Back when Agile was conceived as a software development approach, “teams” were either individual teams or a small cluster of teams that were colocated. The idea behind having teams work from the same office space was that the best method to convey information and communicate was via face-to-face conversation.
Strategies for overcoming challenges of a distributed team
In today’s world, many if not most Agile teams are distributed across the globe. The distribution of Agile teams is likely to be the norm and will continue because the skills and expertise are distributed globally. One of the benefits of having distributed teams is the ability to have work done around the clock. However, distributed teams also come with their own set of operational challenges — one of the biggest being that they cannot engage in face-to-face interactions.
The other challenges faced by distributed teams include:
- Overcoming cultural differences to achieve effective collaboration
- Overcoming geographical separation to build good rapport
- Managing working hours across time zones (especially meetings to be held with diverse time zones)
These challenges are faced by teams that exist today and will likely continue to exist in the near future. Most of these challenges can be overcome by meaningful strategies. The strategies among them include:
- Enabling teams for success
- Building self-sufficient teams
- Building rapport within the team
- Building a united team
Let’s look at these strategies in more detail to help distributed teams overcome geographical separation.
Enabling teams for success
Enabling Agile teams for success can begin with the right training. After training the team on the concepts of the Agile practice, you must support them as they make the change to Agile development.
You must also provide training to the top-level and mid-level managers and help them build the skills they need to better support self-sufficient and self-organizing Agile teams.
In general, the organization (including senior management and supporting teams such as HR and administration) should be well positioned to enable Agile teams to achieve their goals. Agile teams typically tend to use several tools to enable them to make frequent deliveries (the shippable product). Ensuring that the teams can use these tools will significantly reduce their cycle times and will also help to improve quality.
- Define clear goals for the measurement of success.
- Train team members to apply Agile practices and to use the appropriate tools.
Building self-sufficient teams
Some of the best software architecture is based on a modular design. Organizations should structure Agile teams with a similar approach. Every office where Agile teams operate should be set up as a self-sufficient working environment that aids the team. Having colocated, self-sufficient teams greatly reduces the amount of external communication. When communication need not cross geographies and multiple time zones, everyone’s time is better used and their productivity is enhanced.
Whenever multiple teams need to interact with each other and integrate the work they are doing, they can focus on communicating this up front and establishing the various approaches they will take for integration (for example, a stub-based approach versus progressively developed web services).
All teams should possess all the skills required to deliver an increment of the product at the end of every sprint. This may not be possible at all times, given the challenges that many organizations face in getting highly skilled technical team members to work in physical proximity to highly knowledgeable business folks. The long-term plans in such cases should be to build skill and knowledge within the development team to leverage the benefits of a colocated team. This may require frequent interactions between the technical and business organizations, exposure to end customers, trainings, and face-to-face knowledge-sharing sessions.
- All the skills and roles required by the teams are present at a single location.
- The team has the ability and authority to make decisions on its scope of work.
Building rapport within the team
Teams that work well together deliver great stuff together. Any team that has great rapport among its team members can deliver solid results. Rapport within the team comes from the interactions and trust built over time. The connection that team members develop among themselves helps minimize missed expectations, aids self-organization, and boosts morale. Team members should take time to know everyone on their team. They should also make an effort to know the people working in the remote offices. Team members will see those working in remote offices as colleagues only if the connection is strong. Otherwise, the remote workers are likely to be seen as barely familiar people working in “the other” office.
Above all, nothing replaces meeting face to face with the people you work with. Regular “face time” will benefit team members working in all offices. Leverage videoconferencing for this whenever possible. Such tools help bridge the gap between teams, especially for geographically distributed Agile teams. While using videoconference, consider these limitations:
- Technical challenges will crop up from time to time. These challenges will affect the quality of the outcome that is expected from the meeting itself. One-on-one conversations can be carried out using Lync/Office Communicator, Skype, or other approved tools that are easily available.
- This form of communication cannot replace the daily face-to-face conversations that team members have. It is a much shorter view of the other person and his/her work setup.
- Videoconferencing is an aid to make formal meetings more effective. However, it is also a great tool to use on a more frequent basis to increase informal interactions and thereby reduce a considerable amount of formal communication over email.
With the use of any form of visual communication, one must be cognizant of tone, voice, and posture, because these contribute a great deal toward the effectiveness of the communication. If team members can spend some time together in person, their future videoconferences will be even more effective. This can be achieved through short visits to the remote offices, with specific events planned to build the connection.
- Provide videoconferencing and whiteboard tools, such as Office Communicator, Lync, and HipChat, as collaboration tools.
- Schedule and coordinate in-person visits with important ceremonies, such as release planning, sprint planning, or demos.
Building a united team
For teams that move from a colocated office to a distributed setup, the communication overhead increases significantly. The team experiences a dip in the quality of the interaction with their colleagues in the remote offices. To address this problem, one of the first steps is to train the team on the upcoming changes. They also need to be trained to increase communication to be effective.
It is essential that important discussions and decisions are captured and communicated formally across the locations so that all team members are made aware. In addition, the team can follow these best practices to make it easier for distributed teams to work together as a united team:
- Establish familiarity among all team members.
- Practice frequent communication (even, at times, over-communication) to broadcast important decisions across all the teams.
- Use tools and technology to reduce dependency on people being at one location.
- Establish a common and clear Definition of Done (DoD) and Definition of Ready (DoR).
- Establish guidelines for regular work reporting, including progress and impediment reporting.
- Use effective modes of communication (town halls, posters, etc.) to share important decisions and discussions.
- Establish common ground rules for all teams (DoD, DoR, reporting cadence, etc.).
Optimize overlapping work hours
Any overlapping hours among distributed teams are some of the most important and fruitful hours of the day. For example, they are the best times for stand-ups.
For teams sharing work across various locations and time zones, the stand-up is an excellent opportunity to share updates and also pass the virtual baton. This enables the incoming team to take up the work and continue where the earlier team has left off. The use of video during the stand-ups makes the process of passing the baton even easier, allowing for questions and explanations.
It is possible that teams are located in such distant parts of the globe that their working hours do not overlap, or barely overlap. In such a situation, do not force only one of the teams to work early or late. It would be better to share the burden and rotate the meeting time to make it convenient for each of the teams, one at a time. This will help with maintaining morale and ensuring that there is no undue strain on one of the teams. Stakeholders should monitor the effectiveness of the stand-ups. If there is strain or one of the teams does not benefit from the stand-ups, then engagement is likely to go down.
For distributed teams, evaluate the need to meet daily. It could be fine to meet as a large team just a few times a week, while continuing stand-ups locally.
All teams are distributed
In an organization that is itself distributed, every team also ends up distributed at some time or another. In such cases, the teams must be able to operate at a rhythm that allows them to pass along work smoothly and efficiently.
It is important to keep in mind that certain types of team setups should be avoided. Some examples of these:
- Developers work in one location and QA works in another.
- The ScrumMaster is remotely located.
- The ScrumMaster or product owner work across more than a couple of teams.
The effectiveness and richness of the various communication tools used by teams is well illustrated by Alistair Cockburn in his article “Communication on Agile Software Teams
.“ Occasionally team members need to work from home to manage their personal matters while attending to work. Also, some team members need to travel for business, and they continue to work from the remote locations they travel to. Teams that are able to adapt to such modes of work do so by accepting flexibility and a higher level of collaboration.
To improve how distributed teams work, the culture and practices of the head office should not be set as the norm. Every team has something that the others can learn from. Teams that speak in the language of “us“ and “we“ rather than “us versus them“ are much more successful.