HomeTECHNOLOGYAgile Methods At The Service Of A Dispersed Team

Agile Methods At The Service Of A Dispersed Team

A New Organizational Model For Dispersed Teams

During my preparation, I frequently send off the accompanying discussion: “In which circumstances do you suppose deft techniques are unseemly? Also, there is no lack of thoughts regarding expertise. They, sadly, make such a large number of individuals pass up the advantages in question. One of the ones that surface frequently is: “Deft techniques are not appropriate for groups that don’t have a similar work area.”

The way principally makes this conviction sense that readiness supports the collocation of colleagues because the last option will perform better than without this collocation. Also, ability empowers having colleagues devoted to the venture. In any case, is it advisable for us to quit any pretense of working in deft mode if these circumstances are neglected? Not.

Especially since, for many teams, sharing the same workspace is not necessarily synonymous with good communication, coordination, cohesion, or good alignment concerning the direction to be taken. Therefore, performance and motivation do not require team members’ co-location. I explain what agile methods can bring to a dispersed team in this article. Telework, offshore, nearshore, and multi-site is a reality for many companies.


Small warning… In this article, I will mainly discuss Scrum (agile methodological framework described more in the article “Scrum starter guide “) primarily used in project mode. Suppose you work in a team rather than in a project context. In that case, I still encourage you to continue reading because most (or even all, depending on the context) of the elements covered can be transposed into many contexts.

As if you work in a non-IT project context (although agile methods come from the software development sector), none of the elements covered are specific to software development projects, apart from a few rare terms that I want to keep so that no one feels lost in the event of deepening the subject via other resources.

Technology At Our Service

We now have some fantastic tools to communicate effectively over distance. Many have even become free. Webcam, finally, quality microphones, synchronous or asynchronous “chat” tools, video equipment in meeting rooms, USB octopuses, web video conferencing tools (with nothing to install and some of which even offer a shared virtual whiteboard), etc. 

So many tools can significantly increase the “bandwidth” of direct communication between the members of a dispersed team (rather than indirect contact by email, for example, whose efficiency is mediocre). Not to mention the good old telephone, which we tend to forget.

The Limitation Of Roles

A diversity of roles in an organization can seriously complicate things, especially when everyone (or a good part of the team) shares a different workspace. How to achieve smooth coordination, decision-making, and flow of information under these conditions? Not to mention that having too many roles, we can only know who does what if we rely on a RACI or other documentation.

Intuitively, we adopt a complex organization when faced with complex projects. What if simplicity was, on the contrary, our best asset in the face of complexity? Scrum only needs three roles to “run the shop”:

  1. The Product Owner represents the users and the sponsors/sponsors of the project. It decides what we do (the “what”) and the order in which we do it.
  2. The development team (synonymous with “implementation team” to use a term that sounds less like “software development project”). It is responsible for carrying out what must be and accountable for how it will be carried out technically (the “how”).
  3. The Scrum Master is the guarantor of the respect of the methodological framework adopted (thus of its good understanding and good application by the actors) in the posture of “coach.”

And they all belong to the same project team (or Scrum team). So there is no separation between “project management” and “project management,” which is often the subject of tension. I am not saying there are never any tensions in agile mode; agile methods are not magic wands. However, they reduce the risk of conflict and many other threats.

A framework Conducive To Self-Organization And Team Commitment Despite Teleworking

It is sometimes difficult for a manager to grant his team members teleworking. Even if it becomes difficult to resist and it’s good for well-being at work. How can he verify that the person is working, putting in his hours, and getting involved without being able to see him physically? If we exclude all the “policing” tricks (generally easy to divert elsewhere), such as checking the time of sending emails, the status of the person on the chat software, connection logs, company tools or VPN, etc. In other words, how can he ensure that his collaborators are engaged? Agile management is based on trust. 

Not blind faith, but confidence, which is accompanied by establishing a specific work framework, within which the team can self-organize in the face of a given objective, and self-control (thanks to including an explicit and shared definition of “completed”). Without such a framework, one is exposed to anarchy (in the pejorative sense of the term). And in terms of purpose, a truly agile team always has a short-term goal (less than a month) while still having a target vision of what needs to be achieved in the longer term. 

Having short and long-term objectives is essential for any team, and this is even more true for dispersed teams that are more exposed to the risk of “losing the thread.” And icing on the cake: we put more energy into work when we can organize ourselves freely to achieve our goals. Agile teams go so far as to estimate the workload associated with the tasks entrusted to them.

