In a survey carried out by Capgemini (Capgemini Consulting, 2016), the respondents stated that the biggest obstacle for digitalization in their company was “Too few employees with relevant know-how”. It is not uncommon to try and overcome this problem by integrating one or several external service providers. The same survey furthermore shows that these service providers are increasingly used in areas or projects where innovative solutions are to be developed. It is likely in this context that an average 23.3% of the respondents already use agile frameworks, methods or philosophies such as scrum, Kanban, DevOps, or the Scaled Agile Framework in their projects.
As a service provider, we have already been relying on agile methods for a long time. Since 2013, we have formed mixed teams involving the client and the service provider according to our concept of distributed agile development, ETEO (German for “One Team, One Office”), and we provide tools and good practices to assist these teams during the initial unfamiliar work situation. The concept uses the results of a survey of our teams that had already been working according to this model, and it was subsequently further developed on a scientifically sound basis by a cross-functional team, with new findings from our teams continuously being integrated.
In our case, the team is assembled in a project room. The physical rooms (typically 2-3) at the distributed locations are connected via permanent video conferences. Each location preferably has an 80 inch screen, creating the impression that you see the other part of the team through a window.
A tool that we work with both in our teams and in external coaching sessions is the ETEO Value Compass, which combines the five scrum values of openness, commitment, focus, respect and courage, along with additional values that appear to be essential, particularly, but not only in distributed teams: identity, trust, empathy, collaboration and simplicity.
During the coaching, we usually ask the teams which of the values is most important to them. Not surprisingly, many of them say that the value of trust is most important. In his book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (Lencioni, 2002), Patrick Lencioni stated that trust is the basis for any kind of collaboration in a team. And ultimately, the individual values also appear to affect each other. Openness in the team, for example, creates trust. And with scrum, where it is not the individual contribution, but the team performance that counts, committing to a common sprint goal is possible only if everybody trusts everybody else.
But how do you build trust in a distributed team that rarely meets in person, where a little misunderstanding cannot easily be resolved over lunch or a cup of something hot in the communal kitchen? Unspoken issues can quickly spark conflicts, disturbing or completely destroying the trust within the team.
This is why it is particularly important to get to know each other during an extensive, 6- to 8-week attendance phase, during which you learn to assess each other. Written, asynchronous communication, e.g. by email, can easily cause misunderstandings. The permanent video conference has proven to be highly useful in this context because it allows everyone to see who is present and how they apparently feel. Still, even with a video conferencing system, you should be careful not to use it exclusively for the professional exchange. Once trust has been damaged, it is surprising to see how even a small verbal or non-verbal signal can cause what is left of the trust to be completely shattered. In one of our project teams, for example, the team members in one of the locations used to lean back against the table behind them during the video conference for the daily scrum meeting because it was more comfortable for them. The colleagues at the other location, however, stated that this appeared as a threatening front to them. Such misunderstandings happen in particular if you fail to invest in strengthening trust, and the team does not meet in person at regular intervals (every 6-8 weeks).
Doing each transition from one sprint to the next at the same location is even better. This also offers an opportunity to do the sprint retrospective in one room together—a serious advantage in a meeting where the trust within the team generates a significant added value. Trust is the foundation for mutual respect and for the courage to realize the potential for improvement within the team with creative, innovative solutions.
Working with a common value system is just one of the challenges you face when you want to integrate an external service provider. We will address this issue in more detail in our presentation “Darling, I’ve met someone new – Successfully integrating service providers” at the solutions.hamburg conference. The track „Couples Therapy 2.0“ provides additional exciting insights and therapeutic approaches from the intriguing field “IT meets business”.
- Capgemini Consulting. (2016). IT Trends 2016. Retrieved at capgemini: https://www.de.capgemini.com/resource-file-access/resource/pdf/capgemini-it-trends-studie-2016_0.pdf
- Lencioni, P. (2002). 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass.