#6 Make sure the telecommunications tools work.

#6 Make sure the telecommunications tools work.

In Distributed Agile: Distributed Team Degree of Difficulty Matrix, I described the many flavors of distributed Agile teams and the complexity different configurations create. While all things being equal, distributed team are less effective than collocated teams. Never the less, distributed Agile with teams spread across countries, continents and companies have become a fact of life. There are techniques to help distributed Agile teams become more effective. In an environment using Scrum, the first formal activities for most team’s is sprint planning. There are numerous techniques that can help make distributed Agile more effective. These techniques include:

1.   Bring the team physically together. Co-location, whether for a single sprint or some periodic basis, will increase the team’s ability to understand each other and know how to work together more effectively.
2.   Develop a sprint planning checklist. The process of getting together and planning is a fairly predictable process. Capture the typical preparation and meeting tasks and make sure they happen. Items can include booking rooms, securing video or telecom facilities, publishing an agenda with breaks and more.
3.   Review the definition of done. Ensure that everyone understands the organization’s definition of done before the starting to plan. The definition of done will help the team know the tasks they need to complete during the sprint to meet the organization’s (or product owner’s) process standards.
4.   Focus on the stories. Don’t let distractions get in the way of planning. Before beginning the planning session, review the process that will be followed with the entire team. Make sure that planning the next sprint is the only topic on the agenda.
5.   Ensure that the stories have been properly groomed. The stories that the team will accept and plan need to be properly formed and have acceptance criteria. This generally means that the stories that are most apt to be accepted by team (and a few more) need to have been through a grooming session. Make this a prerequisite for the planning meeting.
6.   Make sure the telecommunications tools work and have a backup. Distributed planning means that all of the team will be using the phone or video conference. Make sure they are set up and tested. Also always have a backup plan in case your favorite collaboration tool fails because sooner or later it will. Planning is a whole team activity and when the whole team can’t participate planning, it will lose effectiveness.
7.   Everyone should understand the big picture. Have the product owner provide an overview of the goals of the project, and how the current sprint will support those goals. Repeating the big picture will provide the team with a common touch point to validate progress.
8.   Use physical tools for interaction. Physical tools, like flip charts and card walls, can be difficult when many locations are involved in sprint planning. However, when possible, use physical tools like flip charts and whiteboard and then use webcams (preferable) and cameras to share data. Have one location scribe one story and then switch locations for the next story.
9.   Try multiple facilitators. When a team is evenly distributed between two locations consider having another scrum master act as a second facilitator to ensure everyone stays on track. Similarly, have the Scrum master rotate between locations to facilitate the planning session. This can be very effective in helping each location feel connected.
10.Remember that sprint planning is a team meeting. Make sure everyone is involved.

Sprint planning, done well, helps a team understand what they have to do in order to consider a story complete, both from a functional and technical perspective. Distributed Agile teams will need to focus on making sure that everyone is involved and a part of the planning process. Remember to plan for planning, because when you are on the other end of a phone or videoconferencing the tools, process and logistics can make or break the meeting!

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