Centralization And Visualization Of The Work To Be Done In An Excellent Alignment

The less the teams share the exact geographical location, the more essential it is to centralize the list of tasks it must accomplish in the short and long term to align everyone in the same direction.  Without creating a bottleneck at the level of a person who would be responsible for estimating, prioritizing, assigning these tasks, and coordinating as well as controlling the progress of the actors as is generally supposed to do a- e “chief.” 

This is already a significant obstacle when everyone is on the same site, so it is all the more so if the team is dispersed, not to mention the pressure on the shoulders of this manager, who can quickly find himself overloaded and overheated. Agile teams centralize everything to be done in a single artifact called Product Backlog, making it as clear, accessible, and transparent as possible for each actor. 

This Product Backlog also dictates the order in which things should be done. It’s like the rudder of the ship, it gives the direction to be taken throughout the voyage, and it is, therefore, under the Product Owner’s responsibility. But remember, the Product Owner only has authority over the “what” and the order in which to do things. Not on how nor on the amount of work to be done in the given time; that is the development team’s responsibility.

At regular and short time intervals (maximum four weeks) called iterations or sprints, the development team selects a subset of Product Backlog items (the highest priority, those that will bring the most value to the product or service) that she – and she alone – feels capable of achieving within the allotted time and serving a specific objective proposed by the Product Owner. 

Again, we will seek to make the tasks carried out during the iteration/sprint as visible, accessible, and transparent as possible. Remotely, there are simple and free electronic visual management tools to achieve this, like Trello.  Thus, daily, the team organizes itself to achieve the set objective. Without contention at the level of a possible geographically isolated conductor. But how to self-organize daily if the unit is dispersed? Now is the time to address agile events.

Agile Anti-Meeting Events

First, you should know that agile events respect the basic anti-meeting principles. Especially since these may seem numerous (4 recurring events, to be precise) and frequent.  Here are the famous principles applied: 

  1. Each agile event is associated with keeping the “focus.”
  2. Each is limited in time (timeboxing) to avoid procrastinating. In other words, it cannot exceed a determined duration proportional to the course of the iterations (except the daily meeting discussed below, the maximum period of which is 15 minutes regardless of the course of the iterations). This also means that if the objective of the meeting is reached before the end of the maximum period (timebox), it can end. And if everything has yet to be processed as planned before the end of the scheduled course, it ends at the end of the allotted time (too bad, we’ll do better next time). Reasonably practical when meeting rooms must be reserved in advance and to stay focused when you are at a distance from each other.
  3. Each meeting is action-oriented. I no longer count the number of non-agile sessions in which I have been able to participate and during which no decision was really taken or often taken without much conviction. Agility offers adaptation processes such that the right to error is allowed. If the decision taken at the meeting does not turn out to be the right one, we can adapt. In this way, we do not remain immobility and increase our chances of finding the best path. That said, I digress from the theme of this article and get too close to that of the next one, which should be: “How agile methods strengthen the adaptability of a team.”

Daily Synchronization In Less Than 15 Minutes

Agile methods are often known for daily meetings, called daily Scrum or standup meetings. They are also known for the post-its on the walls. Of course, agile methods are more comprehensive than these two practices. Specifically, what is this meeting for? How can it be helpful to a dispersed team? And how to practice with such a team? This meeting allows the development team to take stock of its progress, help each other if some members need help moving forward, and synchronize and distribute the work between now and the next. 

All in 15 minutes maximum by respecting precise rules such as giving up on investigating the problems in session; otherwise, it takes forever. Issues are discussed after the meeting and only with the people concerned so as not to waste others’ time unnecessarily. Imagine the bond this simple meeting can create between the members of a dispersed team. It affects his communication, his coordination, and his performance. 

But also on his motivation thanks to this bond of belonging and this collective objective to be achieved in the short term. Now we come to the question: “How to animate a daily scrum with a multi-site team?”. I will answer with a personal anecdote about living at Swiss Life with “my” (this is an emotional term and not a possessive one in my words) own teams spread over two geographical sites (Levallois – Roubaix, to be precise).

 When the department for which I took responsibility was created, we only had one team and very few means of communication. Our first “scrambles” (daily meetings) took place over months with computers equipped with a webcam and telephones in loudspeaker mode (the computers’ microphones were of deplorable quality). Each person from each site had to come and speak in turn on the handset.

