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Yes, Even Distributed Teams Can Be Agile

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

I’ve got a lasting memory from 2007 at the Agile Conference in DC. Leaders from the Agile community were delivering introductory sessions on key topics. I was thoroughly enjoying a session on XP until, it came to question time. One of the attendees expressed his enthusiasm for XP and asked the presenter what suggestions he might have for a distributed team. The brusque response was “you need to collocate your team”. The questioner responded that unfortunately that was beyond his area of influence and given that constraint, were there any suggestions. The second answer was even shorter than the first and that, was the end of that conversation.

They say that if you won’t remember something in 10 years then don’t stress about it. This story for me highlights one of the problems in the Agile community. As a collective we subscribe to servant leadership as one of our guiding metaphor. So, it is surprising to see such a lack of empathy from so many so-called leaders. We are living in an imperfect world. We must do more to lift people up out of their mediocre work lives. We can’t do that, if we are not inclusive of everybody and refuse to speak to those who don’t fit our world view.

It’s a myth that co-located teams are a pre-requisite for Agile development. Nowhere in the Agile Manifesto, or its underpinning principles is it stated that co-location is a requirement. The closest you will find is the sixth Agile Principles: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

This statement can be backed up by so much empirical evidence that I think it is beyond doubt that face-to-face communication is more effective. However, it is harmful and misleading to infer that people can never work effectively when distributed. There are plenty instances in which the hard and soft benefits of distributed work outweigh the inefficiencies.

Factors you should consider:

Cost of Delay & Flow Efficiency

Distribution incurs a delay in decision making. The greater the span of the distribution (distance and time-zones) the greater the delay. The economic impact of that delay needs to be examined from the perspective of flow-efficiency so that we are best positioned to make the correct trade-off decisions.

Product Lifecycle

The product life-cycle can have a big impact on what teams we deploy. If we are early in the product life-cycle where there are a lot of unknowns we will require much greater collaboration than we would have for a product approaching end of life.

Capability & Desirability of Work

Do we have a critical mass of skills to respond to an emerging opportunity? Maybe yes but, not all in one place. If not, do we get outside help? If so, do we completely outsource or do we adopt an out to in model where we initially get outside help and then transition to more inside help.

Work-Life Balance & Social Responsibility

We cannot ignore the impact of technology on our working lives and the planet. Allowing people the ability to work remotely allows employees a better work-life balance while the many benefits for employers include better retention, higher availability and higher utilization.

When the stakes are high you should always strive to co-locate team members. For other work, knowing the key factors and the economic considerations will help you make better informed decisions. Remember though, not everything that counts can be counted so, don’t ignore the softer benefits of both colocation and distribution.


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