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Collaboration without co-location

Agile Projects allow a project team (or “Scrum team”)  to complete development in short-cycle iterations.  Agile project management methodology emphasizes team work and collaboration. This is achieved by “co-location”: having all team members’ work areas in close physical proximity so that conversation and collaboration is encouraged.

In the ideal Agile world, our Scrum team would all be working out of a large room with a nice wall full of post-its outlining the Sprint, comfortable break-out areas for brainstorming  and plenty of coffee to keep us going as we solve knotty technical problems. In reality, our Scrum Master works out of her San Francisco home, our lead architect is in New York, our Product Owner is in Los Angeles  and some of our developers are in India. Should we give up on our quest of Agile Product Development?

Not really. But we may need to adjust our definition of collaboration to deal with global teams. I am a fan of the “Virtual Wall”. Use an internet enabled collaboration tool – preferably one that has a Wiki (See for example: Central Desktop). Put your stories up there for the team to see. Use task lists. Most collaboration tools have in-built messaging that email updates out to the team – an added plus.

Teleconferencing is your friend.  Have the daily stand-ups by phone. Use video conferencing occasionally, just so that the team members can see each other. Make sure that the team has access to collaborative sharing software like Go to Meeting (TM)  or Microsoft Live meeting  (TM).  A word of caution : Visual cues are noticeably absent when you are on the telephone, so make sure that your communication is as unambiguous as possible.  Choose a daily meeting time that works well for all timezones. If you just cannot find a time that does not require part of your team to stay up at night, consider switching the stand-up time for each Sprint so that one remote team does not end up working inconvenient hours through out the project.

Agile is all about working together. Make sure that your team members are introduced to each other right at the start – even if its only via the phone. Instant messaging is a great way to encourage conversations even across geographic and time zones.

There is really no substitute for face to face meetings. So , if your budget permits, consider getting the team together for planning meetings or Sprint reviews. Better yet, budget for three to four in-person meetings a year. The gains in productivity and team building will more than make up for the cost!

Remember , when working with global teams to plan for different international holiday schedules. December is a holiday-heavy month in the USA but in India it is usually November. Depending on the country in Europe, there are quite a few 3 day weekends that may impact Sprint velocity if you do not plan for these ahead of time. Use shared  calendars where team members can update their holiday schedules.

While the ideal is still a co-located team, with a little planning, forethought and plenty of co-operation, a distributed Agile team can still deliver. Don’t let geographic boundaries become blockers for your Agile teams!

What are your recommendations for working with distributed teams on Agile projects?

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