One of the hallmarks of Agile teams is colocation. This refers to people being located together in the same working space in order to collaborate more effectively, increase transparency and leverage from osmotic communication. But what happens when projects have distributed teams? Do we lose all the benefits of colocation? Can we even call these teams Agile?
Some big questions here. But at the heart of the issue is distance between our human resources on a project. As our friend Archimedes quite rightly postulated, the best way to overcome distance is to find a way to get there faster. The way to do that with distributed teams is transparency and technology. Transparency in Agile projects is about sharing truthful details about a past, current, or expected future state, and making this available to all stakeholders. Technology allows distributed teams to collaborate and communicate in real time. The first (transparency) is a direct line through honesty. The second (technology) is a direct line through clever software platforms and internet speed.
Once the issue of distance is resolved, through transparency and technology, then we need to tackle the issue of collaboration and motivation. These are issues that can affect teams whether they are colocated or not, but they present a greater risk for distributed teams.
In a recent article I wrote for KnowledgeHut, I suggested some ways to ensure that distributed teams can remain motivated and collaborative. There are of course many ways to do this, but I will mention a couple of them here. Feel free to add ways you handle this issue in the comment section below.
The "Now Me"
I coined this a few years ago when I was dealing with a bunch of remote resources (70+) within the same transformation program. The "Now Me" is an acronym for a special weekly NO Work MEeting. As the name implies, the meeting must not involve work-related topics. Instead, it is an opportunity for the team to discuss anything they want. This event gives a temporary respite from work but should still be facilitated to ensure one person doesn't dominate the session. One suggestion is to ask each team member to talk about what they did that week that was personally meaningful for them.
The Virtual Coffee Cup
I may not be the inventor of this, but since I first did this 19 years ago, I will claim ownership in the absence of any other claimants. In 1999, when I was managing a subset of the Y2K program for Australia's largest retailer, we had some remote team members that we were dealing with on a regular basis. It was the first time I used video conferencing for remote teams, using the trusty old QuickCam and I believe it was ISDN in those days. In one of the meetings, the overseas team member joked that he wished he could have whatever it was that we were all drinking in the meeting room here in Australia. The discussion quickly turned to what each of us was having to drink: coffee, tea, hot chocolate. The overseas team member said he loved hot chocolate. I don't know what possessed me, but for the next meeting I bought a large mug and placed his name on it in large letters, then filled it up with hot chocolate from the staff canteen. When we had our next meeting, I made sure there was one empty seat at the meeting table with his mug in plain view of the QuickCam. I can't tell you how happy he was when he saw his seat at the table along with his hot chocolate mug waiting for him. I have repeated this in some distributed team meetings whenever possible for the last 19 years. You would be surprised just how appreciated a team member feels when they have a seat at the virtual table with their beverage of choice. Remember that all Scrum team members are equal, regardless of location, so every effort should be made to ensure everyone feels equally appreciated. The Virtual Coffee Cup is just one way to achieve this.
Scrum is the most widely used framework for Agile projects, but it is also the best framework for communication and collaboration. From its values, principles, ceremonies and artifacts, the heart of Scrum is all about leveraging communication and collaboration to provide the highest value for the customer. Particularly with the ceremonies and artifacts, they softly force teams to engage frequently. If the Agile project manager or Scrum Master is a good leader, they will ensure that each team member feels a part of team even when they are located on the other side of the world. Give them some respite from work, load up their virtual coffee cup, and watch their motivation and velocity indicators move upward.
"The shortest distance between two points is a straight line." - Archimedes