Who Speaks for Wolf on Your Team?

May 24, 2012

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.
_____

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
_____

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?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: