Distributed Agile: 5 Tips to Create High Performing Teams

Written by James Cannings
March 20th 2020

5 minute read

The world has changed significantly over the last few weeks and many of us find ourselves working from home, potentially for an extended period. There have been many useful articles in recent days with tips on how to work from home. Whilst that’s useful we thought we would outline some of the techniques that we have built up over the last 10 years, not just on how to work from home but how to create a high-performing distributed agile delivery team. Here are our top five tips: 

#1 - Ban Conference Calls 
OK, this one probably goes without saying. However, when we start working with a new client as their agile delivery partner, we often find that they struggle to run agile meetings over a video conference. It’s essentially to be able to see people, wave at them and have a bit of small talk at the start of a call. It’s not time wasting. It’s a vital part of allowing a distributed team to bond and make friendships. Awkward conference phone systems make this impossible. Instead, use SlackMicrosoft TeamsGoogle HangoutsZoom, or whatever video conferencing tool you prefer. 

#2 - Having Fun Drives High Performance 
Building on the previous point, with a distributed team you have to work harder to find ways to have fun. Not just for the sake of having fun. But because it’s a key component in creating a culture that enables people to talk openly about challenges and mistakes so that a team can learn from them. That’s a vital way to de-risk complex digital product delivery. It’s not about enforced corporate fun (nobody likes that). Nor is it always solved by people wearing daft hats on a stand-up (see one of our teams below). Your team will need to find its own way. But the most high-performing teams are almost always the ones enjoying what they do and getting on well with their team members.   #3 - Have the Right Tools for Each Agile Meeting 
A stand-up usually just needs a video call (or it should if it’s not being hijacked for other purposes). Backlog refinement, sprint planning and sprint demos just need some screenshare capability (which almost all video conferencing tools would have anyway). Probably the hardest of the Scrum meetings to run remotely is an effective retrospective. For this you absolutely need a remote tool for running a post-it note based session. There are lots available but a great (and free) starter-for-ten is IdeaBoardz. Super simple to setup. Create the retro categories you want, share the link and off you go. There’s a simple voting tool for the cards if you want to “dot vote” the key cards to discuss in the retro. Remember, as with any good retro, capture your actions (ideally ranked by effort and impact). 

#4 - Learn How to Run an Effective Remote Workshop 
Outside of the usual Scrum meetings there are often more involved workshops. For example, a collaborative UX workshop. Or a more technical one with your architects, data or infrastructure teams. Many of these can happen during a Discovery Phase when the team haven’t been working together for a long time. Under more normal circumstances we do try and get together face-to-face for these early workshops to build up a good culture. However, when we have to run these remotely there are some great tools available. Some of our favourites include MuralMiro and SketchVisio can be great for more technical workshops (or user journey flows). If you are running a story mapping workshop to define an MVP or a release strategy, StoriesOnBoard is a great alternative to a wall full of post-it notes! 

#5 - Work Harder to Create a Strong Team Culture 
Beyond creating a fun and positive environment there are other things that you can do to build a strong team culture within your distributed team. Really this is made up of lots of little things that you can do and could probably make up a separate blog post. We refer to “Working as a Distributed Team” rather than the more isolating sounding “Working from home”. Create a team name, order some team mugs or mascots and distribute them. Create a Slack channel for people to share ideas about working effectively or just to chat more socially (to keep it out of the main team comms channels). We’ve had teams use these types of channels to have virtual tea breaks over a video call. It takes a little bit of time but it’s a critical part of creating high performing agile teams.  

If you’d like to learn more about creating high performing distributed agile delivery teams, then please get in touch. Our experts can perform agile audits remotely on distributed teams, support in improving your Lean Product Delivery processes or kickstart your next agile project whilst upskilling your in-house teams with these techniques. Feel free to drop us an email  at hello@mmtdigital.co.uk and we can set up a video call. 


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