I do not 100% agree that the issue of distance no longer exists; however I agree time zones are here to stay! According to the authors of, “I’m working while they’re sleeping”, we do not have a problem communicating across distances because there are so many tools available to ease this process, however, issue of differences in time is still there and will remain. Even some of the evidence the authors present in the book, on team dispersion versus productivity, refutes the claim that the issues of working across distances are all in the past. This part I did not get….. One of the examples given was the issues teams experience, even when they are located in the same building, efficiency still goes down……probably due to people thinking that less effort is needed if you are in the same building. I think we have all seen this, even with a difference in floors, in the same building, there tends to be knowledge on some floors that has not been dispersed to people on other floors. However, the authors gloss over this issue for the book, stating there are no more issues across distances, but rather concentrate on talking about the issues caused by time zone differences.
This is the third book which Erran Carmel has been an author on, which I have reviewed. Therefore I was anxious to take a closer look at it. For me it was the first book that I have seen, that concentrates chiefly on time zone differences. I am vacillating as to who is the best targeted audience for this book? After reading through, I am thinking it would be most beneficial to those who have already worked, at least once, with teams across many time zones. The situations discussed would be very familiar and it would be easier to pick up tips of what to do next time, than to pick out planning tips that could be used for your first “distributed across multiple time zones” team. The authors seem to elude to this as well, that time zone differences and how to deal with them, is not a concern until it becomes a problem; i.e. not usually seen as an area to talk about upfront when starting a team. However, I do see this as a book that could be very useful for the person who is looking to become, or has been tagged to become the “global liaison”, as the author’s refer to the person who works between teams in different locations (this person could also be the product manager, project manager, project coordinator, or have a host of other titles).
The book itself is broken up in to three sections: The Fundamentals, Time Zone strategy, and the last section is titled, “Time and a Half”. I had to laugh at the comment in the section on fundamentals, about outcomes, and that, “The advantage of distributed work is that you can blame distributed work for the project being late……”. An excellent point is made, that bears repeating, that we need to understand when coordination is truly necessary. One team may be effectively coordinated but at an extraordinary cost, thereby driving team performance outcomes down. A good example of this is when a coordinator (or global liaison) manages too few people, not an optimal number; the cost is high and the performance is lower than it could be.
An oft repeated topic in books related to virtual teams, or global team management, and frequent topic of conversation among project managers is a discussion of the pros and cons of complete time overlap for a team, versus receiving at least some benefit from only having some overlap (not in the follow the sun type of way or round the clock meaning, but just two or three hours of overlap). Working during the same time, of course provides the widest window for same-time interaction, but it also leads to more interruptions. The authors add further research to this discussion that gives food for thought. Having some kind of a time difference may force the team to establish better practices, which includes having some quiet time for individual team members. This is where the question comes in. What is better for the team members? All knowledge workers and team members will have an opinion on this. It is seen as a benefit of distance that less time overlap means less interruptions, or at least interruptions can be more planned. It is a well-known fact that interruptions cut down on productivity, it is harder to get back to what you were doing before after every interruption. However, the book contains interesting research that shows that 44% of the interruptions we face during a day are self-imposed (checking our email, checking Facebook, getting a cup of coffee or tea, playing a game of ping pong (one of my favorite interruptions), etc.), and that actually with interruptions, we tend to be more productivity. We tend to try and make up for interruptions and work faster. However, allowing for these interruptions does tend to raise our stress levels. So it seems that because of 44% of our daily interruptions are self-imposed, we tend to work harder, and be more productive. However then the other question I have is, if 56% of our interruptions are not self-imposed, do we work harder to make up for those interruptions as well? The experiments do point to the fact that the social interruptions may be very beneficial (whether virtual or face to face) for generating ideas, or to get a break from a difficult problem and come back with a fresh head and perhaps a new way of looking at the problem. This I think we all know from water cooler or kitchen discussions which pop up during the day and that can be very helpful. Appendix D continues the discussion on the science of interruptions and is worth the read.
