Use tools to keep the whole team engaged.

Use tools to keep the whole team engaged.

Distributed Agile planning is not any different from non-distributed in terms of its goal and process.  What should be different are the techniques and amount of facilitation.  Before we go further, I do not think there is any reason planning can’t be done amongst a distributed team. I do not believe there is any need to change the time parameters.  However, both of these statements are true only if the team stays engaged and the Scrum Master provides active facilitation.  The single biggest hurdle when a distributed team is involved in planning is keeping everyone engaged.

Visualization is a powerful tool to help foster engagement.  There are two types of visualization that are important.  The first and simplest is that all team members should be able to clearly see what is being discussed.  For example, I recently participated in an internal sprint planning meeting.  We used a screen sharing software that everyone on the team used.  As a story was discussed and planned, we brought it up on the screen so that everyone in the session could refer to the same set of words. Tasks, as they were identified, were typed directly into a shared document on the screen.  A second form of visualization relates to the team.  Use video on top of any screen sharing tools.  Seeing people as they discuss a point or talk about a story imparts significantly more information that just hearing them.  Think of how different the typical experience is when listening to radio compared to television.

IT personnel tend to be gadget and tool aficionados.  While a good tool for seeing the backlog or Kanban board is critical (emphasis on good, there are some re-purposed waterfall tools I would avoid like the plague . . . actually I might consider the plague first), the process needs to be simple enough that the set up time does not eclipse the planning time.  Tools like mind mapping software can be very useful to quickly capture and organize information. I personally use several including FreeMind (free and open source).  Another simple tool is Mountain Goat Software’s planning poker site at  I strongly suggest Scrum Masters (or coaches) walk through the tool suite they will use during planning before “going” live.  A simple check list of tools I use is:

  1. Screen Sharing Software: Tool examples include Webex or the like
  2. Video: Software examples include Skype Pro and OOvOO.
  3. Backlog/Kanban Boards: Examples include LeanKit, Kanbannery and Trello.
  4. Mind Mapping Tools: Examples include iTHoughts, FreeMind and Astah.
  5. Planning Poker Tool:
  6. Egg timer (or sometimes the timer on my phone)

The last item is capitalized because all bets are off if team members can’t hear each other.

Once the team has gotten over the hurdle of using the communication tools, the final problem is one of facilitation.  The Scrum Master needs to facilitate the process with special emphasis on making sure everyone participates and stays engaged.  They also need to pay attention to pace.  I use an egg timer to remind everyone of both the overall time box and the time box needed for planning each unit of work.

In distributed Agile, the planning process does not change.  However, keeping everyone engaged might be more difficult. The Scrum Master can make engagement more likely by making the process as easy as possible and making the process as personal as possible.  Planning is still a whole team sport, make sure that the whole team participates, no matter where they are.