08 Eye Contact

The trend toward geographic distribution of projects is now well established and probably not going to go away. You know the case for it as well as we do. You may have found yourself making that case to the people who work for you, to explain why most of the staff is right here in town while there are minor outposts in Kissimmee and Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s all about money and availability, right?

And yet, ’fess up now, if your life depended on the project’s outcome, wouldn’t you want all the people working on it to be in the same location, able to look each other right in the eye? Of course, there is always the possibility of some available remote person with a specific talent that simply can’t be matched by anyone at the site where the rest of the project is located. If that’s the case, you might be willing to pay the price of distribution, but otherwise not. The key here is that the justification for fragmenting work ought not to be money and availability; it ought to be about rare talents and skills. And the more urgent the task is, the more co-location becomes necessary.

There is a certain magic that happens when full-time, dedicated project members occupy the same space. They begin to learn each others’ needs and capabilities, and as they learn, they modify their own approaches to take best advantage of the mix. This notion of teamwork is closely akin to what we observe in a smoothly functioning hockey team, for example. The nearly invisible signaling that synchronizes the interaction is dependent on physical proximity.

Similarly, on a development team, there are key kinds of signaling that are necessary for close interaction. The most essential of these is the giving and gaining of trust. You can communicate via email and phone with a distant team member and know some things fairly precisely: specifics required by the person on the other end as well as promises made and solicited, for example. If asked, you would say that you believed what the other person had conveyed to you, why not? But if instead you were asked,“How strongly do you believe what you just learned?” the answer would show a marked difference, depending on where the other person was. Promises made and needs expressed by a co-located team member come with body language and history; they are transactions in the midst of an evolving relationship. You know what they mean. The same promises and needs communicated across continents and oceans arrive largely without context.

It’s difficult to give and gain trust across a distance. It’s also difficult to pick up nuance, confidence, certain kinds of irony and sarcasm, intent, strength of conviction, hopelessness and helplessness, energy level, and deviousness. Without these shades of meaning, the communication limps. The big picture comes through, but the conclusion you draw from it must remain tentative. Can a project proceed with this deficit? Sure, but it is never going to work as well as it would if colocated.

In “Face Time,” we assert that necessarily distributed teams can take important advantage of even occasional opportunities to meet in person. “Eye Contact” takes this to the next level. If the project is important enough, distribution to pick up fungible resources located elsewhere makes no sense at all. Conversely, if it’s okay to make use of any available bodies spread out across the country or across the globe, the project is demonstrably not of primary importance. In organizations where Eye Contact applies, urgency and complexity are trump cards that can be used to secure co-location of the project team.

Where all justification for co-location is ignored (cannot be tolerated), the distributed team myth has been swallowed whole by management. Anybody, anywhere, who happens to be coming available when a project begins, is the natural candidate to join the new project team. In such an environment, teams are teams in name only.