Airplanes span the distance between team members.

Airplanes span the distance between team members.

What is distributed Agile? The phrase “distributed Agile” is often used indiscriminately, therefore definitions can cover a wide range of situations and evoke a wide range of emotions. A precise definition encompasses three concepts. The first is a team, project or program that is using Agile techniques. The second is geographic distribution describing where team members are located. The location of team members in a distributed team can range from being spread across a single building to members sprinkled across continents. Finally, the third is organizational distribution, meaning that teams can be comprised of members from different companies.

One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto is that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”  This principle is often understood to say that Agile teams must be co-located. A more forward-thinking definition is that communication should be as intimate as humanly possible given the constraints of the environment. For example, a distributed team I worked with had coders in Turkey, testers in India, an architect in the UK and business analyst in the US. Just determining a possible meeting time based on the permutations of time zones required higher math. While co-location is optimal, it tends to problematic in today’s business environment for a myriad of reasons that even a CIO may not be able to influence. Every step an organization takes away from co-locating teams requires the adoption of different techniques to facilitate and improve communication. Communication is a core attribute of good teams.

While the location of team members defines if a team is distributed or not, organizational composition, whether or not it is combined with physical separation, adds significant complexity. We might say that an organizationally diverse and geographically distributed Agile team is DISTRIBUTED as opposed to just distributed. DISTRIBUTED teams are not rare, and in organizations that have mixed sourcing models, they are the norm. Teams that are comprised of multiple organizations have to take additional steps in order to develop a common set of goals, given each organization’s culture and principles. Geographically distributed and organizationally diverse teams will find storming, forming, norming and performing a more difficult process.

The case of Agile programs (groups of inter-related Agile projects) in which each team is co-located but in a different location than another team is a special case that fits the definition of distributed Agile. These types of programs share many of the same problems of culture and communication with distributed project teams.

It is not uncommon for IT teams to be spread over the globe so that organizations can pursue specialized skill sets and minimize labor rate cost. This reality means that if we are going to use Agile in these scenarios we will need to help teams by providing techniques and support for geographically- and culturally-distributed environments. The key to the definition of distributed Agile is that teams or team members are separated. If we were defining a metric for distributed Agile, the degree of separation would define the degree of distribution, while amount of organizational distribution within the team would define the degree of difficulty.