How to Manage Agile Projects with Dislocated Teams

By Mark C. Layton

A collocated scrum team is ideal for agile projects. However, sometimes it isn’t possible for a scrum team to work together in one place. Dislocated teams, teams with people who work in different locations, exist for many reasons and in different forms.

In some companies, the people with the right skills for a project may work in different offices, and the company may not want the cost of bringing those people together for the project’s duration. Some organizations work jointly with other organizations on projects, but may not want or be able to share office space. Some people may telecommute, especially contractors, live long distances from the company they work with, and never visit that company’s office. Some companies work with offshore groups and create projects with people from other countries.

The good news is that you can still have an agile project with a dislocated scrum team or teams. If you have to work with a dislocated team, it’s likley that an agile approach allows you to see working functionality much sooner and limits the risk of inevitable misunderstandings that a dislocated team will experience.

In A Scrum Handbook (Scrum Institute Training Press), Jeff Sutherland describes three models of distributed scrum teams:

  • Isolated scrums: With isolated scrums, individual scrum teams have collocated scrum team members, but each scrum team is in a separate geographic location and works separately. Product development with isolated scrums has only code-level integration; that is, the different teams don’t communicate or work together but expect the code to work when it is time to integrate each module due to organizational coding standards. Isolated scrums tend to struggle because different people interpret coding standards differently.
  • Distributed scrum of scrums: With a distributed scrum of scrums model, scrum teams are in different locations, like in isolated scrums. To coordinate work, scrum teams hold a scrum of scrums — a meeting of multiple scrum masters — to integrate on a daily basis.
  • Integrated scrums: Integrated scrum teams are cross-functional, with scrum team members in different locations. A scrum of scrums still occurs but face-to-face communication is lost.

The table you see here, from Ambysoft’s “Agile Adoption Rate Survey Results” in 2008, shows a comparison of success rates for projects with collocated scrum teams against those with geographically dispersed scrum teams.

Success of Collocated and Dislocated Scrum Teams
Team Location Success Percentage
Collocated scrum team 83%
Dislocated but physically reachable 72%
Distributed across geographies 60%

“Agile Adoption Rate Survey Results” (Scott W. Ambler, Ambysoft, Copyright © 2008)

How do you have a successful agile project with a dislocated scrum team? Here’s the solution in three words: communicate, communicate, and communicate. Because daily in-person conversations are not possible, agile projects with dislocated scrum teams require unique efforts by everyone working on the project. Here are some tips for successful communication among non-collocated scrum team members:

  • Use videoconferencing technology to simulate face-to-face conversations. The majority of interpersonal communication is visual, involving facial cues, hand gestures, and even shoulder shrugs. Videoconferencing enables people to see one another and benefit from nonverbal communication as well as a discussion. Use videoconferencing, or even telepresence robots, liberally throughout the day, not just for sprint meetings. Make sure team members are ready for impromptu video chats, and that the technology makes it easy to initiate them.
  • If possible, arrange for the scrum team members to meet in-person in a central location at least once at the beginning of the project, and preferably multiple times throughout the project. The shared experience of meeting in-person, even once or twice, can help build teamwork among dislocated team members. Working relationships built through face-to-face visits are stronger and carry on after the visit ends.
  • Use an online collaboration tool. Some tools simulate whiteboards and user story cards, track conversations, and enable multiple people to update artifacts at the same time.
  • Include scrum team members’ pictures on online collaboration tools, or even in email address signature lines. Humans respond to faces more than written words alone. A simple picture can help humanize instant messages and emails.
  • Be cognizant of time zone differences. Put multiple clocks showing different time zones on the wall so you don’t accidentally call someone’s cellphone at 3 a.m. and wake up that person — or wonder why he or she isn’t answering.
  • Be flexible because of time zone differences as well. You may need to take video calls or phone calls at odd hours from time to time to help keep project work moving. For drastic time zone differences, consider trading off on times you are available. One week, Team A can be available in the early morning. The next, Team B can be available later in the evening. That way, no one always has an inconvenience.
  • If you have any doubt about a conversation or a written message, ask for clarification by phone or video. It always helps to double-check when you’re unsure of what someone meant. Follow up with a call to avoid mistakes from miscommunication.
  • Be aware of language and cultural differences between scrum team members, especially when working with groups in multiple countries. Understanding colloquialisms and pronunciation differences can increase the quality of your communication across borders. It helps to know about local holidays, too. We’ve been blindsided more than once by closed offices outside our region.
  • Make an extra attempt to discuss non-work topics sometimes. Discussing non-work topics helps you grow closer to scrum team members, regardless of location.

With dedication, awareness, and strong communication, distributed agile projects can succeed.

The unique approaches to team dynamics on agile projects are part of what make agile projects successful. Communication is closely related to team dynamics, and the communication methods on agile projects also have big differences from traditional projects.