Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to have two of my favorite things happen:  I’m collaborating with people I respect, and I’ve had my assumptions challenged.  I know I’ve learned something new in these conditions. First, I have enjoyed the collaboration with the good folks at Modus Institute over the last year and have joined as faculty.  More importantly, let me share some of the assumptions that have been challenged.

If you had read my blog, book, or newsletter, you know that I truly enjoy working with distributed knowledge work teams.  Working with these teams has challenged many of my assumptions about agile, what is possible, and where the world of work can evolve.  In working with the folks from Modus Institute, I again had my assumptions challenged on how to build better distributed teams using lean and agile principles.

Finding a Right Environment for Knowledge Work

My first assumption to help a distributed knowledge work team was to examine their communications environment.  Many people start here.  This is where the pain is immediately felt with distributed teams.  But with my work at Modus, I now understand that this is a symptom.  There are other aspects of the environment that must be considered:

  • What are assumptions (hidden or visible to the team) about the knowledge work of the team? – uncovered through the Value Stream Map exercise
  • What does our culture look like, and what are the needs of the team? – explored through the Charter exercise
  • Do people have the information they need when they need it? – revealed through the Communications Agreement exercise
  • What changes do we put in place to build a better work environment now and to maintain a useful work environment? – created through a Roadmap or Value Matrix exercise 

You can see the overall flow in the figure below.  I appreciate that this process is very flexible, and based on what you learn about the team before or even during the exercise, you can make adjustments or even add other activities to help the team develop their “right environment”.  Jim Benson provides a thorough explanation of this set of exercises in chapter five of his book, The Collaboration Equation

Unpacking the Communication Agreement

Since most people become concerned with the technology of communication in a distributed knowledge work team, allow me to skip to the Communications Agreement to show how this can work and why it may not be the best thing to explore first.

This part of the exercise explores four areas (as shown in the figure below):

  • The information that needs to be shared among the team
  • The tools that may be used to exchange that information
  • When tools must also support collaboration among team members
  • When tools must support the focus of individual team members

For each area of the communications agreement, a team will quickly brainstorm and then group similar topics together (i.e., affinity map).  The team would then explore the topics and make decisions on how they want to resolve some of the issues they have discovered around their communications.

As you read through the questions, they may or may not make sense to you.  For instance, how can we easily talk about the information exchange unless we know all the steps required to gather, transform and prepare the information for customers?  Do we know in what tools this information is stored (or can be stored)? The Value Stream Map (VSM) helps uncover specific information instead of relying on just the team’s memory.

Also, how do we decide on collaboration and focus unless we understand the nature of our work as a team and also explore more of the needs and preferences of the team?  The (VSM) and the charter uncovers these conditions and makes them explicit.

This is why focusing on the tools first does not provide the answers you need to build a better distributed knowledge work team.  If you would like to learn more, join us at Modus Institute.