 Does that sound pathetic and archaic to you? In a way, you wouldn’t be wrong. On the other hand, it forced everyone to listen to the others and wait their turn to speak, so it wasn’t so bad at first. A few months or years later (I’m not sure anymore), we obtained a budget to equip a meeting room at each geographical site with a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system—a natural virtual “bridge” between the two locations.

What if team members share a different time zone? Okay, it gets complicated. In this case, we will position this meeting on a time slot common to the different zones, even if it closes the day for some and launches it for others (or appears during the day). It could be better, but the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks.

The Other Three Agile Events

The other events – like the daily Scrum – will help to improve team and work dynamics. One will be used to determine (between the Product Owner and the development team) the work to be done over the time interval (iteration) to come.  Another will make it possible to obtain returns (or feedback) on the work carried out from the main interested parties (customers/key users or representatives of the latter, sponsors or sponsors, etc.) to verify that the team is on the right track or must, on the contrary, adapt its trajectory.

 This is another “self-control” element of the framework (in addition to the definition of “done” mentioned above), which avoids the need for a leader who controls the progress and the work of each. The team deals directly with feedback from key stakeholders. Finally, the “retrospective” is a meeting whose purpose is to draw lessons from experience acquired over the past interval. To collectively deduce an improvement action plan applicable from the next break. The members of the team itself most often implement these actions. 

Again, it is an opportunity to maintain a close bond and a good team spirit between these members despite the distance, beyond improving performance per se. The retrospective alone constitutes a valuable virtuous circle for any genuinely agile team. And as I have already mentioned, technology allows us to ensure these remote meetings with little difficulty, even if the first ones lack fluidity. It’s okay, perfection isn’t required, and retrospectives will help you improve regularly.

Once you have set the duration of the iterations, schedule these events regularly, always at the same time and on the same day of the week. And the same place if some members share the same site. This tip makes planning easier (including booking meeting rooms if necessary) and forms new habits. As its name suggests, the daily meeting takes place every day, so it is a question of planning it systematically at the same time and at the same home for each geographical site.

Beware Of “All Distance.”

A little warning, though. However, let’s consider the importance of planning face-to-face meetings between team members. Especially at the beginning if no one knows each other.  Let’s take the example of an agile offshore project that starts with a difference in time zone and culture (to take an extreme case). The ideal is to carry out at least a first iteration on the same site before separating. 

It will allow everyone to get to know each other, share informal moments, or even outright “outside work” (ideal for understanding the other’s culture). This represents a cost (accommodation, travel), but what will be the additional cost caused if we do not manage to make the team members work effectively together? How many succeed out of 10 complex offshore projects carried out traditionally and without such investment? Are you not in this extreme case? So much better, but the warning remains valid; it’s just that the investment in physical meetings will be less expensive.

Conclusion And Action

To Sum Up

Let’s now summarize what agile methods can bring to a dispersed team. Agility (and Scrum, in particular) provides both a framework and a managerial posture and gives a rhythm to maintain a good group dynamic despite geographical separation.  The framework consists of specific events, artifacts, and roles (limited to the minimum), such as the daily meeting of fewer than 15 minutes and the Product Backlog. 

And it is this framework that promotes the team’s self-organization and the managerial confidence essential to remote work. The rhythm is given by short intervals (less than a month) associated with clear collective objectives to maintain an excellent dynamic and good alignment for everyone despite the distance. 

Of course, technology allows us to increase the communication bandwidth between team members (chat, video equipment, telephone, electronic visual management). I also hope this article has given you a good overview of the rigor that agile methods require. Just as remote teamwork requires. 

Time management during elegant events is one illustration of this. Still, it is not the only one to treat another received idea as consisting, in particular in saying that agility is a “hard method” without worrying about quality, documentation, permanent improvisation, which would push to “do and undo” constantly, and so on. I can assure you that everything is accurate.

What’s Left For You To Do

Are you new to agility and Scrum? Where to start to leverage them for your dispersed team? Let’s go step by step. And my advice: start by setting up your virtuous circle of continuous improvement through retrospect. Take the opportunity to look at the following article: “The art of the retrospective.” 

Once the retrospective is in place, rely on it to set up other bricks, techniques, and tools without seeking perfection. The retrospective will guide you and prevent you from standing still. Thanks to it, you will have a process of continuous improvement that gives you the right to make mistakes necessary for innovation in how you work as a team. What to feel more serene while obtaining gains quickly.

Read Also: Project Management: Definition, Operation, And Usefulness

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