How Does Scrum Work for Geographically-Distributed Teams

Scrum works with distributed teams because it calls for regular communication and commitments from individuals to deliver as a team.

The technology industry has snowballed in the last few decades. Most businesses now use some form of technology and the technology they are using is likely changing faster than they can anticipate. With the rapid speed at which technology is moving and the stiff competition in today’s economy, it is essential that businesses are able to stay focused on their core business competencies.

How does a technology company stay on top of its game?

They use Scrum to build and maintain large-scale projects.

Take a company like BETSOL, who has two offices on opposite sides of the world, located in opposite time zones. Co-located teams are the ideal prescription for using Scrum because face-to-face communication is always most straightforward and most effective. However, that is not always possible, which is the case here at BETSOL. We use distributed teams to our advantage, using Scrum to help our Development Teams to stay on track.

What is Scrum and why does it work well for distributed teams?

Scrum.org defines Scrum as a framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.  Scrum itself is a simple framework for effective team collaboration on complex products.  Scrum takes large projects/products and breaks them up into small and manageable tasks. It allows teams to iterate quickly if the scope should change. Scrum falls under the Agile umbrella, but what is Agile? Agile Alliance defines Agile as the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment.  Agile has core beliefs, which are stated below:

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan.”

Let’s focus on the first line, “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Communication between individuals is critical in an Agile environment. Often, this proves to be difficult because fitting the right personalities and skill sets within a team can be tricky. However, when you have distributed groups, hiring can be easier due to the larger talent pool for potential team members. Distributed teams often struggle with communication because additional efforts need to be made for every interaction. So, hiring the right people for the team is crucial and making sure those Agile values are instilled in every team member during the interview process is essential.

It is important that HR/Recruiting teams go through Scrum training to ensure they know what to look for when interviewing candidates. It is also crucial to have team members involved in the interview process to make sure the candidates will be a good fit.

How does Scrum and Agile work with distributed teams?

The teams I work with are distributed, some team members live across the globe and others are in the United States. The time difference is 11 hours and 30 minutes. While some team members are waking up for the day, others are ending theirs. We hold our Scrum events early in the morning (MST) or later in the evening (IST). It’s a mutual and required sacrifice to maintain clear communication. However, we try to avoid meetings on Fridays, allowing our team to enjoy their evening. While our work is important, we firmly believe in a work-life balance for all team members.

There is an aspect of working with distributed teams that I truly love: Getting to know folks from a different part of the world. The opportunity to work with my colleagues across the globe has opened my eyes to areas of the world I did not previously know much about. I believe our cultural medley have improved our communication because we all realize the difficulties that distributed teams face and we work hard to compensate and collaborate.

Like most companies, we use various tools to simplify communication. We use email, chat, and other assorted types of software. The ability to easily communicate with folks from around the globe is relatively new in the business world, but its impact has been unparalleled. The tools available have paved the way for today’s global economy, allowing organizations to have employees in multiple locations to work together efficiently and effectively. We use online tools to manage our Backlogs and Retrospectives, giving our team members the ability to participate in these events from the comfort of their homes.

Why does Scrum work so well?

One advantage to using online tools for Retrospectives is documentation. As a Scrum Master, it is nice to have the ability to look back to see what was discussed months ago. Being able to give the team reminders of where we once were, where we are now and what is in the future. However, there are some disadvantages to facilitating a retrospective remotely. While, you can hear the participates, their tone is not the same compared to in-person. You also do not see body language or facial expressions, which can often say a lot, so you miss those silent cues. As a Scrum Master, this can be a difficult challenge to face; however, becoming a servant leader and expressing your emotions will hopefully encourage others to follow.

Another advantage of having distributed teams is the ability to apply the follow-the-sun model, meaning we can get work completed around the clock (rather than the typical eight-hour workday). This increases development time and speeds up time-to-market, giving us a considerable advantage in a competitive industry.

What are the disadvantages of distributed teams?

The main disadvantage to distributed teams is the potential for poor communication. I have never had the opportunity to meet the Development Team members that reside in our other office physically, but I hope to someday. As a Scrum Master, I make sure to have discussions with them outside of work-related topics, getting to know one another on a more personal level. Building an environment where team members can get to know one another outside the confines of work is very important to me. I have noticed it increases trust, communication, and openness, ultimately helping the team feel like one large team versus two dispersed teams. Meeting in-person would strengthen the bonds our team has already built, but for now, we continue to use tools to build those relationships, hopefully preventing any miscommunication that may arise.

Interactions are key

With interactions being at the forefront of Agile values, Scrum prescribes a Daily Standup, encouraging daily communication. If we did not follow Scrum as our preferred methodology, our communication would likely be drastically different. I might have regular update calls, but they would not follow the same format, likely taking up more time with the high chance to get off topic. Switching the format away from Scrum might also feel like micromanaging, influencing the overall happiness of the team, which in turn, affects the product/project.

Another aspect of Scrum that stimulates communication and trust is the Retrospective. If we were not using Scrum, our teams likely would not have the ability to inspect, adapt, and improve. Retrospectives give us the ability to look back and explore what went well and what has not. Without these retrospectives, improving would be difficult because there would not be time set aside to reflect. I am sure we would eventually grow, as a team, but using Scrum and reviewing our process often, gives us the opportunity to adjust quickly.

Conclusion

From my experience, trying to complete large-scale projects/products are difficult in their own right. It gets even more complicated when you add in people from different locations, backgrounds, and cultures. However, with an Agile mindset and using the Scrum framework it makes the challenge a lot more attainable. I am a big fan of Scrum, so I am a little bias, but I could not imagine any other way to build and maintain a product/project when the team is distributed. If you work with distributed organizations, we would love to hear about your team’s challenges and how your team has been successful in the comments.

For more information on Scrum be sure to check out our blog “Top 10 Reasons Scrum Works

Contribution by: Tim Justin-Bridgman

Tim is a Scrum Master at BETSOL. He holds a CSM (Certified Scrum Master) and a CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner) certifications. Tim is passionate about how people interact and work together to create innovative solutions.

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