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Distributed Teams: Breaking Agile or Embracing Agile?

In the Age of the Internet, what is the value of distributed teams?

One of the first things you’ll find when researching Agile is that ideally teams will convey information face-to-face. It is one of the twelve foundational principles of Agile, in fact.

I am not here to debate the efficacy of this principle. In fact, I agree with it. But I also would argue that it is largely moot. The Agile Manifesto was created in 2001, and nearly 20 years later the online world has changed a great deal. 

Distributed teams are an increasing reality, but a Google search on the Agile framework will consistently reveal a bias toward co-located teams. In my opinion, this is wasted effort (and thus not consistent with the principles of lean development). Co-located teams are a luxury quickly transforming into the realm of passé.

Team Location: Past vs Present

I remember attending meeting after meeting in the early 2000s when one-third of the allotted time was lost to trying to make a video connection with a team 500 miles away. Now, we take video connections across the Internet for granted. 

In today’s world, it is increasingly unlikely that development teams will be co-located. In a scaled environment, I’d imagine it’s almost unheard of. Teams are scattered across the globe, for financial reasons as well as technical, and this is only going to become more commonplace, rather than less so.

Rather than continue the viewpoint that the best collaboration is face-to-face, if we are to be truly flexible (or Agile, if you will) it is incumbent on all of us to consider how to make distributed teams the most effective they can be. It is not a matter of assuming that distributed teams are more effective at communication - they aren’t. It is a matter of acknowledging that distributed teams are a reality and we aren’t going to change this. 

Today, “face-to-face conversation,” as described by the Agile Manifesto, means something very different than “co-located,” which is what many Scrum and Scaled Scrum approaches wish you would adopt. Co-location today is as quick and easy as two clicks of the mouse, and often less disruptive. (Personally, I find I’m much less likely to be disturbed when I’m in a video conference than an in-person meeting, where people tend to open the door unannounced and ask for someone’s attention.)

It is a simple matter for a distributed team - or cross teams - to keep a video call open for the entire day. Instant collaboration is commonplace in today’s Internet. 

Except, of course, if the time zone is too different.

Conflicting Time Zones

What if three members of my team are in a time zone 12 hours different from the other four members of the team? How is collaboration possible?

It may not be possible, at least not consistently. And so we must rely on our ability to be “Agile.” How do we compensate?

Other industries operate on different work shifts, and it is advantageous in today’s world to suppose that software development teams will also work in such shifts. Our challenge is to compensate for this, not dig in our heels and insist that co-location is the answer. That is the very antithesis of Agile. 

We must find out how to make distributed teams work. How? By trusting in the teams. They know the answer. We only need to bring the answer out. Retrospectives with collaboration being a focus for distributed teams will yield enormous results, and likely some surprising answers. But it will not be the same solution from one team to the next.

Each team - and all cross-teams in a scaled project - must be allowed the Agility to find their own face-to-face solution. 

There is value in upholding the ideal. Clinging to it without consideration for your reality is destined to be unhealthy.


Is your team co-located? What are some tips you have for successful collaboration? Join in the conversation below or Contact Us.

Anthony Bopp, Senior Validation Engineer

Anthony Bopp, Senior Validation Engineer

Anthony Bopp is a certified scaled scrum leader and Agile coach, as well as Senior Validation Engineer. In his 15 years at ISE he has worked on a wide range of projects from educational software to embedded systems to client-server enterprise applications. He enjoys planning flexible and comprehensive test approaches to complex software, and helping scrum teams on scaled projects integrate more smoothly together. He’s a photographer in his spare time, and has been known to appear in a stage play or two.

Anthony Bopp, Senior Validation Engineer

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