“Agile methodologies and the spread of co-innovation and co-laboratory spaces presuppose that colocated software development teams are best. But for many shops, 100% colocation is neither achievable nor desirable. Application development and delivery (AD&D) leaders favor a global presence and access to partner ecosystems over some of the benefits of colocation.” - Forrester
Over the past decade, companies have begun moving towards the adoption of agile project management methodology for their teams. Traditional software development methods include bureaucratic and slow development processes and disappointing deliverables. Agile’s approach works closely with customers and stakeholders, allowing businesses to more easily adapt to change and uncertainty.
Examples of Agile Methodology include:
- Extreme Programming: a framework focused on producing high quality software, relying on team communication, pair programming and continuous integration.
- Pair Programming: when the development is done by two people sitting at the same machine.
- Lean Software Development: a set of principles adapted from manufacturing focused on waste elimination, fast delivery and team empowerment.
- Scrum: an interactive approach towards development that values transparency, inspection, and adaptation.
Four Core Principles of Agile Methodology
In 2001, 17 software practitioners came together to write the Agile Manifesto. In it, they articulated four core values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Why Agile Creates a Different Work Culture
Teams that adopt Agile development methodology will find that the work culture evolves to reflect these values. Different from waterfall teams, Agile teams have a unique and different culture, often reflected in:
- improved trust and shared cognition
- elevated role of the testing team
- communication frequency and formality level
- communication skills required from the team members and communication tools adopted by them
One fundamental change brought by Agile methodologies is increased communication and collaboration, and less on documentation. This means that collaboration is a critical factor for Agile team success. However, for many organizations, teams are in multiple locations - so there is a new real-world challenge: how to combine Agile methodology for distributed teams.
Challenges of Applying the Agile Methology for Remote Teams
"Remote work for agile teams requires a considerable shift in work culture. Without the seamless access to colleagues afforded by frequent, in-person team events, meals, and coffee chats, it can be harder to sustain the kind of camaraderie, community, and trust that comes more easily to co-located teams. It also takes more purposeful effort to create a unified one-team experience, encourage bonding among existing team members, or onboard new ones, or even to track and develop the very spontaneous ideas and innovation that makes agile so powerful to begin with." - McKinsey
While there are many benefits to the Agile process, there are some risks and challenges to introducing it to a distributed, even global, development team. One of the cornerstones of Scrum is daily interaction and communications. In order to work effectively, development leaders need to consider:
- What technologies are required for daily communications?
- How do remote team members synchronize time and availability?
- What complexities are introduced with a distributed team?
- How is knowledge managed, when there are few opportunities to share knowledge face-to-face?
- How do you manage differing approaches: for example Agile Software Teams often prefer to convey in face-to-face communication, where Global Software Development often needs more explicit, codified knowledge sharing?
- How do you see knowledge gaps: if teams are distributed, how do people become aware of what information is missing or what information needs to be shared?
- When do you schedule Scum Ceremonies (e.g. daily scrums, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospectives) with a global team?
Tactics for Successful Agile Approach with a Distributed Team
So how to get around these natural pitfalls without abandoning the robust, positive strengths of Agile methodology? Research shows a few different approaches can work:
- Creating “communities of practice” - groups of people who share the work and interact regularly
- Using a hybrid approach of codification and personalization to create some formal controls to minimize the impacts of the distributed teams
- Requiring each team members to share status notes at the end of their own workday to increase awareness and reduce possible knowledge gaps
- Pair programming
- Creating a “boundary spanner” - a role in the team of an expert who can bridge knowledge sharing in different locations
- Finding some overlap in work hours to reduce the stress of needing to join Scrum meetings outside of regular business work hours
How the Agile Approach Can Strengthen Distributed Teams
The cultural benefits of the Agile methodology - which focuses on relationships, trust, and communication, can help energize and motivate a remote team. The scrum ceremonies can help improve collaboration and connection within a distributed team. The structure and repetition of scrum ceremonies - like daily scrum meetings - can provide familiarity, structure, and in turn reduce conflict and distrust. Having a predefined process can help better coordination, facilitate transparency, and reduce uncoordinated, ineffective leadership.
Translating Agile Core Values for a Remote Team Structure
With its focus on empowerment and trust, researchers recommend that companies build in that flexibility to remote teams. For example, local teams can set the process and documentation style. With the realities of the global pandemic still reverberating in organizations, companies will have to look thoughtfully at how to roll out or modify Agile to serve their current realities. Gartner, for example, found that in 2020, development teams had mixed results.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had frequent, small releases and were very agile. Now we have infrequent, high-risk, large releases. This is not the ideal situation for agile, newly remote teams.” - Gartner
Gartner recommends taking a holistic approach at the new realities, including a six-step process to evaluate and roll out agile methodology to a distributed workforce:
- Review the situation.
- Engage as a team.
- Maintain momentum.
- Foster openness.
- Leverage technology.
- Evolve team practices.
A Summary of Agile and Remote Teams
Agile methodology is a powerful tool for software development teams. It speeds up the often slow development process and ensures close collaboration between customers and stakeholders, allowing for faster, more meaningful adaption.
However, Agile methodology can be tricky to implement among remote teams, an increasingly common team structure in a global world still wrestling with COVID.
Fortunately, with a careful rollout, such as the six-step process Gartner suggests, Agile methodology can be successfully implemented and become a game-changer for organizations.