Dispersed vs. Distributed Teams

I’ve been meeting people who call their teams distributed. But their teams are dispersed. That is, some team members are in one place, and some team members are in another. In the worst cases, there are separate people all over the world.

For example, if you have cross-functional teams in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Bangalore, you have 4 distributed teams. If you have 4 teams, each with 2 developers from Boston and Chicago, a BA from San Francisco, and a tester from Bangalore, you have dispersed teams.

You’ll have the same number of people with different results. The dispersed teams will take longer to create deliverables of sufficient quality to use. Not because they aren’t capable, just because the time difference creates delays in finishing work.

We see examples of successful dispersed teams all the time–open source projects are a prime example. But if you have a short schedule, distributed teams are better than dispersed. And, co-located teams are best, assuming you have schedule constraints.

I’ve been working with programs of people who have dispersed teams all over the world. Those people are finding it quite difficult to be agile, because the dispersal creates a systemic obstacle. I’ll get into that more later.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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8 Responses to Dispersed vs. Distributed Teams

  1. Avdi says:

    Dispersed teams are the focus of what I write about and who I interview at Wide Teams, not to mention the kind of teams I’ve been working on myself for several years. I agree 100% percent that they are two different kinds of organization – Jutta Eckstein in her book on Distributed Agile also makes this distinction.

    I’m interested in why you say that these teams will always deliver more slowly. In my experience, and in the experience of most of the people I’ve interviewed, this hasn’t been the case. I’ve talked to, and participated in a lot of lean, nimble fully dispersed teams that have no trouble iterating quickly and meeting their commitments. Perhaps the key is recognizing that just as distributed agile is a different model and requires different approaches from fully collocated agile, fully dispersed teams also have distinct rhythms and dynamics when compared to distributed groups.

  2. Janet says:

    For us, the time differences weren’t as much of an issue as we had one person designated to overlap awakeness with Pune and one to overlap awakeness with Shanghai. They had mini-scrums and reported the remote people’s status in the morning scrum.

    The timing of the nightly build and more importantly the download speed did cause problems. It could take Shanghai hours to download the build, which did slow things down but that was because of firewalls other security stuff on both ends.

    One thing that does slow down a dispersed team is the need for the lone tech writer to eavesdrop on all conversations because devlopers do not write things down in agile processes. It’s hard to overhear conversations all over the planet. Even that is not strictly an issue with dispersion because you can be(and I have been)colocated with developers who unconsciously switched to Russian when they were together.

  3. I’ve been managing in the last couple of years a combination of distributed and disperse teams, in a complex agile project. What I found out is that dispersing an agile team has major impacts in productivity. Agile is about communication, constant alignment, self-organized teams… And not even with the greatest tools you’ll be able to overcome the lack of physical presence of the entire team. The team can adapt, but it will never be the same. On the other hand, distributed teams are quite an effective way to work. They get self-organization, they have their own scrum master (if we’re talking scrum), they do a ‘scrum-of-scrums’ to check team dependencies, etc.
    Cheers

  4. Mark A Hart says:

    The statement ‘The dispersed teams will take longer to create deliverables of sufficient quality to use’ has several assumptions.

    One assumption is that the raw talent on the dispersed team is equivalent to that of the co-located team. An alternate strategy is to seek the best talent for the task regardless of geography. In such cases, the better talent of an properly selected, dispersed team of experts could trump the mediocre talent of a co-located team.

    A second assumption is that the co-located team has a work environment that is efficient for the task at hand. In theory, the members of co-located team have minimal interruptions and are not required to attend meetings that compete for their time. It isn’t hard to image that the properly selected and structured dispersed team could be more efficient when they work asynchronously.

    A third assumption is that the co-located team has a certain level of synergy and collaboration. An alternative is to train and facilitate the members of the dispersed team to increase their implicit coordination. In such cases, the more appropriately prepare dispersed team could outperform a bureaucratic co-located team.

    When the objective is to produce better work in a shorter time, there are situations where the choice of a dispersed team can be the preferable strategy to a co-located team.

  5. at they are two different kinds of organization – Jutta Eckstein in her book on Distributed Agile also makes this distinction.

    I’m interested in why you say that these teams will always deliver more slowly. In my experience, and in the experience of most of the people I’ve interviewed, this hasn’t been the case. I’ve talked to, and participated in a lot of lean, nimble fully dispersed teams that have no trouble iterating quickly and meeting their commitments. Perhaps the key is recognizing that just as distributed agile is a different model and requires different approaches from fully collocated agile, fully dispersed teams also have distinct rhythms and dynamics when compared to distributed groups.

  6. Perry Mizota says:

    At Teleplace, where we have a software solution that provides virtual workspaces for business collaboration, we have found that the management of dispersed agile teams is a great use case for virtual workspaces. We just published a blog post on this topic at http://teleplace.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/finding-a-place-for-distributed-agile-teams/.

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  8. Randy says:

    One caveat to comment above about disperse experts might be able to trump mediocre co-located teams. Not sure I agree, I use the analogy, and I’ve experienced this, of a baseball team. You can have a team of superstars but if they are not playing as a team, they will not beat a team of unknowns that play flawlessly as a team. I think have co-located teams working side-by-side, improves the “team work”.

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