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Making Distributed Organizations More Effective

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An autonomous team model with teams organized around geographical or time-zone proximity can make a distributed organization more effective. With the Reverse Conway Maneuver you can deliberately add or remove bottlenecks to better support the designs you are trying to build.

Kevin Goldsmith spoke about leading distributed teams at StretchCon 2020.

The four main challenges to leading a distributed organization are Conway’s Law, Amdahl’s Law, and the need for additional empathy and communication. These four larger challenges incorporate many of the day-to-day problems that distributed teams face, Goldsmith explained:

In my experience leading distributed teams at many companies, I have seen these challenges replicated if teams are on different continents, different cities, on different floors of the same building, or even on different parts of the same floor of a building.

The lack of direct face-to-face interaction between teams or members of a team will reduce the amount of empathy people have for each other, Goldsmith said:

It is human nature. We cease to become people if we are constantly interacting virtually. We become pixels on a screen.

Goldsmith advised to be deliberate when deciding to allow a distributed team model and be aware that the issues around distributed teams happen even when the teams are normally (but not always) collocated.

InfoQ interviewed Kevin Goldsmith shortly after StretchCon in February 2020 about making distributed organizations more effective.

InfoQ: Why do organizations choose to work with distributed teams, what benefits do they expect?

Kevin Goldsmith: Many organizations don’t make a deliberate decision to switch to distributed teams. They decide to allow more flexible working arrangements, allowing people to work from home occasionally, or allowing someone to work remotely to take care of a parent, for example. Once this pattern is established, it tends to gain momentum.

Other companies do make a deliberate decision, either through choosing to open an office in another market or by acquiring another company. This allows the company to gain access to specialized or more affordable talent, or to have a local presence in a new market to help understand or gain share there. Some companies make a deliberate decision to build distributed either partially or fully from the start.

InfoQ: How can we deal with Conway’s law when working with distributed teams?

Goldsmith: Conway’s Law comes from an article written by Melvin Conway. It says that the communication patterns of an organization will be reflected in the designs that the organization produces. Distributed organizations can create some unintentional communication patterns depending on how the team is distributed across offices or time zones.

Any time some members of the team are in close proximity (either in location for a partially geographically distributed team, or in time-zone for a completely distributed team), two different communication loops arise. The tight loop of more real-time communication and the longer loop of non-real-time. This disparity in communication exacerbates the effects of Conway’s Law.

It is important to be aware of Conway’s Law to avoid letting the communication channels produce sub-optimal designs. When thinking through your organization’s patterns, you can deliberately add or remove bottlenecks to have your organization better support the designs you are trying to build. This is called the "Reverse Conway Maneuver," and it has been used by companies such as Amazon, Netflix and Spotify.

InfoQ: What’s your solution to improve end-to-end performance in organizations?

Goldsmith: Amdahl’s Law simply states that the speed of a parallel system is dictated by its slowest part.

Distributed organizations that are organized with strict dependencies between teams force work to happen in a more waterfall way, with significantly more overhead on coordination, and collaboration in handoffs. Functional organizations where the functions are in different locations also create many challenges to increasing the velocity of delivery.

To overcome the effect of Amdahl’s Law in distributed organizations, I advocate for an autonomous team model with the teams organized around geographical or time-zone proximity. To give the teams more local decision-making power, I suggest the use of clear metrics agreed upon by both the teams and the organizational leadership. The metrics provide a level of accountability that supports trust in the team’s decisions. This drastically reduces the coordination and collaboration overhead that is increased by the distributed nature of the organization.

InfoQ: How can we increase the level of empathy in distributed organizations?

Goldsmith: There are many ways to build more empathy between distributed teams from getting together in person on a regular basis to creating good practices around virtual meetings, to creating opportunities for people and teams to "humanize" themselves over the virtual medium.

Some teams humanize by taking time out of meetings to talk about non-work topics, other teams might play Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that can work over a video call. Having fun rituals like Fancy Fridays can also help humanize the people on a team.

The communication challenges in distributed organizations come from the fact that there are two kinds of communication bandwidths often represented. People working in co-located or in near time-zones will have higher bandwidth communication than their teammates who are more distant.

To address the communication challenges, it is important to reduce the number of communication channels that a team uses and to focus on the channels that preserve the context of a conversation like Slack or Google Docs. Reducing the number of tools that a team uses is also valuable because it makes it easier to find information and track decision-making.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for making distributed organizations work more effectively?

Goldsmith: Look for warning signs indicating problems around Conway’s Law, decreased delivery performance, empathy or communication, and proactively address them instead of waiting for them to spiral out of control.

Be agile in your approach if you are moving toward a distributed model. One company’s solution may not fit other companies. Retrospect on how it is going regularly and use what you learn to try new solutions to the problems.

There is great value in supporting distributed teams from employee morale, access to talent, and reducing staffing costs. It is important that companies do not ignore the challenges to the distributed team model. The challenges can be overcome if companies are willing to put some effort in.

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