Work From Home? Three Ideas for Better Project Agility

Work From Home? Three Ideas for Better Project Agility

Samantha, an agile manager, had a big problem. Back before everyone had to work from home, they had pretty good results with their standard agile approach. However, now that this eight-person team worked from home, they had these problems:

  • The team didn't share the same work hours. That meant the team started to conduct multiple standups every day.
  • The team estimated the way they had before, but the estimates were off. The team had remaining work at the end of their two-week iteration.
  • They'd stopped their retrospective practices because it was just too hard to get everyone together, especially on Friday afternoons. (Their iterations ran Monday-Friday.)

Everyone was frustrated and no one felt as if they could do anything.

Samantha had some ideas. She sent out a text message on the team's text backchannel and asked, “Is it okay if I experiment with a few things next week?” Everyone said it was okay with them.

Samantha decided she wanted to experiment with seeing what prevented collaboration and retrospectives.

Idea 1: Limit the Team's WIP (Work in Progress)

The next Monday, Samantha asked the team to change just one thing: Only work on a maximum of three stories at a time. Don't start more work. Just those three stories. Why? Because then the team would have to collaborate to finish the work.

It didn't take long. Monday at noon, one of the developers, Tim, posted in the backchannel, “I have nothing to do. All three stories are already taken.”

Samantha asked, “Can you please work with the other two people on Story 1?” She tagged the other two people.

They all agreed that Tim could work with them.

Cindy, a tester, posted on Monday afternoon that she was available. Which story wanted her? The Story 2 people said they wanted her.

On Tuesday, one team member, Dave, posted that he could only work once he put the kids to bed. He'd tried to collaborate on any of the stories, but he was a single parent. He needed to be with his children during the day.

Samantha had suspected that might be the case. She also thought others might share the same problem. And, she knew that when team members focused, they were much more valuable to the team. She replied, “Fine with me. Can a couple of other people shift some of their work hours to collaborate with Dave?”

That's when the eight-person team broke into two four-person teams. They shared a Product Owner and a backlog, and Samantha as the manager. But, the team didn't even try to work as a larger team.

Idea 2: Agree to the Team's Hours of Overlap

Samantha asked each four-person team to create their hours of overlap chart (as in Hours of Overlap, the First Principle of Successful Distributed Teams.) First, she wanted to see each team's hours of overlap. Then, she could see if the two smaller teams ever had any time to work together.

The two smaller teams created their charts. The Daytime team worked from 8am to 6pm, with several hours of breaks for family and workout times. The Evening team shared a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then had the bulk of their work from 7:30pm to 11pm.

At first, the teams didn't want to show Samantha their charts. No team worked a full eight hours. Then, Samantha asked this question:

“If I don't think you're slacking off, will you share your overlap with me?”

Samantha knew that a team that was able to focus their work for five-six hours accomplished as much (or more) than a team that “worked” a ton of hours.

At first glance, they had zero hours of overlap. Then, Samantha asked the “Daytime” team if they could flex to share some of the Evening time for a retrospective.

Both teams challenged Samantha. Tim said, “If we work separately, why do we need to retrospect together?”

Good question. Samantha decided maybe she was inflicting help. She decided to wait and see what happened.

Idea 3: Give Teams Freedom to Work

Once the teams realized they could work independently, they each appointed an ambassador to discuss any cross-team confusion in real-time. The teams started to retrospect on their own. The Daytime team decided to measure cycle time instead of velocity to create more accurate estimates. The Evening team decided to visualize their value stream and make sure they didn't create bottlenecks.

Because both teams focused on collaboration, they no longer needed standups, even though that was part of their framework. Samantha thought that was interesting and a nice time savings.

Samantha split her time so she was available at different times for each team. She found that she enjoyed the freedom of managing her day like that.

In the first iteration, both teams finished their committed work. The Daytime team tended to pair and switch pairs every hour or two. The Evening team tended to mob to finish their work. And, both teams realized they could complete more work with better quality than they had anticipated.

Better Agility

Samantha reported her findings to her managers. The managers were a little worried. Were they getting “everything” they needed from the two smaller teams?

Samantha assured her managers that while the teams might work fewer total hours, the work was of much higher quality. (I'm planning to address exactly this question in the next Pragmatic Manager.)

If you're using an agile approach, how can you customize that approach to work for you—especially if you're no longer in the office together? (I wrote about this problem in Create Your Successful Agile Project.)

This is part of my Collection of My Rapidly Remote and Managing in Uncertainty Writing. Have questions? Let's chat.

Learn with Johanna

See Distributed Agile Success for all of my self-study classes with Mark Kilby based on our book, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver.

Take a look at Your Management Mentors for my self-study class with Esther Derby about Make the Most of Your One-on-Ones.

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Here are links you might find useful:

Till next time,


© 2020 Johanna Rothman

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