Does distance cancel out the efficiency of internationally distributed Teams?

Interview with the bor!sgloger expert panel on the subject of internationally distributed Teams (Part 1)

Over the years, the consultants at bor!sgloger have acquired much expertise on the topic of internationally distributed and dispersed Teams. As it is very difficult to find practical literature on this subject, I have chosen a group of consultants who have each gained first-hand experiences at their clients. The expertise of the panel covers a range of countries all the way from Europe to Far-East Asia, a.o. Rumania, India and Vietnam.
I am proud to present an extensive interview with Deborah Weber, Hélène Valadon, Ina Kurrek*, Kristina Klessmann, Christof Braun* and Dr. Bernd Krehoff – all of whom have worked as either ScrumMaster or Scrum consultant on various cross-cultural projects.
Stephanie G.: I am very happy to have you all gathered here, as it is not very easy to bring together such a large amount of people who have experience in using Scrum with internationally distributed Teams. Without further notice, I would like to get started with the first question. In your opinion, how far do you think Teams can be separated from each other before the distance cancels out efficiency?!
Christof B.: May I start? Thanks. I would like to clarify one thing in advance: it is not exactly about the distance. After all, some theories state that once Team members prefer picking up the telephone to talk to each other rather than get up and walk the distance, it can already be considered a distributed Team. Hence, “distributed” can even be applied to a Team covering two floors in one building – one might sit together for the regular meetings, but one does not really work together anymore. Yet, the Team can still be efficient. Where I do see distance making a difference is when it comes to travelling, as it is much easier to regularly bring together Team members that sit in Germany and Poland than Australia and France.
Deborah W.: Yes, that‘s exactly it – in the second case, the distance is so large, that it becomes troublesome to simply fly over for a sprint change.
Bernd K.: I agree that Team members should see each other at least once a month, which in most cases would be every second sprint change. But this kind of distance actually goes hand in hand with the even bigger issue of the time difference – it simply seems silly when Teams have less than five hours of working time together per day.
Helene V.: You’re right, Bernd. Any kind of time difference increases the complexity of collaborating as a Team. After all, if one location sleeps while the other is at work, it resembles a division of work more than actual collaboration. The larger the time difference, the more difficult it is for Team members to work together for know-how transfer or a simple exchange of information.
Stephanie G.: What you say is very interesting,  as that was exactly my issue. My Team covered five time zones, with the daylight saving time during the German winter not helping either. My Team had to work around the time difference by splitting up the sprint change across three days – Review & Retro, next day Sprint Planning 1, and finally Sprint Planning 2. And the time slots were everything but agile: while the one location had its lunch time cut short (due to strict cafeteria opening hours), the other location had to stay past its usual working hours, and the third location was already starving for lunch by the time the meeting was over. Ina, did you encounter something similar?
Ina K.: Although my Team covered fewer time zones than yours, the time difference truly is an issue. After all, as Héléne has already mentioned – instead of clarifying something right away, asking for help or fixing bugs immediately – the time difference influences Teams in the way that Team members have to either wait for later or the next morning when wishing to speak to the whole Team. This pushes them towards choosing the simpler option of only talking issues through with the local part of the Team. In order to avoid this from happening, I would say that no more than one to three hours of time difference are acceptable. It really stops Teams from being agile.
Christof B.: When working across time zones, Teams have to find dedicated “Team working“ time slots. How can this be helpful in creating a Team spirit? Like in your case, Stephanie, Team members might have to start working strange hours in order to find some kind of overlap. Communication is key and within a Team, I must be able to communicate with my Team members whenever I want to … not whenever I can. Otherwise, it leads to the wrong communication at the wrong time. After all – what is a Team? A Team has a shared goal and works together in order to reach that goal. That said – how can a Team, which is unable to work together, even be called that?! (nodding all around)
Kristina K.: I agree. But let’s not forget that it is not always just the geographical distance, but even more so the mindset of certain Team members that often stops Teams from being efficient.
Helene V.: Yes, I’ve also experienced Teams that sit together in one room, but don’t collaborate.
Kristina K.: Exactly. This is why I truly believe that if you want to make it work (even across a large distance), it will work. However, not all persons are ready to play a part in international Teams. It is necessary to  show even more respect towards each other and accept that you can still learn from your co-workers (even if you have 30 years of product experience). In my opinion, this kind of psychological distance could provide an even higher risk than a geographical distance. Of course, such Team members can be found in any Team – no matter whether dispersed or co-located. Yet, it‘s much easier to develop a psychological distance towards people that you don‘t share an office with five days a week.
Stephanie G.: Thank you very much for your valuable input. I believe I can summarize the answer to my question of how far Teams can be separated from each other before distance cancels out efficiency as

  • Teams that are dispersed across separate floors may already show the same signs as internationally dispersed Teams
  • locations should be close enough in order to be able to spend at least every second sprint change together
  • time difference should be kept at the minimum of one to three hours and
  • Scrum-Team members should be selected more carefully than for co-located Teams.

Coming up:
Part 2 – Should internationally distributed Teams be avoided?
* former management consultants of bor!sgloger consulting

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Eine Antwort zu “Does distance cancel out the efficiency of internationally distributed Teams?”

  1. Glenn Smith sagt:

    Interesting comments from the panel of experts, but I am not clear if they think the distance does or does not impact efficiency – maybe I missed something.

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