A Conference Call in Real Life (youtube)

I’ve started to show this video in my public CSM classes (see sidebar for scheduled courses) as part of the discussion about why co-location for Agile teams is so important.  The video is a humorous look at what conference calls are like.  Probably the most notable part of it is the fact that on a conference call you can’t see people’s body language and facial language which are important cues for efficient communication:

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Five Tips for Distributed Agile Teams

Actually, this is six tips because my first tip is really about deciding to use distributed teams…

Some in-house studies that I have been privy to have shown 2-1 or 3-1 productivity difference between good co-located teams and “good” virtual teams. Creating a true, high-performance virtual team is incredibly hard emotionally, incredibly time-consuming, and costs a lot in terms of tools and travel. If this is being done for convenience of the team members or for cost savings, it’s a bad idea. The only good reason to have distributed teams is if there is a compelling strategic reason that trumps the hit you will take financially and morale-wise. (That was tip “zero”.)

That said, it is worth trying is to create an environment as close as possible to what you would get with a co-located team. To do this, here are some things to try:

1. Set core hours (at least 3 contiguous) every day when everyone on the team, regardless of time zone, will be at work simultaneously. If you have a globally distributed team, this will mean that some team members will have to make an ongoing personal sacrifice to be available. This sacrifice should be compensated financially. Avoid rotating the core hours in the mis-guided idea that it is better that everyone is uncomfortable some of the time vs. some being uncomfortable all of the time. It is much easier for a team member to get used to a consistent schedule and although initially there will be discomfort for some team members, they will (relatively speaking) get used to the new schedule.

2. During core hours, use a good video conferencing tool (e.g. Office Communicator), in an always-on state for all team members – be in the same space at the same time. Cameras should be set up so that it is possible to see an individual’s facial expressions, yet also to allow that person to move around and still be in-view. The video conferencing tool should have good full-duplex audio so that no one ever gets cut off because someone else is louder.

3. During core hours, all team members agree to forego the use of headphones or anything else that would prevent them from instantly being aware of something happening with any of the other team members. Again, for some people this might be quite a sacrifice. The idea is that communication is paramount for agile teams and anything that isolates one team member from another will hinder communication.

4. Have a live update task tracking tool that all team members use. (Most agile team management tools that I am aware of do not work because you have to refresh to see updates. Cardmeeting.com is a decent virtual wall that has live updates.) Any task-switching should be visible on this tool either through a color change, an audible cue, or a movement. So if I complete a task and start on a new one, everyone else should notice this immediately even if I do not actually say anything. The team members should get in the habit of using this tool even outside core hours.

5. Have a second (or third) monitor for every team member that is dedicated to the always-on communication tools (video conferencing, task tracking). These always-on tools should _never_ be covered by anything else. All the real-time communication tools are useless if they are not constantly visible. If your team members currently have two monitors, then get them a third for these tools. There should never be any excuse for a team member to hide these tools.

Basically, these suggestions are designed to maximize the quality, bandwidth and minimize the latency of communication among the team members. If you have a distributed team, and you try these things, please let me know how it works for you!

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The Importance of Questions

I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.

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