Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the biggest challenge for organisations was globalisation – eliminating borders and gaining access to cheaper capital and people markets. Coupled with digital disruption, companies were faced with a significantly more distributed world of work. The result: a global landscape of complex products and services, where work is not only distributed, but also digitally disrupted. The logical consequence was companies realising the need to be more adaptive to survive, the need to embrace new ways of working, in particular more agile and iterative approaches.
Research from Gartner reinforces this. In 2015 it said: “Confronted by digital transformation, IT leaders recognise the need to innovate more, manage uncertainty better and establish more agility. They need a non-linear approach that involves learning through iteration, emphasising agility and speed, and, above all, the ability to manage uncertainty.”
Distributed teams have become a given for a large, and still rising, number of businesses. Today, not having distributed teams means you’re not global, not flexible enough. However, with distributed teams comes a question that is becoming more pressing for leadership everywhere: how can an organisation be adaptive, deliver what its customers want faster across geographical borders and at scale?
A 2018 study by CollabNet/VersionOne highlights that, aside from accelerating software delivery and managing changing priorities, organisations are facing the increasing challenge of better managing distributed teams – something that wasn’t highlighted in a company’s reports in previous years.
Addressing distributed teams as a business problem means looking at this in the context of, or along with, the other challenges most large organisations are experiencing.
Changes in the market and in customer demands
Most if not all industries have seen a massive growth and evolution, fostering an ultra-competitive market ripe for disruption. Customer expectations are high and fluid, while stressed legacy systems and tight margins require companies to ace their delivery capability.
Lack of visibility and unpredictable delivery
Not knowing what everyone else is doing, ineffective communications and lack of transparency heavily impact the organisation’s delivery capability. What then happens is a misalignment between what the market demands and what the company is able to deliver. The development team essentially becomes a “black box” and the commercial team has no idea when a product, service, or feature can be delivered.
Developing siloed functions, led by managers in silos, can help small departments within a company do well, but it won’t help the business overall. Organisations sub-optimise for local concerns without considering the wider business context, which is a very widespread problem with often underestimated side effects. CEOs and CIOs need the ability to lead their people as teams, or a team of teams, that create value end-to-end, and not individually, which only creates a small component of the overall product or service.
What’s the solution?
Most if not all of the distributed team problems mentioned will be solved when the organisation manages to connect all of its teams to a shared vision, gaining alignment throughout the company, wherever its teams are based. But with teams all around the world, syncing between time zones can prove difficult, if not impossible.
Agile frameworks are already addressing ineffective communication, lack of visibility and resource waste through their core principles. However, it’s the scaling of agile teams that will enable these solutions to be applied beyond a single team or a single location.
To overcome large-enterprise challenges, scaling frameworks have introduced the practice of “big room planning” – essentially a chance for all teams and leadership to get together in a room and jointly create a high-level plan of work. While this can be a costly measure at first sight, the business benefits of doing it far outweigh any cost. Big room planning helps everyone understand how what they do ties into the overall company picture. And it’s amazing how often people see themselves as a tiny component of a big machine, without realising that the machine would stop working without that component.
Big room planning removes the lack of visibility and the work in silos. It gives everyone involved the chance to participate in the company’s value delivery. It enables communication face-to-face, which is something that is becoming rather scarce in our digitally disrupted world.
Big room planning explained
The main driver behind big room planning is to connect everyone to a shared vision of where the company is going and what it is doing. The planning provides the business context, answering the question “why are we doing this?”, and sets priorities for the coming weeks.
Participants will first get clarity over what high-level work the business needs to do, and what the order of work should be. Then, teams work to break down the work and see what is achievable in terms of timelines. They play it back to the room and resolve any challenges or issues that might appear. Finally, the teams make a commitment to deliver the work.
The work planned within such an event will be a high-level view of everything the business believes it wants to achieve over the next 10 to 12 weeks. However, it’s important to note that it will be a rough take on the work planned, as teams will want to still be open to change. There needs to be the right balance between commitment and flexibility in an environment where change is not just unavoidable, but welcome. Locking down work for the next months, without being open to changes coming in, is not what scaling needs to achieve – and it’s the opposite of agile ways of working.
What about the cost of running a big room planning meeting? Sure, getting all your teams out of the office and flying them over to a common location will have a cost against it. Initially, managers might be discouraged by that cost. That’s when they must ask themselves: is the cost of bringing the teams together higher than not doing it, and risking getting the value delivery wrong? The typical answer is that the cost of bringing everyone together for a planning event proves lower than the consequences of not having alignment across the business.
One of our clients believes they have saved on sending more than 500 emails back-and-forth, and over 300 hours of meetings would have been needed if they hadn’t organised a big room planning event. They now organise a big room planning meeting every three months, and are thrilled by how this resolved their communication and syncing problems between all their offices in different time zones.