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Effective Global Teams – Recognizing the Individual

In my last post, I discussed some techniques for making global Agile teams more effective. I also used that post as the basis for a discussion on the LinkedIn AgileAustin group. The responses to the discussion were excellent, and I recommend signing up for the group and reading the discussion if you have more interest in the topic.

In my past experience with global teams, I found that there are some techniques that help make a team more effective regardless of the specific development methodology. These techniques work for teams whether they’re Agile or not. I’ve also found that these techniques help with any type of remote teams whether the team members are on the other side of the globe or in a building 20 miles up the road.

Recognizing the Individual

I’ve found that global teams tend view people in other locations as a single entity rather than as a group of individuals. A common phrase heard in the US may be, "India misunderstood my e-mail…again!" When I’ve visited my team members in India, I found that they used similar phrases to describe their frustrations with folks in the US. Is it really the whole country that misunderstood the e-mail?

I’ve found that by taking some specific actions to recognize individuals within the group, teams can work together more effectively.

Learn Names

Unfamiliar names can be difficult to learn. I found that it was just as difficult for my team members in India to learn and remember the unfamiliar names of our team members in the US as it was for the US team members to learn the names of the folks in India.

On an early global project, this meant that our US programmers and testers saw all bugs as being written by "India". We really didn’t know how many people were running tests or if the same people who reported the bugs were also verifying them. The quality of the bugs we received was very inconsistent, but because we didn’t bother to learn anyone’s name, we weren’t able to coach the people who had problems.

Learning people’s names is the minimum level of effort necessary to show respect for people as an individuals. Also, if you’re relying on an outsourcing company, it’s a good way to verify that you have consistent, dedicated resources on your project.

Associate Names with Faces, Skills, and Personalities

One technique that we used to learn names was to create a personal profile for every team member in every location. The first slide contained a picture of the person, their name, their education, and their professional experience. The second slide contained photos of what was important to the people outside of work. These may have been pictures of their family, friends, pets, places, or activities that were meaningful to them.

I recommended that every team member review these profiles before interacting with remote team members. This helped everyone see their remote team members as individuals. It also helped everyone understand that even though communication across cultures and time zones could often be misunderstood, each of their team members had a level of education and experience that was appropriate for the job. Any misunderstandings in communication were not because people were unqualified.

These profiles were especially helpful when I went to visit the team members in India. I was able to tell personal stories about each team member in the US using the profile as a point of reference. After spending 2 weeks with the team members in India, both at work and outside of work, I was able to come back to the US and tell similar stories about the folks in India.

Have In-Person Contact

I have found that when it comes to building trust among team members and viewing them as individuals there is no substitute for in-person interaction. It’s impossible to see an individual as "India" after a week or two of working together face-to-face, especially if that includes spending some time together outside of work.

In the LinkedIn discussion that I referenced earlier, Janelle Klein shared that in her experience, it helps to "have everyone work co-located for a while… When you split them apart, they will generally be able to communicate much better." This matches the experiences of my teams throughout the years. Working together in-person, even for a short time, has a humanizing effect that forces team members to see each other as individuals. Communication via e-mail, instant messaging, and phone doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

Understand Cultural Differences…and Their Limits

I’ve found that it is helpful for team members in all locations to learn about the very real cultural differences among their co-workers. This understanding can go a long way towards avoiding misunderstandings. People tend to be ethno-centric and do not realize that some basic assumptions about how things work can differ across various cultural divides.

However, I’ve seen people use these cultural differences to justify viewing people in other cultures as monolithic personalities. Cultural understanding and sensitivity is very useful when kept in context. That context is that each person you deal with is still an individual.

As a thought experiment, think about a generalization about your local culture. Now, consider if you and everyone you know can honestly be described by that generalization.

Your Experiences

In a future post, I’ll talk more about other techniques for making global teams more effective. In the meantime, I’m interested in hearing about your experiences. Have you found techniques for increasing the effectiveness of global teams? What are some particular problems you’ve encountered?

4 Comments

  1. Stan Taylor July 11, 2011
  2. Kevin Rutkowski July 11, 2011
  3. Stan Taylor July 11, 2011
  4. Kevin Rutkowski July 11, 2011

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