Distributed Agile Teams: Processes, Impact, and Benefits

Distributed Agile Teams: Processes, Impact, and Benefits

Being Agile in software development feels like a must nowadays, but beyond its trending nature, Agile, as a methodology, offers a sound structure and a powerful, albeit flexible foundation, to build great software products.

In a world where requirements are volatile and ideas change often, there is a need to build software in a flexible manner. Going against the grain of heavy documentation and corporate fixtures, Agile brings a certain level of balance to the word methodology. This article is about how Agile processes help remote software development teams and how being Agile can benefit distributed teams. But before going into in, let’s take a look at what Agile is all about.

Agile principles

The Agile Manifesto is the backbone of this methodology and if you’ve read it you probably noticed a few principles that point out discrepancies between being Agile and the characteristics of working remotely.

  • Principle 6
    “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

    The face-to-face part of the principle seems troubling for remote work, but the Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 when there were a lot fewer tools and opportunities of working remotely. The core of the principle is about:
    “…conveying information..face-to-face conversation.”

    How about a video call? Is that a face-to-face conversation? You are having a conversation and you are looking at that person with all the non-verbal signals s/he might be sending. You will still convey information verbally and nonverbally, the latter making a real difference.

    Also, Agile is a methodology that values people, how they work and interact.
  • Principle 4
    “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

    Working remotely does not hinder people from working together, just like being thousands of miles away does not hinder face to face meetings. You will have the tools to work together and create some overlap during the day.

    Agile is used in a lot of remote projects or teams. I work in a software company that uses remote team incubation or augmentation to build software products. We’re also an Agile company and this combination has worked very well for us. Overall, working remotely follows Agile principles. But at the same time, you have to understand that being Agile means not being a stickler for the rules, being flexible, adapting and doing things that work for you.

Remote team challenges

We covered Agile Principles, now let’s see some of the challenges faced by remote and distributed teams and how Agile can actually be a part of the solution to overcome these issues.

  • Timezone issues
  • Communication problems regarding code and requirements
  • Availability and response time for inquires
  • Lack of interaction and rapport
  • Cultural differences

If you ever read an article on working remotely, you probably know that the right tools can push through some of these blockages. Slack, Skype, Zoom, Trello, Email, Confluence, Google Docs, and plenty others. But there are more comprehensive ways of dealing with these issues, like Agile. Agile is a measure and a method you can adopt to lay the groundwork of your remote team.

With Agile you adapt to the situation, make changes and improve in each sprint. You learn the bugs, the revolving issues that come up and you fix them. This applies to project issues as well as to working remotely. Think of it like this:

The foundation of having the right team functionality is planning. When everybody is on the same page, even if they’re not in the same room, you’ll have a much smoother ride.

Sprint planning covers a lot of that. You also have to create solutions for various scenarios, like what happens when there are issues and someone involved there is not online/available. What’s the process and the procedure to getting it fixed as well as possible?

You talk about these things in sprint retrospective. During the overlap hours you have stand up, a perfect time to interact and discuss things. It blends in. Let’s go through the Agile process see how it impacts a distributed team.

Agile roles

A Scrum Agile team has two few typical roles, besides the development team.

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master both a technical and a soft skill roles. The Scrum Master manages the team and facilitates its meetings, making sure that Agile principles are followed and that there are no roadblocks in the team’s workflow. The Scrum Master is a leader and a facilitator not a manager in the traditional sense of the word.

Product owner

A  Product Owner is a position that represents the stakeholders. The product owner is the voice of the end user, it ensures that the team works on aspects that are needed and relevant to the project. S/he defines users stories and priorities them. While the Scrum master manages the team, the Product owner keeps in touch with the business aspects of the projects and acts as an intermediary between the stakeholders and the team.

These two roles, together with the core of the Agile Principles establish a setting that fosters growth, collaboration and constant improvement that is highly beneficial for remote workers or remote teams.

Agile stages

There are 3 stages to an Agile Scrum Workflow: sprint planning, sprint review and sprint retrospective. During the sprint there is also a daily meeting, scrum or stand up. They tackle a lot of the drawbacks and challenges that remote workers face.

Sprint planning

The planning stage lays the groundwork for the entire sprint and establishes the sprint goal. By working remotely you can get a handle of what you need to do in the next couple of weeks (depending on the sprint duration) and who you need to work with.

Sprint planning can be done remotely using tools like Jira. It should also be done through video calls where all members of the team take part. This type of meeting is highly beneficial for working remotely, offering several touch base and chat opportunities that might not come up naturally. The planning stage brings together all the people working on the project, no matter where they are.

Stand Up or Scrum

This is a recurrent meeting, happening daily, for up to 15 minutes.  During stand up you tell people what you did the day before, what do you plan to do today and if you have any roadblocks. This daily type of communication with the entire team offers opportunities to establish rapport and discuss important matters.

From a remote perspective regular meetings, with everybody involved, give a lot of perspectives and build connections as people working individually can easily get boxed in and lose focus of the team.

Sprint review

In this stage the sprint goal set during planning is assessed. The entire team takes part, including the Product owner and the Scrum master. The sprint review is focused on deliverables, on the product increments, on the software itself and the actual work that was done. For remote teams this is an important stage of analysis, discussion of problems, of solutions to those problems, estimations that might have been misleading or other issues that came up in the sprint. The review meeting is very informal, builds rapport, trust and increases the level of collaboration between team members.

Sprint retrospective

While the sprint review focuses on deliverables and software, the sprint retrospective focuses on reflection and improvement in the teams processes and collaboration,  on what went well and what went wrong. It covers the team dynamics, how can the workflow improve and what particular things should be changed. The review is all about the product and the retro is all about the processes. The lack of a physical presence can be compensated by these discussions that focus on process and continuous improvement.

Agile impact in a remote environment

Agile is a great way to work better remotely. It encompasses principles and ideas that can help overcome some of the challenges encountered in a remote working environment. Overall, Agile principles and processes offer a sound structure for the shortcomings of working remotely through effective communication, relatability, rapport and empathy, the cornerstones of effective remote work processes.

This post was submitted by Samuel Andras and does not constitute the views or opinions of Upwork.

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Distributed Agile Teams: Processes, Impact, and Benefits
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