Monthly Archives: May 2013

Practical improvements for distributed agile teams

Hi there,

recently I participated in a Planning meeting of a distributed team where one member of the team was connected over Skype (voice only) from India the rest of the team was collocated in Germany.

Once it came to the estimation with Planning Poker most of the collocated team put a 2 or 3 up while the single guy in India put a 8 on that story.
There was one short question about the “why” of 8 points but after waiting 5 seconds in silence one of the team members suggested “lets use the 2” and everyone in the room nodded. The one guy on the other remained silent.
What was the reason?

There might be several:

  • he couldn’t follow the conversations about the stories because the hardware used was not the best so he didn’t share the same insight all the others team members shared
  • as an “outsider” he didn’t want to speak up
  • the rest of the team already was used to not paying attention because understanding each other was very difficult

Distributed teams are quite common nowadays since it’s not so easy anymore to hire professionals in your area.

You’ll might experience one of the following challenges when working with distributed teams:

  • Lack of team spirit
  • Technical Communication issues
  • Cultural Communication issues
  • Time-Zone differences
  • Integration pain
  • Delays in Delivery of the remote team
Now the above might seem quite obvious. But the question is what can you do – starting right now – to help the teams with those challenges?

Lack of Team spirit

  • have the remote team members visit the rest of the team on a regular basis
  • schedule some out of work activities for the time the remote team members are visiting (beer garden, bowling, barbecue together, you name it)
  • take care in the different team meetings that everyone is heard, even if maybe the skype connection today is not the best
  • Use Video Conference instead of telephone / Audio only, seeing a face will help to ease conversations 

Technical Communication Issues

  • Until everyone is happy with the setup, have one member of the collocated team sit in a separate room and dial in just like the remote attendees to get good feedback
  • Get proper hardware that is able to support the room(s) that you are meeting in
    • built in laptop microphones work for one or two persons sitting directly in front of the device, for a full room you’ll need external microphones
    • Check this Overview about different microphones for a list of external speakers, while rooms that fit more than 4-5 people should take a mic from the “Room Speakerphones” category
    • If you heavily work with distributed teams your company might want to look into a long-term investment to boost collaboration world wide, Tandberg Video Conferencing Systems might help
  • Sit close together around the microphone
  • Have everyone face the microphone and speak loud and clear 

Cultural Communication Issues

  • Try to find out the differences between your cultures:
    • if possible in a retrospective by talking about it directly
    • in case that doesn’t work find someone you can truest to talk 1:1 openly about the issues and work out steps to improve
  • If you have difficulties exchanging the needs of the different cultures NVC could be of help – Non Violent Communication
  • Cultural Barriers to Effective Communication in depths analysis with suggestions about the problem

Time Zone differences

  • Plan meetings in the overlapping time that you have with the remote team members
  • If you don’t have overlapping times work out compromises which work for all locations
  • Consider having two standups one early during the day for collocated people and one together with the remote attendees – or the other way around – keep both of them short and preferably use video not just audio

Integration pain

  • do not just integrate only at the end of the iteration/sprint, have a CI or continuous delivery system that allows you to integrate daily or even several times per day
  • integration only at the end of your sprint leads to problems and bugs found after integration which will hinder you in your next sprint

Delays in Delivery

  • make sure that your remote team members don’t have colliding agendas, it is so much easier to work on that one local thing to help the well-known colleagues around you instead for that  remote team that you see once a year
  • one project for all team members or a fixed ratio (eg. 3 days project A and 2 days project B) of time if you have to have more than one projects
  • Have everyone speak up in the daily, especially about impediments or blockers to avoid a delay in delivery
  • Don’t check in Friday 17:00 when you have a demo Monday morning, especially not when you need some person in the remote location to help you fixing problems that might come up
I’d be happy to amend some of your own findings to the list, so please feel free to share them in a comment.