Communication in Distributed Teams
Face to Face is the best method of communication and that’s the method that Agile promotes. The benefits of Co-located teams are numerous- streamlines product development, promotes trust , accelerates communication among the team members, provides opportunities to collaborate, promotes reliability, fosters closer working relationship and the list of benefits can go on and on…..
Teams should co-locate as often as possible, because of the benefits of Osmotic communication. Osmotic communication was coined by Alistair Cockburn, one of the originators of Agile. “Osmotic communication means that information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information by osmosis. This is normally accomplished by seating them in the same room. Then, when one person asks a question, others in the room can either tune in or tune out, contributing to the discussion or continuing with their work”.
But in reality, not many of us have the luxury of working with our entire team in a single location. For most of the organizations I work with, the teams are all over the world. Many of these teams work with team members not only in different locations but sometimes in different continents.
So how do these Agile teams communicate and work with each other effectively?
Here are some simple ways to engage the entire team and not let any team members go in dark:
- Establish team core hours for facilitated discussions and working sessions. The team can establish a certain time of day when the entire team is available for group discussions: talk about the backlog, have design reviews or delayed discussions on any topic and dedicate that hour or two hours just for the team. The team members can be available on tools like Skype, or phone, and they can work on different things if the team doesn’t have any discussion items for the day. The idea is to have all team members available and ready to talk as if they are in the same room.
- Establish Team norms or working agreements. The team must decide on rules for working together and communicating with each other and these rules or working agreements should be followed by all team members and fair to all team members. So for example, don’t have meetings that require one group in a certain time-zone to always be the ones to get up early or stay late. Switch it around and make it fair. Include things like phone etiquette in your norms.
- Utilize the Scrum of Scrum technique. A technique to scale Scrum up for large groups, consisting of dividing the groups into Agile teams of 5-10. Each daily scrum within a sub-team ends by designating one member as “ambassador” to participate in a daily meeting with ambassadors from other teams, called the Scrum of Scrums. This same technique can be used when the team members are across continents and time zones and therefore cannot be available for Daily team ceremonies. Each holds their own daily Scrum and then participates in a Scrum of Scums later on.
- Involve the entire team for Ceremonies. As much as possible, always involve all locations for ceremonies, such as Sprint planning, review, retrospectives, and daily stand-ups. Daily stand-ups or handoffs between remote teams bridge communications and establish a framework for frequent synchronization and collaboration. If you have access to video conferencing, great! If not cheap portable cameras attached to a chair and a laptop make a great improvisation.
- Rotate members around – cross pollinate. Rotate team members between various locations, this might be expensive but leads to a cross trained and fungible team. Even sending one person from each location to work with other groups will help build stronger working relationships and create cultural understanding.
- Use On-line collaboration tools. In the absence of co-location, teams will have to rely heavily on automated tools for collaboration and to create a single repository that keeps the efforts of the teams in full view for all team members. The osmotic communication flow can be somewhat replicated for the distributed team using the virtual tools such as IM, Skype, Webex, and other on-line collaborative tools.
At a team-level, use automated tools like Jira, Planbox, LeanKit, other shareware or low-cost options to maintain synchronization and visibility into work. At the cross-team or program level, tools like Version One, Rally, other enterprise-level options can be used.
- Use a common document repository (ex. Sharepoint, Knowledgelink) for sharing information.
- Develop a shared team vocabulary and a team website
- Hold in person team meetings at regular cadence. Team members should meet others in person at regular intervals. While sometimes costly, this investment is worthwhile. People are the most important part of the team, they work really well together when they know and understand the person they work with just not a name. So setting up a regular cadence of team members meeting face to face helps improve the distributed team dynamics.
- Establish Clear Sprint goals and expectations. The team members should have clarity on the work they have to complete to meet the team’s objectives. Daily Scrums can be used by the team members to be mutually accountable and to set clear expectations for each other.
- Over communicate – When the team members are distributed sending in a quick summary of the discussions makes sure that everyone is on the same page.
- Be knowledgeable and respectful of the different cultures making up your distributed teams, such as holidays and working hours.
Lastly: Be patient.
If the team members are in different time zones being respectful and cognizant of the time difference is extremely helpful. Unless a decision needs to be made immediately, the team members should be given time to respond because they might be working on a different schedule or in a different time zone.