What really helps your virtual Agile team?

As if  virtual working isn’t challenging enough, many people then get asked to work in virtual Agile teams, a methodology that is based on teams working closely together. So, what can you do to help teams work and deliver effectively on Agile projects?

Having the right attitude

I have worked in Agile projects with team members in the UK, the US, and India, and it is challenging. The main thing is that you’ve got to have the people with the right mindset. They’ve got to have that “can do” attitude and try to make it work. The principle of Agile is working as closely together as a team as you can, and if you’re going to do it virtually you have to have a good set of collaboration tools so that people can work together and share information in the different ways that they need while they’re working.

Having the right tools

General collaboration tools

The basic tool for most virtual teams is the telephone. One of the key things to do though is to make sure it’s usable by everybody.
There has been a move to VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones over recent years. This was initially for cost reasons, but as the technology developed  and screen sharing and video capability became available they really started to enhance on-line collaboration.
In some locations the call quality can be really poor and in these cases VOIP actually becomes a barrier to communication. So try it, and be willing to change if it doesn’t work for everyone. It may cost to have paid landline service, but if you think of the time people waste trying to connect to meetings, it can be worth it.
People in virtual teams need to be confident they can pick up the phone and chat, that interactivity really matters.

Specialist collaboration tools

The next thing to look at is specialist collaboration tools.
Your first port of call is something that will help you screen share if you haven’t got that as part of your teleconferencing tool. Then how will you share documents and share your calendars so you know who’s available when? Larger organisations frequently supply tools for their team, but for smaller groups the google tools can be very effective.  I have used Google Hangouts, Google Drive and Google Calendar with great success in teams.
Then, of course, there’s your Agile board tracking. Whether you’re doing Kanban or Scrum, it’s where you manage your user stories. Teams commonly start out with a simple tool such as Trello or Pivotal Tracker. At some point they may decide they want more functionality and move to tools such as Target Process. Large organisations will favour enterprise tools such as  VersionOne (my personal favourite) but tools like this are designed to support the enterprise rather than single teams, are expensive and need a team to support them.  Which ever tool you choose, make sure everybody knows how to use it, and can access it.
There are some really useful collaboration tools out there if you have a scout around. I’ve used Realtime board for planning –  it uses virtual sticky notes that you all work on together and I’ve found it really handy when planning with a distributed team.
For getting feedback on prototypes and designs there are tools like inVision and  RedPen that allow people to comment directly on the design and really reduce the misunderstandings you can get when you can’t both point at something at the same time. on it. Don’t just use what you’ve got. Explore. See what you can do to help with the things that your team is working on.


Remembering it’s about the people

Don’t forget your team building exercises when you’re working in an Agile virtual team. It’s all too easy to just sit down around a phone and start talking. Work out how you can get to know each other as you must all be real people to each other.
Make sure that you get your ceremonies, like daily stand-ups, scheduled in so that everyone feels  included. You may have to find those times of the day when calendars overlap, and sometimes if you’ve got a very widely dispersed team you may not actually be able to do that every day for everybody. However, do it frequently and make sure everybody is talking to as many people as possible.

Making sure everyone is heard, and listened to.

Often if it’s an international call, then a number of people may be working in their second language. It will take them time to process their thoughts and translate them, and they need to be given the space to do that. Silence can feel odd on a phone call but is vital to ensuring that you get everyone’s valuable contributions.
You can also do ‘polling’ where you  go around  everybody in the group at various intervals during the session. The added advantage of that is people are more likely to pay attention because they know that you will be asking for their input several times.


Exploring and Experimenting

Continuous learning and improvement is a key tenet of Agile working. Make sure that you include the effectiveness of your communication in your retrospectives. When you have blockers, look for solutions. There are many on-line tools around that help with collaboration, both free and paid, try some of them out. Thre is no ‘right’ way of working, just the way that works for you and your team.

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