The Number One Problem Facing Distributed Teams

Posted by Patrick Sarnacke

29 February 2016

What’s the number one problem facing distributed teams? You’re a smart, experienced, informed Agile practitioner. You’re pretty confident in your answer: Communication!

You’re wrong.

The number one problem is empathy. Without empathy, you’re likely to dismiss ideas from the remote team as dumb, you’re likely to exclude them from decisions and conversations because it’s easier than including them, and you’re likely to blame them when you’d give your colleague at the next table a pass. Establishing proper empathy is 70 percent1 of the secret to having a successful distributed project.

china-team-bowling caption: A ThoughtWorks team in China enjoys a night of bowling.

The root of the problem here is Dunbar’s number. An evolutionary psychologist specializing in primate behaviour, Robin Dunbar discovered that the maximum number of people you can really empathize with is about 150.2 Beyond that number, you’ll have a hard time keeping in mind that others mean well; have hopes and dreams; want very much the same things you do; and are generally deserving of your respect and sympathy. In essence, because your distant teammates aren’t constantly interacting with you, and rarely discuss anything outside of work, it becomes hard for your primate brain to work them into the core group of people you care about.

In order to make remote teams successful, we need to make deliberate effort to overcome this barrier.
Some suggestions:

Finally, remember that empathy and respect go hand-in-hand. Use Kerth’s Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

In other words, you should assume that the remote team is trying to succeed just as hard as you are. If their results are not what you expect, it’s time to do some digging and find out what’s going wrong. Ask yourself, “Why would a rational, well-meaning human being make those choices?” Ask, “What information or support could I have given to prevent this turn of events?” Wonder, “What part of their context am I ignorant about?"

There are many ways to build team trust, just as there are many ways to destroy it. But the one that we must always guard against—the most perfidious and pernicious—is the subtle feeling that they are the “other”. Move the remote team inside everyone’s 150-person circle, work to build team empathy, and you’re solving the number one problem facing distributed teams.

1. [A completely scientific percentage I just made up.]
2. [Other scientists have come up with other numbers, as large as 300, however the point is that there is an upper limit.]

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