(Image source: “Patton’s Third Army,” by Christopher J. Anderson.)
As of this week, many development teams will be having their first experience with remote Agile. Even teams experienced with occasional work-from-home or geographically dispersed members may still find themselves in uncharted territory when forced into a 100 percent remote mode of operation.
Despite it being essential during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it’s ok to acknowledge that remote Agile is not ideal. Some may claim they have “cracked it,” but optimized remote Agile is still remote Agile. The Agile Manifesto is clear when it says that the “most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
Given that we may be operating in a suboptimal manner for an extended period, what are some things that can be done to make the best of it? Here are some thoughts:
Tech up: This is an area where most organizations are well equipped. Chat and instant messaging, voice, video conferencing, and virtual whiteboards are all commonplace today. However, organizations that have gone “analog” with physical Kanban boards with sticky notes or paper-based dashboards in the stand-up room will have to revert back to the digital equivalents. For those that don’t have an effective communication and collaboration platform in place, many cloud options exist and can be implemented quickly.
Overcommunicate: Communication is by far the most critical part of software projects, and it becomes significantly harder when it’s done remotely. Outdated or incompletely distributed information can introduce delays and reduce morale of team members who must redo their work because they missed an email or weren’t involved in an impromptu meeting where a key decision was made. Requesting information is also much slower than finding information that has been proactively distributed. Overcommunication is key in remote work, so develop communication guidelines to ensure that important information is shared efficiently and effectively.
Limit email: Email is not a good information repository or team communication platform. Collaboration systems like Confluence, channel-based systems like Slack or MS Teams, or even a simple wiki are all much more effective ways to distribute and store information.
Increase documentation, without reverting to Waterfall: Documentation becomes more important when teams are remote, but it can be easy to slip back towards something that looks more Waterfall than Agile. When teams are co-located and collaboration is unscripted, user stories can often be abbreviated to increase velocity. With remote teams, robust user stories with good test and acceptance criteria become more important. However, as little as possible but as much as necessary should always be a guiding principle.
Be flexible: Lifting and shifting existing processes and practices into a 100 percent distributed model may work for a short while, but problems will emerge over the long haul. Subjecting your processes and practices to “test and learn” with frequent retrospectives can be helpful. If something isn’t working remotely, don’t be afraid to ditch it. You can always readopt it when things get back to normal.
Ease up on the formality: The lack of face-to-face interactions can make meetings that follow a rigid structure a slog for all involved. Daily stand-ups often fall into this category. Shifting to remote meetings that are unnecessarily rigid can deprive team members of an opportunity to catch up and engage on a personal level, negatively affecting team engagement and morale. Finding a way to inject some fun into meetings is especially important when team members are feeling external stress, as most are right now. Allowing leeway for and even encouraging small talk is a good idea.
Look for social opportunities: Team dynamics often suffers in highly distributed teams. Trust is a critical element in teams that are performing, and yet trust can be hard to build remotely. Look for opportunities to build relationships with semi-scripted social interaction. These can be regular “one-on-one” meetings between team members, exercises like Lean Coffee and social practices like pair programming.
Anticipate more friction across organizational boundaries: Organizational boundaries such as those between IT and the business, or between various functions within IT, are a frequent source of friction and inefficiency. Anticipate this to be exacerbated as the organization shifts to working remotely.
The transition to remote will likely be easier for IT than for some business stakeholders. In most organizations, businesspeople work remotely with less frequency and are less comfortable with digital collaboration tools used by IT. They will also be dealing with fresh challenges in their day-to-day responsibilities related to remote working, which may shift their focus from project commitments.
Communication with other groups within IT may also suffer. Often, communication and escalation channels with IT operations, security, and infrastructure heavily rely on face-to-face interaction. This may degrade for a period as the organization develops and adapts to new forms of collaboration.
Increased friction at organizational boundaries will place additional pressure on scrum masters and managers whose focus is impediment removal, since the interpersonal tools that they have used historically may not be as effective remotely.
It won’t happen overnight: Adapting to remote work will change the culture of the organization. This can be negative or positive change, depending on how the change is rolled out and how it is supported by the organization. Cultural change takes time and is painful for many, but positive change can provide long-term benefits in making the organization more accountable, flexible, and resilient.
For more information, readers can attend Novarica’s COVID-19 Virtual Client Town Hall.