Join Doug Rose for an in-depth discussion in this video How to work with a distributed team, part of Agile at Work: Getting Better with Agile Retrospectives.
- Even very agile organizations can't fight the allure of a distributed team. Less expensive overseas labor markets are an easy way to cut costs. Also, many organizations like the ability to reach out and hire global experts. Either way, there's a good chance that your agile team will have at least one offshore developer. Often, these developers are isolated and hamper the team's collaboration. The retrospective is a good event to point out these challenges. The team will need to adapt the process to make sure that everyone is communicating.
It can be a real problem for agile teams that depend on work from a developer in a different time zone. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of face-to-face communication. Even with modern tools, there's still something lost when you're not sitting with someone. Human beings are just wired to receive more useful information from nonverbal cues. Another challenge is coordination. The retrospective needs to happen at the same place and at the same time. That's a necessary part of getting a good discussion.
A person is not really participating when the facilitator is just reading email out loud several hours later. Because there are many teams that deal with this challenge, there are some well-known fixes that can help improve the team. If you're the facilitator for the team, then the first thing you should do is call out the distributed team as a challenge. It's not a value judgment; it's just a necessary question to help the team discuss any issues. Also, try to address the issue of team trust.
Many teams have trouble building relationships with remote developers. Sometimes they're just a disembodied voice coming through a telephone speaker. It's hard to have an honest conversation with someone you've never met. I once worked for an organization where the facilitator was running a retrospective for a team split across three locations. It was not easy for the facilitator, and they visibly struggled getting people to communicate. They worked with the team to improve the process. They created action items to help the team make changes.
A few they came up with seemed to help. One was try to get the team to work together in person at least once. It may not be possible if parts of your team are on different continents. You should really push forward if your developers are just a short plane ride away. When you do this, everyone on the team will have a picture in their head of what that person looks like. It will help the rest of the team establish that the voice is a real person and not just a name. If that's not possible, then the second thing you could try is to make sure that the team is always using video.
An audio participant is always outside the conversation. It's also very difficult for the team to connect with a voice coming out of a speaker. In most retrospectives, it's just a distraction. Every so often, you'll hear a voice come from a speaker box, like Charlie's Angels. If you're the facilitator and some of the participants are connected with audio, you may want to occasionally stop the retrospective and ask the person if they have any opinions. You'll have to be patient as they un-mute their phone and gather their thoughts. Some teams also put pictures of the people on the conference speaker.
It serves as both a reminder that someone's online, and it humanizes them a bit. It helps the team think of them as an equal participant. If you don't have a good picture, it's also helpful to put an object. Some teams use stuffed animals, or even a Koosh ball, to remind the team that someone's participating. If none of these suggestions work, then you may want to just try splitting the team into two retrospectives. This should be as close as the same time as possible. Maybe have an on-site and a remote retrospective.
Whichever team goes last should watch a short video summary of the action items from the other retrospective. Then they should record their own for the other team. There's no reason to record an entire retrospective, just a short video about what the team decided. Try to avoid sending email or memos that just summarize the meeting. It would be difficult to understand the conversation without any context. Try to keep in mind that these are just fixes to improve a difficult situation. There's a big difference between a distributed meeting and a retrospective.
Don't get too frustrated if you run into many challenges. It will take some tweaking before you get any real value from a distributed retrospective.
Watch and learn agile project management techniques to assess your project today, and get back on track for tomorrow. Find more courses on agile project management in the Agile at Work series on Doug's author page.
- Five phases of retrospectives
- Choosing an ideal meeting space
- Identifying issues and improvements
- Working with a distributed team
- Encouraging discussions
- Setting goals using SMART criteria
- Asking good questions
- Making team decisions
- Closing out an agile retrospective