Distributed Agile Teams: Beyond the Tools

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Maximizing the Value of Agile

Many of today's agile project teams are distributed around the globe. While simple implementations of agile processes assume co-location, in larger enterprises, this is rarely the case. Selecting tools to assist remote communication helps, but it's not enough.

Here are some human factors to consider, beyond the tools, to work successfully with a distributed team:

Cultural differences can become apparent when working with global talent. Some people are uneasy if some social small talk is omitted as part of doing business. Some are uncomfortable if we don't simply get to the point. This affects agile teams as they implement practices such as self-organization, pair programming, and retrospectives. Remember people's assumptions can vary.

Time-zone differences can be helpful by providing longer hours of coverage. But check with your teams on when they begin and end their workday. Different cultures have different laws and traditions on when to go home. Not all people have private transportation, and not all countries use daylight savings time.

Finding teams in compatible time zones can be an advantage with more hours of coverage, if the hours and needs are remembered. Partnering with teams that are north or south of each other makes this easier because the time difference is less extreme.

Communication differences among distributed teams also require forethought. Agile teams will notice a need for engaging and informative tools in their story grooming, estimating, planning and retrospective meetings.

Telephone calls can be awkward because there is no visual cue as to who is speaking and no person to look at. Also, sound varies for each person depending on if they are in the same conference room, on a speakerphone, using a headset or cell phone. Make it a point to include people on the phone if part of the group is face-to-face.

Video conferences or webcams might be a better option. Be aware of the background so it is not distracting. Also be aware of the lighting quality and direction -- illuminating an attendee's face is better than a dark silhouette.

Spatial user interfaces, which extend traditional graphical user Interfaces by using two or three-dimensional renderings, give people someone to look at and allow positional body language and gestures to convey nonverbal information. However, be sure to allow training time for participants so they can make the most of these environments before needing to concentrate on a meeting.

By using the right tool and having the right mindset, agile teams can work together across wide distances.

How do you work successfully with distributed teams?

Posted by William Krebs on: November 18, 2011 01:37 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Didier Lebouc
Fully agree with all the points listed in this post. My personal experience is to privilege fun & personal ineractions during the rare physical encounters of the "distributed" team. I am also very careful to follow news & culture of other countries in order to be able to discuss of other topics than professional. Never forget to wish / congratulate when a local celebration occurs (e.g. Diwali in India, Tiradentes Day in Brazil ...).

We've been working with a distributed Scrum team for more than a year now and things have worked out pretty well. We started by having the offsite people (about half the team) come to our primary location for several months so the whole team could work together and get to know each other. I believe this is the single greatest decision we made that allows this arrangement to be successful. Once the team had some time to become familiar with each other, we allowed the 4 offsite resources to go back and work from their home office. I think it has also been helpful that all offsite resources are located in the same place so we are only coordinating 2 locations instead of 3, 4, or 5. This allows them to work with each other closely and not always need to pair with someone remote. Lastly, when they went offsite, we invested in equipment to make communications easier. We primarily use Office Communicator to talk with remote people. Everyone on the team got a wireless headset for online calls. We also bought a big screen TV and web cam for video conferencing which we use daily. The teams only have a 1 hour time difference most of the year so that hasn't been a significant issue for us to deal with. All in all, things have worked out as well as I would have expected with half of the team working remote.

Bob Tarne
Bill - one key for myself on a recently completed agile project with off-shore team members was training; both technical and from a methodology standpoint. We invested a lot of time prior to the project kickoff making sure the off-shore team was ready.

I really enjoyed this post, but it's tough to talk about communication between distributed teams w/o discussing tools. Video conferencing makes a big difference for daily meetings. I worked with a team based in Sweden (as the product owner, working w/scrum), and we really developed a much better rapport than we'd ever have just on the phone. We used Google Hangouts, WebEx, and Skype. WebEx was the best quality, but we enjoyed the Hangouts, mostly because of its more casual nature and, well, the fact that it's Google.

On occasion, one of us would forget about the web cam during a planning meeting, and send some strong signals (rolling eyes, developers looking at each other when I brought up something that was worrying or annoying them). We'd call each other out a bit, laugh, and then address the issue.

One other big thing that organizations should consider is making sure that a team meets face-to-face at least a couple of times a year or in the beginning of a project, if at all possible. Just getting to know team members on a more personal level while grabbing a beer or lunch helps the relationship.

I also think, though, that while it's easy for all teams to lose focus on the necessity of continuous team improvement, it can become especially hard for distributed teams in different time zones. I recently started working with agile consultants/trainers who are building a more game-like tool to help that - makes the whole retrospective more like an online game. If anyone's interested in hearing about it, you can DM me on Twitter: @lindsayehicks

Jessica Fenn
You made some good points, but working sucessfuly with distributed teams can often be big problem. We've tried TFS, JIRA, SmartBear and are currently running Countersoft Gemini with which we have seen some good results in going all-in with Agile development. It's really tough finding a good fit!

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