How to succeed at Agile through remote collaboration

Picture this — you’ve got an Agile team with employees at four different locations working on the same project. In the back of your mind, you know this goes against Agile principle #6 which says:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

You know there are numerous pitfalls of remote collaboration — namely over-documentation, distrust of the “other” team, repetition of work, and late-surfacing frustrations — to just name a few examples.

So how do you make it work?

At TELUS digital, we faced this challenge as part of the redesign of our business website. Notwithstanding the challenges of solving some pretty complex problems on the current site, our development, user experience and QA members were distributed across 4 cities and 3 time zones. Let me share some learnings on how we were able to overcome some of these challenges.

Get the WHOLE team together for Sprint Zero

We started our project with an in-person, full-team Sprint Zero. This is a critical time where the whole team needs to understand what and why they are doing this project, as well as understanding how to work together. We included the core team (product owner, scrum master, UX, development, quality) and business stakeholders to make sure we’re all on the same page to start. This up-front investment of time and resources is justified by the time we otherwise would have spent on things like:

  • Back-and-forth conversations on scope because we didn’t establish a clear focus;
  • Arguments on whether a story is complete because we didn’t clearly define “done-done”.

Doing Sprint Zero in person starts building an environment of trust — we talk things through, get concerns out on the table, and discuss how to tackle those concerns as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our team took 3 full days to establish key elements including:

  • Standups — what time works best for everyone considering various time zones? When should we do our planning, retrospectives and sprint demos?
  • Risks — make sure you discuss remote collaboration here! What tools make our lives as a remote team easier?
  • Reality check: of time, quality, budget/resources and scope, which are fixed and which are desired?

We made sure these elements were addressed before the teams dispersed. This allowed us to hit the ground running with our Sprint 1 the following week!

Use the best to achieve the best

As part of our team discussion about risks, we underestimated the importance of hiqh-quality remote communication.

For example, we used to start each standup by hooking a team member’s laptop up to a microphone and TV display which delayed us. Think of all that wasted time accumulating over months of work! High-quality remote communication is crucial because this is how we build trust with each other.

What we use

So how do you ensure high-quality remote communication? With the right tools, of course! Here’s a checklist to use as a starting point:

1.Use high-quality video/audio conferencing. Our team replaced the use of laptop with a permanent Chromebox installation in each remote office for quicker setup time and higher-quality communication for standups, retros, demos, design studios, and ad-hoc collaboration. Ensure that your conferencing setup provides at minimum:

  • High-definition wide-angle cameras so everyone’s faces are clear.
  • High-quality audio so we can hear each conversation and comment in the room.

2. Share using chat or online documents as opposed to email. For individual and group chat, we use Slack and Google Hangouts, and for sharing of artefacts, designs, and other documents we use Google Drive. This ensures that our work is highly visible to all team members.

3. Sketch collaboratively with a document camera. Our UX team uses an IPEVO USB document camera at each office for collaborative sketching sessions. This makes it easy to quickly share ideas.

4. Use an online Sprint planning tool, but keep a physical board. We use ScrumDo for sprint planning and keep physical boards in each office with the latest designs posted, as well as key artefacts such as vision, roadmap, and personas. This allows stakeholders in each location to easily observe our progress.

Focus on a small initial win

Things may seem slow at the start, particularly in a project where we are not intimately familiar with environment, current customer pain points, etc. We found it important to pick a small initial win to help build positive momentum and generate early shared success for the remote team. Even though our initial release was months away, we focussed on building a small working prototype to start. This also benefitted the team in terms of quickly understanding technical dependencies that we did not know about in our Sprint Zero planning. Nothing brings the team together like a shared achievement (related to the vision, of course!).

Never stop improving

It would be nice for the whole team to work face-to-face, but this is not always the case. By using great collaboration tools and starting with a small initial win, we were able to establish trust sooner. For issues that did come up, we took the time in retrospective to really hash these out and pick one to action in the next sprint. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to deliver a better experience to our business customers and encourage you to check out our website to see how we’re doing!


Originally published at labs.telus.com.