You will want to pay attention to the time zone strategies introduced, some of which are familiar; Follow-the-Sun, Round-the-clock, and real-time simulated co-location. As well as the six time-zone configurations that are discussed. The authors discuss examples to determine what works best for what type of activities; i.e. can software development really be done using a follow-the-sun strategy, i.e. every shift is handing over work to the next shift. As many people know in this industry, this strategy has been tried and tried again. Technically it can work in certain situations and with the right structure; i.e. the right combination of developer sites, to reviewer sites, so one location does not become a bottle neck. The authors discuss examples of companies which have tried this method; what worked, what did not work, and how they eventually tried to sort things out.
A benefit to reading the book is to pay attention to the benefits and target activities for each time zone strategy. For example according to the authors, the Follow-the-sun strategy, which involves; unfinished work that is handed off to the next sit on a daily basis, it is about speed, sites are very dependent on each other. Works best for activities like: Rapid prototyping – creative task, with serious coordination.
However, I thought it was very interesting that based on the examples used, the authors drew the conclusion that with follow-the-sun quality goes down. The reasons being that the tasks are more complicated, maybe there are more questions, and the team cannot ask them during the day, so they are guessing, and guessing wrong. What I am wondering is, especially in a situation like rapid prototyping, can any benefit be gained by a follow-the-sun methodology? Is there any benefit to having the team work in a silo (at least for several hours in a day)? Would you, or could you get something unexpected, that turns out to be better than what was planned for? Instead of direction coming all from one location or one source, ideas come from many locations with different backgrounds and differnet takes on the project, which could make for a better product in the end? I am wondering if this theory has been tested. I suppose it has somewhere, just need to dig for the results. I am also curious if the “reduction in quality” that was sighted for follow-the-sun, has been full researched? What do they mean by quality? Sometimes it means the product was not done the way I would have done it. If you are going to be working on something like rapid prototyping, global teams should have a lot of autonomy to make decisions on their own. That seems the only way to get the full benefit.
It was also good to note, and get straightened out that may global teams think they do the follow-the-sun approach, but if they are doing any part of a parallel approach or phase approach, then they are not really taking advantage of time zones. i.e. this location is working on this independently, and this one is working on this independently. The workers just happen to spread across the globe. That is not true follow-the-sun. Another key of course to making follow-the-sun really work, is to have the right development methodology. The authors believe that agile works the best- short time bursts, iterations. I think the key here is that the team is big enough that some function is always being fully developed and fully tested each day and can be delivered continuously. In this way the different time zones can concentrate on development, testing, and review and acceptance. The authors make a good note for agile development which is that personal time-boxing curbs perfectionist tendencies, procrastination and prevents an individual from over committing to a task.
Finally in the last part of the book, the authors offer two radical options for handling time zones. The first strategy is to establish a 24 hour culture within a company. People who work all hours are supported, but it is important that anyone in the company realizes that at any time they may have to work night or day, depending on when the client is working. The question is, can this be sustained? The second radical strategy is to engage in Real-time simulated co-location (RTSC) (of course this one also really requires the 24 hour culture…….). For this strategy, always on audio/video is required, something similar to Cisco’s Telepresence. Also needed is an awareness technology such as a shared dashboard to look at key project data. Co-located teams work in the same room, where developers work together, elbow to elbow. The rule for co-location strategy is (near) perfect time overlap. Video overlap screens let anyone look at who else is working. Then you can just walk up the screen and call the person you need to talk with. I think some teams would like this, to be able to see who is working and to know if they can bother that person at that moment with something. Would it lead to more spontaneous discussion like a discussion the kitchen, I am not sure. Also, what does this feeling of being “watched” do to the developers? It is one thing to be in the same room with people, where everyone is getting in to their own zone, but to know that in the back of your mind, a camera is on you……not sure. It may seem more like something to be used by management, just to see that people are working, rather than as a tool for more collaboration. But I think this perception will be changing. In any case, both of these strategies require a literal 24 hour culture, and who is going to be the major time shifters? That will be a power struggle between locations, and between countries. So I am not sure either one of these strategies, as described in the book, would be the answer for the long term. I do agree though, because of technology improvements we will continue to move in the direction of being able to walk up to a wall and seeing who is working thousands of miles away and connecting with them immediately (as opposed to what we now which is ping them in skype or call their phone and see if they have some time to talk).