There are many challenges for distributed Agile, however one stands head and shoulders above them all – communication. At a recent speaking engagement, I asked the audience to write down three problems they were having related to distributed Agile. Communication was most commonly mentioned problem with approximately 60% of the responses. Finding solutions to the communication problems that plague distributed Agile teams is critical. Some that have been tried (and work to a greater or less extent) range from low tech (get up and walk across the building to talk to someone), moderate tech (video or telecommunications) to high tech (collaboration tools). The method is less important than the fact that each team member must understand the additional communication responsibilities that are required when working with remote team members.
There are several low-tech approaches that teams can use to stay connected and pass information amongst the team members. When team members are in the same neighborhood (different floors, different parts of a building or separate buildings on a campus), standing up and walking over in order to talk face-to-face is more effective than sending an email. However, team distribution makes some of the most effective low-tech Agile tools less effective. For example, card walls or paper Kanban boards don’t work well if everyone on the team can’t see them. Therefore, you will need to use other techniques. Once upon a time, video conferencing was just science fiction. Today almost every laptop has a video camera and tools like Skype make connecting computer-to-computer free. Video makes communication personal. It is easier to know someone if you can see them. Another benefit to using video is that it shows a person’s face, which increases the amount of data passed during a conversation AND more importantly it tends to keep participants off their cell phones and email. Widely distributed teams will face time-zone challenges that require hardcore scheduling. Standard meetings (e.g. stand-up, sprint planning, retrospectives and demos) need to be scheduled to ensure everyone can participate (I use Doodle, but paper and pencil can work too). Other low-tech communication tools that many organizations use include end-of-day calls or notes to synchronize activities among the team members in different time zones.
High-tech tools and high price tags usually go together, which keeps some organizations from using commercially available tools. One high-tech tool that is purely oriented to communications is tele-presence. Tele-presence is like sitting across the table from your colleagues. It is video conferencing on steroids, lots of lights, lots of cameras and lots of electricity (therefore pricey). I have used facilities of this type and frankly they are better than high-end video conferencing. Tele-presence is almost as good as being in person. Given the expense, I doubt a typical Agile team would ever have on-demand access to tele-presence, but if you get a chance, try it. Other high-tech tools typically combine collaboration tools and Agile project management features. Agile collaboration tools try to recreate the low tech tools (white boards, sticky notes and burn-down charts) so they be taken advantage of in a distributed Agile environment. I have used many Agile tools, examples include tools by Computer Associates, Rally and VersionOne, LeanKit Kanban and Kanbanery. All of these tools keep teams focused on the goal at hand though sharing information. Some commercial tools integrate video and teleconferencing along with wikis, task lists, scheduling, status tracking and reporting components. The problem is that none of these tools are as effective as an in-person team, but they are generally a lot better than the alternative of trying use repurposed waterfall tools or no tools at all. Tools that keep project information in one place make it easier for distributed groups work together.
Communication is best face-to-face with communications occurring not only through words, but also through facial expression and body language. Unfortunately, it isn’t always feasible. Distributed teams need to take steps to make communication as intimate as possible. The best distributed teams use combinations of tools rather than to fixate on one. [WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?] They use the tools that are the least complicated, and that best fit each communication scenario. For example, combine standard meeting times (rotate the times, so no one always has to deal with the time zone pain) with videoconferencing and tool-based card walls to share stories and tasks. Finally, talk to each other as much as possible and as much as makes sense.