In the current era, the world is shrinking into 5” screens; distributed teams are becoming the norm. In such a scenario, we tend to think processes play a more important role to control the outcome of teamwork. We are tuned to be optimistic and tend to believe that once a process is in place, compliance eventually follows, and once that takes place the best outcome is inevitable. But in the software services business, we know that is rarely the truth.

Numerous software development methodologies have been invented since the advent of information technology. They all aim at producing the highest quality software product. The schools of thought have been different but ultimately the intent is to deliver the best product. Comparing two of the classic approaches, waterfall and agile, we see that while the former emphasizes on processes and tools, the latter calls for individuals and interactions. Comprehensive documentation has been the focus with waterfall while working software has been the point of concentration for agile. While contract negotiation played a key role in waterfall, customer collaboration was given sole importance in agile. Finally, following a set plan takes center-stage in waterfall, while responding to change is the emphasis in agile. While these are specific to waterfall and agile, these 8 characteristics in total contribute to ~75% of the foundation of all the software development processes invented thus far. While the details of these processes look drastically different at first glance, a closer look reveals that the main component to enable the success of these processes is excellent communication.

So, what then helps deliver the top notch quality software product that all customers expect? What is the role of a leader in making such distributed teams and processes work well? Should the leader focus on establishing the right process and ensure compliance, or foster an environment that helps teams communicate better thereby leading to better outcome? While most tend to think it is a combination of both, the question is which part gets more weightage and what is tougher to achieve?

From observation it seems nurturing the right environment seems to be more important and challenging for many upcoming leaders. Below are three ways to ensure you lay the right culture for your team to achieve the best results immaterial of the differences in the processes followed.

Presence of Authentic Liaisons: With multi-cultural teams being commonplace these days, it is important that a leader establishes a few liaisons that are authentic and can bridge the communication gaps between cultures. I recall an incident when a developer from India made a comment in a team meeting saying he had a “couple of things” left to complete a task while his German counterpart spontaneously questioned what the “two” things were. While the Indian used the term couple in a figurative sense, his German counterpart look it literally. Installing authentic liaisons helps in closing such cultural and communication gaps sooner, and in fact these cultural differences can make for a great learning environment.

Open Culture: It’s not always practical to be an open book in a professional context. But a leader’s first move in opening up about his/her personal life and interests, and curiosity in learning about the team members’ own personal lives and interests, will lay the foundation for excellent team dynamics. This done on a regular basis in the form of team outings, happy hours and group lunches go a long way in getting the best results from the team.

Encouraging Empathy: Manfred Kets De Vries, a renowned researcher in the field of global leadership rightly points out that empathy has been described as the ability to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside. Lack of empathy prevents awareness of the experiences of others, even in organizations, and leads to insensitivity and misunderstanding. Mindfulness and the ability to promote empathy across all team members is an essential element to building stronger teams and delivering outstanding results. Thanks to the increasing popularity of design thinking, empathy is making its way, albeit slowly, into all types of organizations.

We can see that the more dynamic the business world is becoming, the more important are the fundamentals of inter-personal communications in leadership. One can follow every new process fad that comes along, but a strong foundation made up of inter-cultural understanding, open and honest communication, and empathy, is crucial to a high performing team.