Distributed Scrum is never going to be easy.
The very cornerstones of Scrum — transparency, openness, self-organization — are all more difficult for a distributed team to practice. Communication and collaboration will not be organic, and team-building will be harder. Still, the cost-saving implications for many companies mean that distributed Scrum looks likely to stay.
By disregarding the arguments for and against, this article is a practical guide that you can follow as a ScrumMaster of a distributed team to make the process work as best it can.
5 best practices for distributed Scrum teams
1. Make an effort to colocate as often and as early as possible.
Despite the arguments you may face about colocation, and even if cost reduction is the driving force behind using distributed Scrum, the importance of the whole team being together for some parts of the product development process cannot be stressed enough.
Even if it's just at product kickoff or when the framework is first implemented, getting the entire Scrum team together (and yes, this includes the product owner!) is imperative to foster transparency, collaboration, and teamwork from the start.
Being together in person gives the team a chance to form properly and also to have an invaluable cultural exchange and out-of-work bonding through events such as team meals and coffees. Don’t underestimate the importance of organic conversation and small talk in forming a strong team.
If possible, the whole team should make an effort to colocate on regular occasions, preferably at sprint end and start, when the ceremonies take place. On our distributed team, we make an effort to colocate on average once a month, when we spend a week together. Of course, this may not be possible for many teams, but even a trip to get together once per quarter will make a positive impact on the team.
2. Have an informal communication stream.
Organic conversation is a vital component of a high-performing team. In a colocated office, you sit near colleagues, chat about the TV show you watched last night, or eat lunch together. In distributed teams, this natural communication is often lacking.
Within our development team, we gave ourselves a group name and set up our own WhatsApp messenger group. We sometimes use if for work stuff (normally a quick way to let everyone know when someone’s running late or is ill), but more often than not it is the home of our group banter — sports talk, photos of days out in London, or pictures from concerts in Bucharest. This informal, easy, and inclusive chat stream allows us to keep in touch with each other even when we can’t be colocated. We can have those fun catch-ups over what people are doing when they’re not being Agile!
3. Invest in tooling.
One of the tenets of the Agile Manifesto
is valuing "people and interactions over process and tools." The key point here is that we value the items on the left over
the items on the right, not at the expense of them. For distributed teams, this message is still the same; however, good tooling is vital to enable communication and collaboration and to empower the team.
Face-to-face communication with strong audio is an integral component for distributed teams. That means the team members all having access to the hardware and software they need to make this happen: decent headsets and webcams, mobile work phones, and access to programs such as Skype for Business.
For sprint planning, we use a Pointing Poker application, and for our retrospectives we find MURAL
a fantastic way to enable people to contribute in real time to a collaborative board, thus fostering conversation. There are numerous tools out there, and for a distributed team, experimentation and investment in the tools best for the group will enable you to encourage collaboration and discussion.
4. Develop your facilitation skills.
One of the key skills a ScrumMaster on any team needs is the ability to facilitate in all situations. This is a difficult skill to do well at the best of times; on a distributed team, it is much harder. You need to be aware of the personalities on your team, of the extroverts and the introverts, of who will be doing their thinking internally and be less likely to share, and who will be quick to verbally intervene with their ideas. It is a delicate art to bring out the valuable thoughts and ideas of quieter team members while not suppressing the more outgoing ones. You need to be fully engaged while facilitating so that you can recognize when to bring people into the discussion, when to move the topics forward, and when to resolve conflict.
Make sure that you brush up on these invaluable skills. As a ScrumMaster for a distributed team, you should be constantly reading and learning about ideas such as active listening, team dynamics, and adding games and techniques to your arsenal through knowledge sharing with other ScrumMasters.
5. Don’t forget to say thank you.
This is equally important for distributed and colocated teams: Make sure you say thank you!
Recognizing team successes, contributions, knowledge sharing, and the taking on of new challenges is important. Many companies have internal recognition systems such as e-cards or public forums, which are a great way to say thanks, especially on the distributed team. If you have the opportunity to occasionally colocate, then buying a round of drinks (beer or coffees!) is also a nice way to thank teams for having done a great job.
In our sprint retrospectives, we regularly include a slot for "Appreciations," in which everyone is free to add a sticky note on our board to show appreciation for someone, for any reason, during a sprint. This has been a great way for us to show our gratitude to one another and to stress the importance of collaboration and teamwork within the Scrum team.
Achieving success in a distributed team is something that the whole Scrum team needs to work on. By using the ideas above and building your own best practices, you can ensure that your development team is as well equipped as possible to be prepared for and to overcome the common challenges facing distributed teams.