July 13, 2018

When it comes to distributed and remote teams, some things are more complicated than if you just have everyone in the same place. Although I really appreciate the freedom of working from wherever I want, I believe that sometimes there is no alternative to face-to-face communication.

If you want to dive deeper into the details of remote work and what you can do to succeed with it, I strongly recommend the blogpost series of my colleague Nina (https://blog.novatec-gmbh.de/remote-teams-part-1-distance-is-the-new-workplace-challenge/). It provides an excellent outline of the problems of virtual distance and how to deal with these within a distributed or dispersed team. If you don’t know about the term virtual distance and its different aspects, read that post for starters!

Challenges

What I want to give you today is one particular exercise I did with my team which I found helpful to reduce affinity distance. I am currently working as a Scrum Master in a project at NovaTec that is developing a product for a customer in Germany. We use Scrum as a framework and are organised in two teams with elements of Nexus (https://www.scrum.org/resources/nexus-guide). Our Product Owner is on customer side. At the beginning our team consisted of only a few NovaTec developers. Over time, we grew from to become a larger team, still all co-locate). At a certain point in time, developers of our customer joined the party. Being from a branch in Portugal, we had to come up with a lot of solutions for issues that previously did not exist, and to keep communication between everybody up and running. Talking about all of this would be a blogpost on its very own – maybe that is still to come 🙂 As for now, let me share a few lines to give you an impression about it:

  • Different timezones (if only for one hour) leave you with limited spots where to can interact with everybody and exclude early mornings, evenings and lunchtime
  • Communication written and spoken in a non-native language for everybody with all the possible misunderstandings that come with it
  • Information radiators that need to be virtual or physically duplicated in both locations
  • Communication channels that need to be so easy to use with low barriers so that people on the team don’t hesitate to use them
  • Cultural differences between Germany and Portugal

Given all those circumstances and the pitfalls that come with them, imagine yourself being in the role of Scrum Master and helping a bunch of individuals grow into a team. Together with a Portuguese colleague we evolved a plan to strengthen team cohesiveness, awareness of cultural and communicational differences and last but not least: a lot of fun!

The idea

The cooking plan

It all started with one thing in our mind, that is very important to the both of us and we were sure also to our team: food! Why not have a joint cooking session with all of the guys on one of the occasions when we are all co-located? So far, fairly standard. However, where would the fun be if we didn’t make it a little bit of a challenge? We put our heads together, scribbled away and came up with the following session:

Our vision was to map and apply Scrum to the process of producing a meal for the whole team and bring in some of the problems we are usually faced with. For starters: We did not stick perfectly to what we came up with upfront, and made some inspection and adaptation of our own as facilitators. You’ll find some more detail on this later on.

The Cooking

So upon the next opportunity that the whole team was co-located in Germany we announced a “surprise Timebox” quite a bit before lunch time. As this was approaching we found ourselves looking into some curious and hungry eyes. Finally, it was revealed that this session was about cooking a joint dinner for the whole group that consisted of a Portuguese and a German main dish as well as a dessert. To add a little bit of spice, the Portuguese guys were handed the German recipe and vice versa. Each group was therefore faced with making sense of a recipe in a foreign language, to buy all the ingredients and to finally cook it. We built three teams:

  • All Portuguese with one German to help in translations and shopping (German dish)
  • All German with one Portuguese to help in translations and shopping (Portuguese dish)
  • Mixed team of Portuguese and German team members (Dessert)

On a shopping spree

Then we simply let things run there way from there. What we had to handle on the way as facilitators, was trying to integrate silent bystanders. Besides that, the teams pretty much self-organised themselves perfectly. Of course, all the typical behaviours, ups and downs, patterns and anti patterns that occur in a team when creating a done increment of software were also visible in creating an edible increment of food. Nevertheless, all three teams succeeded with their tasks at hand and our culinary review was enjoyed by everyone! We then followed it up with a small retrospective of the whole exercise with the team.

Cooking going well

Prerequisites for your own session

So, if you want to use the very same exercise within your team, what will you need?

  • A time and place, where you will spend time co-located. You might think of setups in which the whole team are not in one place, only team representatives. However, don’t forget – this one is about bonding, having fun together and creating stories your team will still talk about when being distant to each other again
  • Do not make it too complicated yet not too easy – choose recipes that are typical for your teams nationalities
  • Have a more or less fully equipped kitchen. Make sure it can host enough people to actually interact and work together. If one of your recipes requires special equipment, be sure to provide it!
  • A place to shop nearby. Going for the shopping spree, maybe not finding all ingredients, not being sure what be the best one, needing to improvise; that’s part of the fun!
  • A big table to enjoy the feast with your team

Pitfalls

So, are there any hidden pitfalls and things that might go wrong? Of course. Many of them! Also, for some of us, preparing a meal is nearly as complex as writing software. So be prepared to have to improvise.

Two main dishes in the making

In addition, let me share what we experienced in facilitating and what caused us to deviate from our initial setup.

Originally, we planned to keep the different language squads apart from each other most of the time, only providing some “Joker-Cards” to get some native speakers to help in understanding the recipe or with the actual cooking. That plan fell apart quite early as it would have been too difficult, would have disrupted our time box and resulted in a “not so pleasant” meal. However, if you really want to challenge your team, give it a shot!

We also skipped on the formal part of “Review”. Originally, we had in mind to do some kind of evaluation of the various meals afterwards. Something in the fashion of rating them with points. That idea just did not feel right the closer we came to the end of the session. It started feeling wrong when the whole team was sitting there, eating their meal and having a great time.

The table is all set

What I wouldn’t do again looking back, is trying to apply the learnings from cooking to daily practice. So basically, saying: “Ok that thing about good communication about when the noodles will be done, what do we take out of that for our daily work?” That is what we did after eating and my facilitation skills failed pretty miserably in front of all of those filled stomachs. So, food coma sure had its part in the fail, however also be aware that the learnings may only work to a certain extent when transferring the things that happened and learnings to your work context. I’d rather recommend to just run a feedback wall alongside cooking or do a very quick flashlight in the end, ideally combined with some kind of physical activity. As always, make your own experience and feel free to experiment on your own and tweak what we did!

I hope some of you find that exercise interesting enough to give it a try yourself! Another distributed team of ours (Germany and Spain) already gave it a second test run and also had great fun! Also, if you have any ideas on how to tweak it and make it better, I would appreciate your feedback. Whatever you end up doing, have fun on the way!

A great dessert

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