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Collocation, Trust, and Distributed Teams

Published on 12th November 2019

Working with distributed or dispersed teams is a common experience for many product people in an increasingly globalised world. While we have powerful collaboration tools at our disposal that make it possible to work across sites, countries, and continents, being separated is not always beneficial: It can damage the chances of reaching product success, as I explain in this article.

A Tale of Two Products

I once worked with a telco company that was developing a brand-new commercial product. Product management and development were located at separate sites in different countries. But this didn’t seem to matter much as everybody was in great spirits and had high hopes for the new product. What’s more, the product people would occasionally visit the development site, and development group members would travel to product management from time to time.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. The technical complexities were greater than anticipated and the development progress was slower than forecasted. As trust was low between product management and development, a blaming game quickly started. Instead of working through the issues together and supporting each other, the product people assigned fault to development, and the development teams blamed the product people. Unsurprisingly, the product failed to become the success everybody had hoped for. Would things have been different if product management and development had been at least initially collocated? While it would not have guaranteed product success, it would have led to stronger and more trustful connections that would have made it more likely to resolve the challenges encountered.

Compare this example with a different one: I was working for a large technology company, tasked with helping develop a new digital product. Despite its focus on reducing travel expenses, most people involved the development effort were collocated at one site in the US. I was one of the few individuals who stayed at their home site. But regularly traveled to the main site and stayed there for several weeks at a time. This allowed me to build strong connections with the other team members and work more effectively with them from my base in the UK. While the development effort was not all plain sailing, the product became a great success: The trustful connections people had developed helped us successfully work through the challenges.


To Collocate or Not

We live and work in a globalised world, and there are usually good reasons for having teams and individuals located at another site. For instance, the team might be part of a recent acquisition; the skills required might not be available locally; people might not be able to relocate; or you might have to partner with a supplier in another country. But as the initial story above shows, working with remote teams is not always conducive to achieving product success: When you work on a product that has not yet reached product-market fit or when you are planning to extend the life cycle of an existing offering, you should at least initially collocate the development team and key stakeholders. Similarly, whenever you work with a new team, collocate everyone at least for the first two to three sprints, assuming that you use biweekly iterations.

In other words, whenever you face a significant amount of innovation or the level of trust between the people involved is weak, you should bring people together, as the following pictures shows.

The matrix above suggests that unless the individuals involved in the development effort know and trust each other and the degree of innovation is low, you should at least partially collocate them. This includes initially working together at one location for a few weeks, as described above, and regularly spending time together onsite, as I explain in more detail below.


The Office

“I suppose I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third,” says David Brent in the original Office series. While I admit that working in the same office can have a number of drawbacks, including getting side-tracked by meetings and office politics, being at least temporarily collocated offers the following three benefits to your product:

First, it allows you to collaborate on product discovery and strategy validation thereby leveraging the collective knowledge and creativity of the individuals, creating a shared understanding of the users, needs, competitors, and business goals, and securing strong support by involving the stakeholders and team members in strategic product decisions. Ideally, you want to select a site that is as close to the target users and customers as possible when developing a new product or taking an existing one to a new market. This makes it easier to carry out collaborative market and user research work like observing and interviewing target users.

Secondly, being collocated makes it easier for people to get to know each other and build trust. It’s more difficult to establish rapport and jell as a group when you can’t have coffee or lunch together and only see each other in video calls. But without sufficient mutual trust and understanding, working together will be difficult and costly: You are likely to require more and longer meetings and you will experience weaker buy-in to product decisions; people tend to be more defensive and less open to change, as they lack the necessary psychological safety.

Thirdly, working in the same office, at least for some time, helps with developing initial norms and standards. This includes the following:

  • Agreeing on roles and responsibilities and how they are filled;
  • Determining which tools you should use to capture product strategy and product roadmap decisions, collect user data, store product backlog items; and measure product quality;
  • Making process decisions, such as how product discovery work is planned and tracked, how sprint review meetings are run, and how the development progress is measured.

Get Back

It’s wonderful to established trust amongst the people involved in developing the product. But if people return to their home sites and work in a distributed or dispersed fashion, then bring them back together from time to time, at least as long as the level of innovation is high. This allows people to reconnect and deepen their relationship, and it counteracts them-and-us thinking, something I have often encountered when working with distributed teams. The following practices will help you with this:

  • Quarterly onsite meetings: Meet at one of the sites every quarter and carry out joint discovery/strategy and development work. For instance, have a joint strategy review workshop taking into account product performance, competition, and trends, and hold a shared sprint review meeting inspecting the latest product increment. Don’t forget to regularly rotate sites. This ensures that people get to know the different locations and avoids that one site is seen as being preferred or better.
  • Ambassadors: Ask the development teams to rotate team members. For example, if you have two teams in two different locations, ask each team to find a member who is willing to work with the other team for the next three to four months. After this period, the individual joins her or his “home” team, and another team member plays the ambassador role.
  • Site visits: Regularly visit the different sites as the person in charge of the product to connect with the local team members, stakeholders, and any local product people like a feature or component owner.

Don’t Accept a Distributed Setup as Sine Qua Non

If you believe that working with distributed or dispersed teams will make it hard to progress your product and achieve product success, then don’t accept it as something that cannot be changed. Instead, share your thoughts with the decision-makers in the organisation and suggest a more effective setup. Alternatively, consider if you realistically can be in charge of the product. While it’s easy for me to say this, nothing will change if you make do with an ineffective setup. Bear in mind, though, that creating teams that are collocated may take time.

In some cases, it may require site consolidation—transferring jobs from one site to another and forming collocated units of product management, development, and other key functions, even if that’s difficult for the individuals involved. But in the long run, it may be better for the people, product, and planet.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

4 Comments

  • Ani says:

    Awesome tips as usual, Roman! Thank you. I liked the matrix, perfectly explains a suggested approach. I’ve worked both in a successful collocated team with different time zones, unsuccessful ones with the same time zone 😀 and a hybrid (onsite + remote). I’ll add that video chats go a long way + the constant chat communication (with respect rules, though, in case someone wants to concentrate). Also, as you’ve mentioned, it makes it all easier if the goal is clear enough and everyone understands it. Something else to share is the empathy, regardless of the teams, we should be empathetic and open to discuss roadblocks and how to eliminate them.

    • Roman Pichler Roman Pichler says:

      Thank you for your feedback and sharing your experiences Ani. You make a great point about empathy: Empathy and integrity build trust. In order to empathise, I find it helpful to get to know people and practice active listening.

  • Great pointers, thank you Roman. I have been on a successful collocated team, and many unsuccessful ones, and the one thing that I’ll add is that we set up a seperate computer in our workspace and had video chat on all the time. We were close enough in time zones that we got about a half day of contact. The immediacy was amazing.

    • Roman Pichler Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for your feedback and sharing your experience Dana. Great to hear that using video chats helped you successfully collaborate.

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