A Group of Geographically Distributed Staff is NOT a Scrum Team

It’s my opinion, and I think the opinion of the authors of Scrum, that a Scrum team must be collocated. A collection of geographically distributed staff is NOT a Scrum team.

If you work in a “distributed team”, please consider the following question.

Do the members of this group have authority to decide (if they wanted to) to relocate and work in the same physical space?

  • If you answer “Yes” with regard to your coworkers: then I’d encourage you to advise your colleagues toward collocating, even if only as an experiment for a few Sprints, so they can decide for themselves whether to remain remote.
  • If you answer “No”, the members do not have authority to decide to relocate:
    • then clearly it is not a self-organizing team;
    • clearly there are others in the organization telling those members how to perform their work;
    • and clearly they have dependencies upon others who hold authority (probably budgets as well) which have imposed constraints upon communication between team members.

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13 thoughts on “A Group of Geographically Distributed Staff is NOT a Scrum Team”

  1. Hi David,

    You are right a collection of geographically distributed staff is not a Scrum Team. It is not a team at all.

    Yes, it would be a perfect world when everyone would be co-located. However, this will happen less and less. The future is distributed teams. Why?

    Several reasons, first of all look at this report http://www.manpowergroup.com/wps/wcm/connect/389b7a9d-cfe2-4b22-bd61-f0febc709cd6/2016_TSS_Global_Infographic+-+Final.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.

    40% of employers globally are having difficulty filling positions. Maybe you recognize it, organizations having troubles to find good candidates. In this report they talk about training. However, as Laszko Bock said in his book Work Rules: “Designing effective training is hard. Really hard. Some experts go so far as to say that 90% of training doesn’t cause a sustained improvement in performance or change in behavior”.

    According to this research 19% outsource work and 28% Explore alternative sourcing strategies. Organizations have to look at different locations to hire people.

    In the book that Lisette Sutherland is going to publish in 2017. One of the main reasons for people to work remotely is commute time.

    I believe that as soon as a team doesn’t share a coffee machine, they are working distributed. They will encounter the same issues, doesn’t matter if you work 200 meters from each other or 2000 kilometers.

    Let’s be honest: Do the members of this group have authority to decide (if they wanted to) to relocate and work in the same physical space?

    It doesn’t work like that, for many reasons. First of all costs, who is going to pay people moving to other countries? Family and kids, they have their own live. Do they need to give up everything? Work permits, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a work permit in the US or in the EU?

    So, distributed/remote teams will become more and more common. And moving is not that easy.

    What now?

    I don’t believe it is about the location, it is about the team binding, camaraderie in the team. If you have strong relations in the team, good binding, strong values and therefore a strong culture, it doesn’t matter where the team is located.

    An interesting blog post about this topic: http://martinfowler.com/articles/remote-or-co-located.html.

    1. Thank you for your input, Ralph.

      I appreciate your discerning definition of ‘team’ — as you said, a geographically distributed staff is “not a team at all”. I agree wholeheartedly.

      I also agree that companies face a undeniable challenge being that employees often don’t live near a central headquarters.

      The point, as I think you understood from my post, is that Scrum supposes a specific definition of team and binds that definition with specific rules such as “no dependencies” and “self-organizing”. Thus, I am not saying that distributed staff can’t be productive…I’m saying merely that those conditions negate Scrum.

  2. Sorry, but I don’t think so. People are NOT human ressources! Don’t push them in a foreign country just to have them co-located. If they are distributed over the world and feel comfortable this way, it should be ok for the scrum process as well. People over processes it says after all, doesn’t it?

    1. I fully agree! Today we see more and more companies insisting that we use Scrum for development yet they also insist that certain team functions be performed offshore (testing is a prime example). While this is not the “ideal” scrum set-up it can be managed by having what I call “on-shore representation”. One person in the collocated scrum team represents those who are working in another physical location. The same applies to periferal tech teams that support development but are shared across multiple departments and cannot physically co-locate. Agile is flexibility. We can’t be rigid with the way we incorporate team members into the scrum team.

    2. Hello Michael,

      I won’t “push” anybody. If they are distributed over the world and feel comfortable that way, then I’m sure they’ll find some means to communicate and relay their work to each other. I have no problem doing so.

      But it’s not Scrum.

      I agree with you on one point, distributed staff might be “ok for the Scrum process” as you said. That is, distributed staff may be capable of conducting the regular Scrum meetings and timeboxing their work into Sprints — that’s “the process”. But Scrum is more than a process. It is a framework which, in addition to the process, incorporates other elements such as the roles, values, and the rules which bind the process to all of the other elements of the framework. And part of that framework is a rule which states that a Scrum team is self-organizing. That means that the team members decide how they shall conduct their work — if they want to relocate to a central work location then they do so.

      However, in my experience, 99.999% of “distributed teams” don’t actually have authority to relocate even if they wanted to — they are forced to work while geographically separated — and that means they aren’t self-organizing.

      As well, Michael, to be clear…I am not saying that distributed staff is bad or wrong; I’m saying simply that the definition of Scrum is very specific and, by definition, Scrum team members are not forced to work in separate geographies.

    3. Hi Gerry,

      There is a sentence in the Scrum Guide which says this:

      “Scrum recognizes no sub-teams in the Development Team, regardless of particular domains that need to be addressed like testing or business analysis; there are no exceptions to this rule;”

      How does that sentence reconcile with the scenario you described: “certain team functions be performed offshore (testing is a prime example)” ?

  3. Hi David,

    I think you set up a completely artificial problem here, which is not valid for 99.99999% of the people in distributed scrum teams. Most of the team members prefer to stay where the live AND work. Of course it is important to have them all co-located at least for the beginning and for eg. super sprint meetings.

  4. I will literally agree with you that it is not a scrum team because they don’t work for some particular things, they work according to there skills and are generally cross-functional.

  5. Hi, thank you for this post I agree with your answer that it encourage you to advise your colleagues toward collocating, even if only as an experiment for a few Sprints, so they can decide for themselves whether to remain remote. very useful information

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your input.

      Do you currently work with distributed staff? I would be interested to hear whether your colleagues try collocation, and whether they like it.

  6. How many teams who are co-located have the authority to change location?
    Does that mean they are not self organising either?

    The example seems to weaken your argument.

    1. Hello Ian,

      Great question!  I agree with you that even a collocated team, which is self-organizing, has authority to change location. And in practice, I’ve observed many times a self-organizing team will experiment with collocation, distribution, pairing, ‘work-from-home’.

      In principle, I’d add that collocation is *more compatible with* the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and therefore, as Scrum identifies itself as an Agile framework, collocation is *the most Agile choice*. So, while a self-organizing team has authority to make decisions about their location, as a Agile coach or Scrum Trainer, I feel it’s appropriate to *advise* the team whether their decisions supports or negates the Agile values & principles, or supports or negates the intent of the authors of Scrum.

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