Agile Communication in Distributed Teams (with no overlapping hours)

So as you know my speciality is distributed teams 🙂 This post is about what changes does the agile communication face (and scrum in particular), when it’s adjusted to the distributed teams. This is my experience, I don’t assume this is a silver bullet, but such approach works for me for the last 5 years and proved itself to be proficient.

Let’s divide communication by types:

  1. stragetic meetings (plannning, retrospective)
  2. daily huddles (e.g. daily standup in scrum)
  3. day-to-day clarifications.
2018-01-18 11.12.16
by Text I mean Instant Messaging

Let’s add another dimension: geographical distribution:

Collocated teams – everything’s perfectly fine for all three types of communication events. Teams, working in scrum, that are collocated face no issues with any of those.

Distributed teams with little difference in timezones, but still with overlapping hours. Great examples are US – Chile / Mexico. Netherlands / India.

  • Daily syncup can be handled with almost no pain, as well as planning and retrospective (if you incorporate scrum in your company).
  • Instantness of clarification on work tasks is lost (when overlapping hours end), however given that skype / hangouts / whatever you use is just a click away – no significant impediments are to be found.
  • No matter what you think about focused team, and that it processes everything faster due to unitedness, whenever team member is outside of her overlapping hours with the rest of the team – communication lag happens.

 

Distributed teams with no overlapping hours (8+ hours difference).

Approaches here are:

  • 3.1 Team liason. When someone from the team in one part of the world is having a meeting during his time off work, to sync up with other part of the team in different timezone. Usually, team liason is someone from product team, however there are different examples of who syncs up with dev team in the industry. It can be simply a representative from one part of the team that syncs up on the progress with the other part (just like in scrum of scrums)

 

  • 3.2 Timezone Compromise approach. Teams change their work schedule, to have a compromise in at least 1 overlapping hour, in order to sync properly. For example, start of working day for one part of the team in western hemisphere moved from 10am to 9am, and eastern hemisphere team changes their working day to start from 10am to 9am. Thus, you got at least 1-2 hours overlapping. Whoa, problem solved -> we can get back to bullet 2, on how teams with overlapping hours work together! But remember, everything depends on team configuration, whether the team is comfy with selected approach, and development tasks specifics.

 

  • 3.3 And finally, you can set up communication process in a way it’s comfortable for everyone in the distributed team. My personal beliefs is that redundant communication is always less efficient than on-demand-clear-bulleted-discussion, thus I’d prefer clear agenda and clarification when needed.

— 3.3.1 First of all, that means that people still are participating in retrospectives and planning sessions, cause those events happen once per 2-3 weeks (thus distraction or working off-time is tolerable). However, those meetings / scrum rituals are to be performed with clear goals, and well-prepared bullets. Try to not allow offtop conversations (when someone gets into topic not relevant to current discussion). Remember, team values personal time, and no team member should suffer from poorly planned meetings.

— 3.3.2 Second, it means that daily sync (or daily standup, if you follow scrum) can be done via text, at the end of team’s working day. In order to reach more visibility, developer can share a link to the branch, that he worked on. But main goal is to have an exceprt of what team member has done during the day, that is visible for everyone (e.g. special channel on updates in telegram). Some people also propose asynchronous video messages (Dave Snowden of cognitive edge shared this experience of his with me, referring to the times he worked at IBM) – you record video message for the team, and even share the screen, if you want some visual material on your work.

— 3.3.3 Third, clarificational communication (meaning day-to-day clarification communication type) is done on demand. Meeting for such batch of clarifications is done in a compromise time, so that noone’s felt left out). The good part of that is since you don’t have to get explanations on critical and extremely complex clarifications every day – you don’t need to torture your colleagues with evening / early morning calls each day. Usually, most of the impediments are resolved via instant messaging. Please keep in mind, that requirements standardisation is a key role in these clarifications, as properly structured requirements save a lot of time while developing a feature.

