Tips for Improving Your Geographically Distributed Agile Team

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At the Agile Development/Better Software Conference West a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk titled At Least Five Tips for Improving Your Geographically Distributed Agile Team.

If you look at Scott Ambler’s 2011 survey, you can see that his data matches my consulting experience. The majority of the people on agile teams who responded to the survey have at least one person not collocated. This is by management design. Those on collocated teams indicated that more of their projects were successful, and those on far-located teams indicated the highest number of challenged projects.

We can say, “Don’t do this,” but that’s not helpful to the distributed and dispersed teams. I would rather be helpful.

For example, in my talk (not in the slideshare), I actually said, “Don’t do standups. Do handoffs.” If you are more than about four or five hours apart in timezones, standups make little sense. You are better off limiting work in progress with a kanban board than using straight Scrum.

Use iterations if you like. You might like the focus of the timebox. But consider using handoffs, not having standups. Change your questions to statements—if that works for you. Change your deliverables to fit your needs.

One tip that created a ton of discussion was about keeping people together over time. Some managers are trying to be “efficient” about using team members, optimizing at the lowest possible level. They move people off and on teams, willy-nilly. (Groan.)

I explained that agile is about finishing features, so the best bet is to optimize at the project level or the project portfolio level. It doesn’t matter if people aren’t fully utilized. People are best utilized when they ask, “How can I help move this feature across the board?” In a geographically distributed team, that is sometimes a difficult question to answer, especially if the testers are east of the developers.

Do you work on a geographically distributed team? What are some of your tips for project success?

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Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.