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How to make distributed Agile teams efficient and collaborative

Agile teams don't always exist under one roof, but they should still be aligned in responsibilities and goals. Here's the best way to approach global Agile team management.

International and flexible companies can end up with IT personnel distributed across the globe. Co-located teams have enough communication barriers, but organizations with globally distributed teams inevitably need to work through these challenges with someone in another location.

Distributed Agile teams can help global enterprises reach their deployment and cost-reduction goals. Distributed teams reduce the overhead costs for an organization, and let it build a bigger pool of talented people than if the organization eschewed remote job candidates. In essence, location independence makes an organization much more agile and productive.

However, these global teams must address some inherent collaboration challenges, such as differences in time zones, cultures and language barriers. For a distributed Agile team to succeed, each worker must make some extra effort. Project managers should strive to:

  • arm the team with the right tools for communication and collaboration;
  • understand personnel strengths and weaknesses;
  • encourage transparency;
  • hold regular meetings;
  • set clear expectations for stakeholders and team members;
  • adhere to engineering best practices and standards;
  • focus on achievable milestones; and
  • build awareness of different cultures.

Let's look at some of the best practices that can help distributed Agile teams address these specific challenges.

Cultural differences

Where team members might come from a mix of cultural backgrounds, it is imperative that everyone respect each other's differences. Managers should coordinate cultural awareness trainings on a regular basis. Also, remember the different holidays workers celebrate, which might require some extra coordination for team coverage.

Pre-sprint planning

Without clear expectations, teams run into many issues during the project lifecycle. Set expectations with stakeholders to measure the project success and establish clear expectations for team members to keep them focused.

Plan sprints and identify interdependencies as early as possible. You don't need massive Gantt charts, which illustrate Agile projects in a bar chart form, but you should plan product backlogs well in advance -- long before the sprint start date. Another good practice is to schedule frequent backlog grooming sessions often -- once a week should be fine.

In a backlog grooming session, the product owner reviews backlogged items with the team to prioritize and select a few sprints worth of user stories. This activity makes sprint planning sessions more efficient and effective.

Distributed daily Scrum meetings

Daily Scrum meetings help the team focus, facilitating collaboration among its members. Hold these meetings at a consistent time when the entire team is available. Compromise as best as possible for workers across different time zones.

A daily Scrum meeting typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes. This gathering is where the entire global team can discuss each individual's progress, plan for the day and identify potential blockers.

How Scrum removes legacy management hurdles

Enterprises with Agile or Scrum ambitions should not hang on to bloated phases and siloed groups in the SDLC. In this episode of the Test & Release podcast, Scrum expert Gunther Verheyen breaks down how Agile helps free IT from a rigid industrial approach. Verheyen also explains what skills a proficient Scrum Master should possess and why he finds Scrum to be a particularly valuable form of Agile.

Sprint reviews and retrospectives

Schedule sprint reviews to assess a project against the goals the team set during planning. Sprint retrospectives provide distributed Agile teams a way to effectively exchange information and ideas, assess progress in the iteration, and create plans to improve work. When the team meets its goals, celebrate milestones to boost morale.

Managers typically hold remote retrospective sessions with the help of video conferencing.

Minimize handoffs

Differences in time zones increase wait times. If a team member needs someone in another country -- or continent -- to resolve a blocking issue, that holdup wastes a lot of time; team members could even lose an entire day of work. Delays can disrupt the project's delivery timeline, which is why the team should reduce unneeded handoffs, even if you can't eliminate them entirely. Identify dependencies early and plan for them accordingly to help reduce these disruptions. Build better communication practices to ease knowledge sharing and minimize hand-offs.

It is also a good practice to co-locate the product owner with the development teams to facilitate collaboration and communication. If the product owner cannot work at that location, managers can empower and encourage local staff.

Hire motivated people

In a distributed Agile team, you should recruit team members who are motivated, especially if they will work remotely. While it's difficult to assess self-motivation, remote workers must work harder than a local team to communicate, stay focused and be productive, so it's an important criterion to evaluate. Co-located team members should also work to bridge the communication gap and engage their remote peers.

Distributed teams can also use online boards for brainstorming, collaboration and centralized communication.

Use collaboration tools

Communication is one of the foundational aspects of distributed Agile team management. SaaS tools can facilitate communication and collaboration to boost the team's productivity.

Use tools for conferencing, screen sharing and sending messages among team members. Plenty of options are available, so find the ones that suit your team size and requirements. If necessary, schedule training so everyone knows how to get the most out of those tools.

Know your people

Build rapport across the team. Put aside work on occasion and take time to get to know everyone individually. This effort builds trust and boosts morale considerably. Regular video conferences and occasional visits to remote offices also help build rapport based on personal connections. And constantly encourage open communication. It takes time to establish trust with a colleague who appears more often as an email address than as a familiar face. However, it's a worthwhile undertaking because Agile requires team transparency.

This was last published in June 2019

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