What Would a Successful Agile All-Remote Team Look Like?

In their  comments to my post, Agile and Remote People: Part 1, Telecommuting, Matt, Lisa, Pete, Abby all had great rebuttals. They successfully make their remote teams work. They have successfully built trust. They use a variety of communications tools that allow their team members to work together.

Good for them. (I mean it. I am not being sarcastic. I'll let you know when I am.)

Matt, in my conversation with him, and Lisa in her post, both mention open IRC chats. Some teams I've worked with have open Skype windows all the time. Matt says that people are supposed to answer their emails in 5 minutes–that's the expectation about responsiveness.

Maybe I'm just too old for this. Maybe I have a short attention span. Maybe I have ADHD. I can ignore a low-pitched buzz of activity around me, as in a team room. I can't ignore icons bouncing on my dock. I interrupt whatever I'm doing to service those interruptions. I would not be successful with the tools and operating agreements that Matt and Lisa discuss. (I didn't talk to Abby either. Sorry, ladies.)

On the other hand, I don't think I'm that unusual. I suspect a significant portion of the people in the field can't deal with visual interruptions, even though they can filter out sound interruptions.

Aside from technology allowing people to work together across the space-time contiuum, what would have to be true for the team? What would the team look like? Here's what I've seen (more on that later), and what Matt described:

  1. A high degree of trust among the team members. Matt doesn't even participate in iteration planning or estimation meetings.
  2. A high degree of flexibility in how to complete work.
  3. Agreement on what done means, for each task, user story, iteration, release.
  4. Commitment to each other about the work. (Yes, I know this is vague. I don't know how to be more specific yet.)
  5. I am sure there other characteristics of the team and I don't know what they are.

The reason it's important to think about what characteristics of a team could make true geographically dispersed agile possible, is because it's so difficult to do well. I worked with two teams. Their velocity was noticeably lower when they were remote, and remarkably higher when they worked together. Same people, same project, different outcomes when they worked together and when they worked apart. Looking back, they did not have strong enough commitments to each other when they were apart. They easily turned their attention to another task, when another team member had a request. Their most common complaint was “I can't finish anything when I'm not at work.”

Maybe their stories were too big (probably). Maybe their estimates were too far off. Maybe they didn't know how to work as several people swarming around a feature when they were remote. But I can tell you that their velocity was significantly lower when they were apart than when they were together.

So, for those of you who are considering an agile remote team, especially where everyone is remote, please think long and hard about whether you have the experience, the individual, and team capability to do this. I believe my commenters, when they said they made it work for them. And, I have hard data from clients (no, I can't share it, that would be a violation of my NDAs) that they can't make it work.

7 Replies to “What Would a Successful Agile All-Remote Team Look Like?”

  1. Yes, it may be possible to do agile projects with virtual teams. However, the same forces afflict these projects as they do on all virtual project teams. Productivity is significantly lower than it would be with co-located teams, probably easily 50 percent lower at a minimum. There is no free lunch, and you sacrifice a lot by going to a virtual project environment. However, the cost does not show up in “real” dollars as it would if you relocated everyone or had them commute to a co-located site.

  2. Being able to have a successful remote team is 100% about having the right people on board and having the correct systems in place to hold everyone accountable for what they say they will get done. To be fully distributed, self-management and self-motivation becomes that much more important. Not everyone has that. However, do you really want to work with anyone that needs to have a thumb on them to get their work done?

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful response, Johanna. Did I say email in five minutes? I don’t keep email open all day, but we expect an IRC hail response in about 90 seconds.

    And we do iteration planning and estimation continuously on a wiki. You’re right, that I’m not an active participant; I’m certainly an occasional paricipant.

    I’d write more, but I’m afraid I have a retro to get to …

  4. “Matt doesn’t even participate in iteration planning or estimation meetings.”

    This kind of stuck for me. I think it’d be more accurate to say that iteration planning and estimating /meetings/ don’t happen. It’s mostly done asynchronously via wikis. We do have ‘epic’ meetings, and I’ve been in a few of those.

  5. I work for a company with the dev team in one country and the marketing and sales team in another. Foreign devs are cheaper, but very good. Not being able to have the communication required between the devs and the product owner kills us.. any comments for this?

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