A while ago I wrote about some of my favourite books on effective teams and leadership. I thought I'd expand that post and add some further thoughts on distributed Agile teams.
As one of my primary interests is team and personal development, the remote aspect only makes the job more appealing and challenging. That said, many of the challenges with distributed Agile teams are the same as working co-located, for example communication and collaboration.
The word "remote" in this context refers to being physically distanced from each other. However, if the team hasn't gelled yet, the team members can experience "remoteness" even at the office. The same is true for the wider organisation: existing on-site challenges with organisation-wide communication and collaboration can become even more visible and apparent when working remotely.
To reduce this “sense of remoteness”—whether co-located or distributed—it’s vital to get to know each other, have a shared goal, and build trust, transparency and psychological safety. Forcing people to the office even a few days a week (when that work can be done remotely) is dealing with a symptom rather than the root cause.
One of the Agile principles states that
the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. Certainly so, but the world looked quite different in 2001 when the Agile Manifesto was written. We're still social animals, but today we have new technology that didn't exist in 2001. The goal of the above-mentioned principle is high bandwidth communication. How exactly you achieve that is up to you, your team(s) and your organisation.
This is why I want to challenge the notion that co-located teams are a prerequisite for the Agile way of working. As always, it depends, because Agile is fiercely people-first. It's usually better to avoid absolute language. One size does not fit all.
There are at least three important advantages with distributed teams. First, you’ll have access to a wider talent pool. Second, you’re showing that you care about Diversity and Inclusion by empowering people. Third, less commuting means less pollution!
While there are extra challenges with distributed Agile teams, there are many factors why distributed teams can function just as well as co-located teams. Being a digital native certainly helps :)
After working 100% remotely with my team for almost two years (and 50% remotely after that), I’d like to offer some reflections. With distributed teams, you’ll need to do the following things more than usual:
- Be extra clear about goals
- Communicate rather too much than too little
- Arrange regular unstructured social time with your team
- Cut dependencies drastically
- Embrace flexibility (with accountability)
- Customise your team’s practices for remote context using both Agile values/principles and your team rules/working agreements
- Visualise your team’s work and feedback loops as much as possible
- When you meet IRL, make it count (what “make it count” means depends on your product/project’s life cycle)
- Be extra mindful about the us-versus-them mentality
Distributed Agile teams are an opportunity, not a threat. What matters is that you and your team(s) know what to do (the goal), have flexible working agreements (empowerment, trust), have the means and mindset to continuously deliver value (Agile), and lastly, have the ability to learn and improve. Micromanaging, or dictating whether all this should happen co-located or distributed is superficial, masking the fear of letting go of top-down control.
Whatever you do with the wider talent pool that distributed teams enable, ensure high bandwidth communication and collaboration, experiment, explore new ways, and have fun. There are no limits to what a team can achieve together when it has a shared, elevating goal. Keep in mind that one size does not fit every distributed Agile team. Let your teams self-manage where and how they want to do their best work, and you'll get the best and happiest teams.
Books on effective distributed teams and leadership
In my earlier post, I listed some of my favourite books on effective teams and leadership.
I'll conclude this post with some additional good books on distributed teams, unlearning/relearning, and leadership:
- Agile Conversations, by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick
- Atomic Habits, by James Clear
- Coaching Agile Teams, by Lyssa Adkins
- Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
- From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, by Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby
- The Remote Facilitator's Pocket Guide, by Kirsten Clacey and Jay-Allen Morri
- Think Again, by Adam Grant
- Turn the Ship Around, by L. David Marquet
- Work Together Anywhere, by Kirsten Janene-Nelson and Lisette Sutherland