Disciplined Agile

What Risks Are Associated with Geographic Distribution?

As your team becomes more distributed your project risk increases for several reasons:

  1. Communication challenges. The most effective means of communication between two or more people is face-to-face around a shared sketching space such as a whiteboard or piece of paper. Of course, this requires you to be in the same room together. As you become more distributed you begin to rely on less effective communication strategies, as you can see in Figure 1, but which provide better persistence of the captured information. When you’re not face-to-face you are unable to observe body language which embodies a lot of valuable communication cues.
  2. Temporal challenges. When people are in different time zones it becomes harder to find common working times, increasing the communication challenges. To combat these challenges you will find that you need to create more documentation than you normally would, as implied by Figure 1. More on this later.
  3. Cultural challenges. As the team becomes more distributed the cultural challenges between sites often increases. Different cultures have different work ethics, treat intellectual property differently, have different ideas about commitment, may be less inclined to embrace self-organization, have different holidays, different approaches to things, and so on. Something as “simple” as what it means when someone says “yes” can be very challenging in practice.   
Communication models

Figure 1. Comparing communication strategies.

Because risk increases the more distributed your team is, the lower the average success rates of agile projects decrease as they become more geographically distributed. As you can see in Figure 2 the 2008 IT Project Success Survey found that co-located agile teams has an average success rate of 79%, that near-located teams (where members were in same geographic area) had a success rate of 73%, and that far-located agile teams had a success rate of 55%. The success rate decreases similarly for project teams following other paradigms.

Project Success Rate by Paradigm and Distribution Level

Figure 2: Success rates by level of geographic distribution.