Distributed Agile teams require a different level of care than a co-located team in order to ensure that they are as effective as possible. This is even more true for a team that is working through their forming-storming-norming process. Core Agile concepts are the team and communication, and these are key for the success of distributed Agile teams. Daily stand-up meetings are one of the most important communication tools for teams using scrum or other Agile/Lean frameworks, so it’s important that they function properly.
Here are some tips for making daily stand-ups work for distributed teams:
- Deal with the time zone issue. There are two primary options to deal with time zones. The first is to keep the team members within three or four time zones of each other. Given typical sourcing options, this tends to be difficult. A second option is to rotate the time for the stand-up meeting from sprint to sprint, so that everyone loses a similar amount of sleep (share the pain). One solution for when distributed teams can’t overlap is to have one team member (rotate) stay late or come in early to overlap work times.
- Identify and attack blockers between stand-ups. Typically, on distributed teams, all parties do not work at the same time. Team members should be counseled to communicate blockers to the team as soon as they are discovered, so that something discovered late in the day in one time zone does not affect the team in a different time zone (where they might just be starting to work). One group I worked with had stand-ups twice each day (at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day) to ensure continuous communication.
- Push status outside of the stand-up. A solution suggested by Matt Hauser is to have the team answer the classic three questions (What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? Is there anything blocking your progress?) on a WIKI or similar shared document for everyone on the team to read before the stand-up meeting. This helps focus the meeting on planning or dealing with issues.
- Vary the question set being asked. The process of varying the question set for each meeting keeps the team focused on communication rather than giving a memorized speech. For example, ask:
- Is anyone stuck?
- Does anyone need help?
- What did not get competed yesterday?
- Is there anything everyone should know?
This technique can be used for non-distributed teams as well.
- Ensure that everyone is standing. This is code for making sure that everyone is paying attention and staying focused. Standing is just one technique for helping team members stay focused. Other tips include banning cell phones and side conversations.
- Make sure the meeting stays “crisp.” Stand-up meetings by definition are short and to the point. The team needs to ensure that the meeting stays as disciplined as possible. All team members should show up on time and be prepared to discuss their role in the project. Discussion must include the willingness to ask for help and to provide help to team members.
- Use a physical status wall. While the term “distributed” screams tool usage, using a physical wall helps to focus the team. The simplicity of a physical wall takes the complexity of tool usage off the table, so that the focus can be on communication. Use of a physical wall in a distributed environment means using video to show the act of someone on the team physically moving tasks on the wall (after the fact a picture can be provided to the team). If video is not available, use a tool that everyone has access to. Keep tools as simple as possible.
- Don’t stop doing stand-ups. Stand-up meetings are a critical communication and planning event; not doing stand-ups for a distributed team is an indicator that the organization should go back to project manager/plan-based methods.
Like any other distributed team meeting, having good telecommunication/video tools is not only important, it is a prerequisite. If team members can’t hear each other, they cannot communicate.
Stand-ups are nearly ubiquitous in Agile. However, despite their simplicity, the added complexity of distributed teams can cause problems. The whole team is responsible for making the stand-up meetings work. While the scrum master may take the lead in insuring the logistics are right or to facilitate the session when needed, everyone needs to play a role.
VP of Consulting & Agile Practice Lead