Agile Lifecycles for Geographically Distributed Teams, Part 1

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Summary:

I’ve been working with geographically distributed and dispersed teams for the past couple of years. Some of them on quite large programs, some of them reasonably small. What they all have in common is that they all want to transition to agile.

Most of them start this way: someone takes a Scrum class, gets all excited. This is good. Then reality hits. Scrum is meant for collocated geographically cross-functional teams. Uh oh.

I’ve been working with geographically distributed and dispersed teams for the past couple of years. Some of them on quite large programs, some of them reasonably small. What they all have in common is that they all want to transition to agile.

Most of them start this way: someone takes a Scrum class, gets all excited. This is good. Then reality hits. Scrum is meant for collocated geographically cross-functional teams. Uh oh.

Almost all of these teams are separated by function: the developers are in one place, the testers are in another, the business analysts are in a third place, the project managers are in a fourth places, and if there are product owners (or what passes for product owners) they are often in a fifth location. It’s not uncommon for every single function of the team to be separate from every other member of the team. So, the teams don’t fit the Scrum criteria. Uh oh.

Since Scrum has so much brand recognition, these people think if they can’t do Scrum, they can’t do Agile. Nope, not so. What they need to do is start from the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, and go from there. They create their own lifecycle, and their very own brand of Agile.

When I worked with one client, that client thought they could extend their iteration. Nope, if anything, that means you keep the iterations even shorter, because you need more frequent feedback when no one is in the same place. Well, there were words. And more words. But, if you start from the values, you see that short iterations are the way to go if you want to be agile. Otherwise, you get staged delivery, which is a lovely lifecycle, but not agile.

I’m blogging a series of examples. Please don’t ask me why the people ended up in these locations. I have no idea. All I know is that’s where the people are.

Example 1: Using a Project Manager With Iterations, Silo’d Teams

One IT organization has teams with developers in the Ukraine, testers in India, product managers and project managers in the UK, and enterprise architecture and corporate management in the eastern US.

This organization moved to two-week iterations. The developers were 3.5 hours ahead of the testers, which was not terrible. This organization had these problems:

  1. The product managers had to learn to be product owners and write stories that were small enough to finish inside one iteration.
  2. The enterprise architects had to stop dictating the architecture without features to hang off the architecture.
  3. The developers and testers had to learn to implement by feature so the architects could help the team see the evolving architecture.

This organization had a ton of command-and-control to start. The project managers needed to facilitate the teams, not control them. The architects needed to help the teams see how to organize the product, not to tell the developers what to do. The testers needed to not be order-takers, as in taking orders from the developers.

You might ask why the organization wanted to move to agile. Senior management wanted agile because the releases got longer and longer and longer, and could not accommodate change. Agile was a complete cultural shift. The two-week iterations, along with an agile roadmap of features helped a lot.

The pilot project team consisted of the developers, testers, a product manager, and a project manager. The team rejected the enterprise architect as a member of the team because the architect refused to write code.

Release planning: The project manager and the product manager do an initial cut

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About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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