ve identified more than one possible tradeoff) to see when the cost of your improvement efforts is exceeding the benefit.

When I was a kid, back in the twilight between the late 70’s and early 80’s, a bunch of us neighborhood younglings used to meet up after dinnertime at a small field to play together. Not a lot of planning needed, a couple of us would just agree to meet and then the word spread. One of us brought a soccerball and someone else brought a tennis ball and a bat for rounders. Most of us knew each other to some degree but every now and then a new kid had moved in or someone would bring a friend from outside. We were usually about 5-15 kids and we used to decide there and then on what to do; soccer, rounders, hide and seek or some other game. If we decided on soccer a couple of us would take our sweaters off and then we used them as goal posts. Someone would volunteer to be goalie or we’d decide to take turns. And then we played until our parents called us in for bedtime.

Last night I got to experience something similar once again. My good friend Daniel called a couple of days ago asking if I wanted to come along for night caching with him and some other guys. I like geocaching but for me it’s mostly about getting to be outdoors with the kids every now and then whereas Daniel and the other guys have made this hobby into an artform and a gadget sport.

Night caching

Anyway, we met up after dinnertime, but this time it was initiated by an email and then someone called someone else and someone brought a friend and we finally ended up being seven men in the rough range of 35-50 years old. Some of us knew some others quite well, other’s had met briefly and for me this was a totally new crowd except for Daniel. But we had one common goal; to follow three reflective trails in the woods and solve puzzles along the way that noone had managed to solve before us. We would do this in order to find a fourth trail and the final prize; the FTF (being the First To Find the cache).

Armed with head lamps, UV-light, cameras, pens, paper, GPS’s, smartphones and some candy we set off into the rainy darkness to find the solution to this riddle somewhere in a forest west of Stockholm.

Since everyone else were a lot more experienced than me in this area, I decided to observe and learn about this type of geocaching more than I would contribute to the solution. I did learn a lot about night caching but the self-organization and the self-steering that I got to observe and be a part of was beyond what I could have imagined.

The level of problem solving and cooperation needed to succeed was definitely comparable to building quite a complex piece of software (though more limited in size and time). Without anyone being appointed manager of this group, everyone quickly found roles to fill where they could contribute to the team. Not a lot of words where spoken regarding what to do, it just happened. A couple of the guys took the lead and started looking for the next reflective marker, a couple of us walked in the middle marking the ones we had found and a couple of guys followed after looking for clues that could help us solve the puzzle. Someone called out an idea, someone else went online to look for information. Someone tried out an idea, someone else was already working on the next hypothesis. Not a minute was wasted, and in what I would say was the shortest timeframe possible, without hurrying, we solved the puzzle piece by piece. Reiterating pieces of the puzzle where the first idea didn’t pan out but never getting too far astray since we were quick to put our ideas into practice.

Three hours later, after being the first people ever to sign the log, the seven of us could pat each other on the backs and go back to our cars and drive home to our families for a good night’s sleep.

When we were kids, we were united by the common goal of having some fun between dinner and bedtime. Last night we were united by the common goal of being the first ones to solve a complex problem. In both cases we succeeded very well with our missions, we had fun doing it, noone needed to manage us and we all found ways to be useful.

Do you remember what this felt like when you were a kid? That feeling of being creative, contributing to the game and not wanting to go home when your parents came for you. Do you want to experience it again? We should all be able to have that same feeling that kids have between dinner and bedtime. Every day. From 9 to 5.

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