— 3.3.4 And fourth, but equally important, more standards and documenting. The more info necessary you prepare for your colleagues overseas, for the questions that may rise during your off-time, the less he will be stuck. Please use common sense in how much you need to prepare. When team gets to know each other, such planning becomes much easier. And finally, efficient process always means that person doesn’t get stuck 🙂

Finally, we’re getting to my favourite ever part!

Distributed teams with no overlapping hours + language barrier! I’ve been working with those for the last three year, and here are the additional steps to make it all work efficiently.

The three common baseline rules to follow are:

  1. Prepare meeting agenda prior to the meeting. I’m talking about writing down basic points, explanations, and maybe even branching when presenting solutions (depending on meeting complexity). It’s obvious, that people not fluent in english can’t properly communicate during the meeting – everything starts to require much more time, which isn’t efficient (and quite heavy, when it comes to hourly payrates 😉
  2. More documenting. You may say that Agile says “working software over comprehensive documentation”, however when dealing with distributed teams + no overlapping hours + language barrier, I can’t stress enough how much documentation means. There are key principles better to be described, as the team grows: communication standards (what type of communication is done via which tool, working time, speed of response), requirements acceptance, visual standards for documentation. All three principles affect how developer understands the task he’s supposed to work on. Requirements should have only one way of interpreting, should include clear pre-and-post-conditions; bugs are to be described in reproducible steps.
  3. And finally, it’s essential to have a bi-lingual person (team liason), who helps with english (he comes up with translation of complex bits, moderates the discussion). This person is better to be a developer or someone who gets the technical part well, as she often helps with syncing two development parts of the team. She may also add meeting notes on technical details agreed once meeting is over. That person most likely will sacrifice some of her time off, since hours don’t overlap.

At the end of the day, there are plenty examples across my experience, and blogs, how people manage to work with just on demand meetings, and create complex projects together. Those are git, atlassian and, among others – SkuVault.

Let me add an additional rule to common sense manifesto – process over redundancy. Greatly established process, understandable and rational for all parts of the team, makes it easy to track progress through transparency, keep team motivation high (for being productive) and time off undistracted.

References:

  1. http://www.disciplinedagiledelivery.com
  2. http://snowdolphin.com/blog/2009/2/16/adventures-in-distributed-agile.html
  3. http://agilemodeling.com/essays/communication.htm
  4. https://www.atlassian.com/blog/confluence/4-simple-collaboration-strategies-distributed-teams
  5. https://www.atlassian.com/team-playbook
  6. https://www.atlassian.com/company/events/summit-europe/watch-sessions/2017/scale-extend/a-brave-journey-in-merge-waters-how-paysafe-consolidated-their-atlassian-tools
  7. https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/hh771057.aspx
  8. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cde9/6fed7d2e2591bc8f697814ab1f33e3a84160.pdf
  9. https://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2013/july/managing-distributed-teams
  10. medium.com/@MentorMate/what-i-learned-managing-a-remote-agile-software-team-fd2db22e22b1
  11. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263398659MoonlightingScrumAnAgileMethodforDistributedTeamswithPart-TimeDevelopersWorkingduringNon-Overlapping_Hours
  12. https://www.agileconnection.com/article/five-agile-challenges-distributed-teams
  13. https://www.agilealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Distributed-Agile-in-the-Enterprise-and-Virtual-Spaces-2012-08-16.pdf
  14. http://www.research.ibm.com/pdfs/scrum/Chapter6Pearson20090706.pdf
  15. https://www.thoughtworks.com/mingle/scaled-agile/2016/06/13/visualizing-time-zones.html
  16. http://reqtest.com/general/working-efficiently-with-distributed-teams/
  17. http://www.methodsandtools.com/archive/archive.php?id=109
  18. https://books.google.ru/books?id=jBsVrWbIhYUC&pg=PA112&lpg=PA112&dq=distributed+teams+agile+communication+no+overlapping+hours&source=bl&ots=0kdQw5RQo9&sig=SMVuHCrX0oH4dWq1KDn2lQ8-1fk&hl=ru&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwis5tDGvOHXAhXGQZoKHWzRCqE4ChDoAQhMMAU#v=onepage&q=distributed%20teams%20agile%20communication%20no%20overlapping%20hours&f=false

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