Best Practices for Distributed Or Remote Teams in the Age of Agile Methodology


Our cave man instincts will always favor the subtle symbolic communication offered by face to face encounters.  This is the reason we have been able to survive thousands of years knowing in a matter of seconds if our reaction  should be “fight or flight”.  Co-located teams benefit from this dimension of clues of visual communication.

The business world is profit driven and as long as there is a cheaper way to do things the business will always favor this approach.  Just as automation is impacting the bottom line so too Distributed or Remote teams quite often satisfy this requirement and are the future transformation of the white collar workforce.  There are two secondary drivers that is also pushing the workforce in this direction and they are: Companies are becoming increasingly global and this distributed workforce must work together and the best skilled talent are not often living in the same zip code.

These three compelling reasons combined have forced many companies to look beyond the agile methodology which focuses of putting the best talent (development team) in the same room with the business (a Product Owner) and a white board to make things happen.  I know that Agile is a lot more than this.  This is really a dumb down version of what Agile is and we know that is it can work with remote or distributed teams but its just much harder as it relies heavily in communication oriented ceremonies.  That said I have played both the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles and I do love Scrum version of the Agile methodology.

No one can argue that co-location has been working since the dawn of the corporation but we are here now to seek the best practices in this changing geographically distributed landscape.  Email, Phone, facetime or some comparable IP oriented video app, instant messaging on the desktop and mobile devices have provided new channels and new opportunities to do work that was impossible in 1995.

The push of a button and my colleague can be reading my message in India before I can say to him on the phone, “did you get my message”.  better yet during a screen share, i was once told “I saw the message arrive in your inbox”, before I even knew he sent it.  This is the technology power we are talking about and although it will forever miss the final touch of face to face presence it cannot be underestimated how powerful it is.

How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them

– Steve Zaffron & Dave Logan, Three Laws of Performance

If we are still seeking the silver bullet of “Agile Methodology” in 2017 to solve co-located or even remote (working from home) team performance issues then maybe we are asking the wrong question.  Agile focuses strongly on communication via co-location.  We are just buying time now until the next instance of Agile that focuses on global business operations.  When that arrives then scrum which has about 65% market share of the agile practice may shift to a new instance of Agile in favor of the changing need for distributed and remote teams that must satisfy the new global enterprise. it might sound something like “Cloud Distributed Development” Agile Methodology.  Making software is a complex process and real time human communication will always be the optimum way to work but technology is changing the way we work every day.

High performance teams are teams that does what needs to get done, when it needs to be done, the best it can be done every time they do it. – Stephen choo quan

No matter the methodology of choice, the goal remains the same.  Make the best software, as fast as possible to solve the current business issues.  The process needs to deliver high business value, making new money, optimizing current saving or protecting its assets against the competition.  Here are my top best practices for High performance distributed or remote teams to deliver on such sentiments:

  1. Time must be organized for maximum interaction:each team member is driven by company policy as well as personal agenda that overlays the time zone differences that already exist for distributed teams.  it is important to go beyond the cultural diversity and get to the personal empathy.  it is this caring that bonds the team and makes it member want to work together for high performance.  A parent who can pick up their children from school will give of his or her heart in ways that companies cannot demand or buy, that has to be given freely.  This flexibility in schedule must be organized to overlap each team member’s time in the most effective and engaging way possible but the commitment will bring orders of performance in return.  Setting Agenda before meetings can save 7 mins per meeting, after meeting having action items and being clear about who will execute the task and by when can make meetings very productive and leave no room for misunderstanding.
  2. Early Engagement must focus on building personal bonds:  When projects get going there will be project friction and the lubricant needed is the personal trust between team members.  it does not matter if you are face to face or not, true bonding making is really only accomplished by some vulnerability with some common life situation.  It is up to the team leaders to help facilitate an open atmosphere that allows team members to talk and share.  Over time team members will begin to trust each other if they honor and appreciate each other.  If they care for and seek the best interest of their colleagues then this will not only unite the team but make it have stunning agility in turning bad moments into remarkable results.
  3. Heightened Communication: the same way a blind person gets heightened hearing to compensate for the lack of sight so too must the distributed team communicate using non-standard and flexible communication. Emails, instant messages and phone calls must all work together in a personal and professional manner to ensure the message is not only transmitted but more importantly received by the intended audience with enough reaction time.  Recipients need to become better at sensing intonation in voices and experts at vocal stress detection.  Equally important is that the language used must foster respect and warmth especially if members are going to share private contact info for the purpose of work. Daily communication must always be on the look out for unsaid items that can damage timeline deliverable and more importantly erode the relationships in the team.  No matter how smart or insightful people are, we are all prone to being hijacked by what is unsaid so leaders must master the conversational environment.
  4. Skills and Commitment are cornerstone for getting selected for a team so it is expected that each member will deliver.  Each location must be given valuable work, each member should be able to pick their work factoring in the client rapport, the skills needed to be successful and the time to deliver as they are making the full engaged commitment.  All locations must be treated as equals and have knowledgeable leadership to help guide members on any given location.  These leaders must know the standards of operation and coding standards to support any member of that location.  As the work is presented we must continue to discuss until people align to tasks. This occurs when members say “this future speaks for me” and they commit to it.  Each person must be able to commit and stick to see that commitment through. Leaders have a say, and give others a say, in how situations occur.  The language in the team needs to be COMMITTED to action.  If anyone is not able to contribute then shrinking the team is a better option than supporting an unreliable or wavering member. Leaders need to be T shaped with depth and breath of understanding.   These leaders are ideally co-located and directly facing the business clients but are good at translating this to technical specs. Developers need to be hyper focused experts at their craft IMHO who can take up these specs and bang them out quickly.

The the litmus test that all distributed teams should take is “what if I could pick my manager and my project, would I pick this one?”  if the answer is not yes then its time to go over the 4 points above and work toward a high performance team and then you can practice any methodology of software development you want and get astounding results.

I have been following Jason Fried is co-founder of Basecamp for some time as his company can be seen as a poster child for Software as a Service (SaaS).  His thinking really speak to the direction of organizations and the way that work will be distributed.  it also questions the way we should be thinking.

See Why Face-To-Face Meetings Are Overrated and another favorite Working From Home Boosts The Quality Of The Work

Who I am to be talking on leading distributed teams?  Stephen Choo Quan has been leading distributed for almost 20 years delivering software solutions. These teams have been mixed of employees and consultants across multiple locations and various time zones.

  • Lead a team of 8 nearshore developers in Barbados while co-located in USA 1998-2004
  • Lead a team of 4 offshore developers in India while co-located in USA 2005- 2010
  • Lead a team of 6 offshore and nearshore developers across 4 different time zones while co-located in USA 2011- 2017