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Distributed Teams: How To Mitigate A Significant Business Risk Of The Coronavirus

Distributed Teams mitigate risk business risk of coronavirus workplace disruptions

NOTE: Join us for a FREE webinar on Scrum and Distributed Teams hosted by Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland. Watch HERE.

The ongoing spread of COVID-19, the Coronavirus, has created a level of business uncertainty unseen since the Great Recession. Stock markets are down. Way down.

And for the first time, The World Health Organization reports “there have been more new cases reported from countries outside of China than from China.” There has been community spread, people getting infected without visiting an outbreak area, in Italy and the United States. 

While there is much we don’t know about how COVID-19 will affect the business world, It is simply prudent to start planning for what to do now. 

For many organizations this has meant a focus on supply chains. That is understandable. After all, supply chains reaching into China have been halted in their tracks. When they will start up again is unknown. 

But there is another, possibly more significant risk that organizations should plan for. One already playing out in Milan, Italy. The significant risk here is how do organizations function, let alone thrive when workers can’t come to their workplace?

As this New York Times article points out, this is a situation already being faced by companies in Europe. In a briefing to the media on Tuesday, February 25th, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated an outbreak in the US seems likely: 

“It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more really a question of when it will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

The risks of a disrupted workforce are real.  One way to address the problem is the effective use of distributed teams. And if done right, and the distributed teams are Agile, data shows us that employees who work remotely remain connected, productive and aligned.

 

DISTRIBUTED AGILE TEAMS

The first thing to note is that a distributed team is not just a collection of remote workers. A different mindset is needed to make them a team. It involves building strong communication through tooling and coordination and transparency through Scrum Events that I’ll detail below. 

The second thing to note is that distributed teams can be as productive as collocated teams. It’s just a little harder, because it requires much more discipline, and likely a different set of tools. 

Everyone knows that collocated teams are, on the whole, a lot more productive than distributed teams. But that isn’t always the case. As the head of Agile at the Wikimedia foundation said in a speech a few years ago, “Colocation masks bad communication.” 

Basically, if everyone is sitting at the same table, you can be sloppy. If everyone is sitting on the other side of a computer screen laziness is not an option.

Scrum Inc. itself is highly distributed. We have people scattered across the country working from their homes or a co-working space. Our consultants are not only in different cities all the time, they are often in different countries. Some of our clients’ workforces are completely virtual. No offices at all.

If you create a plan for adjusting to that reality, then you’ll be one step closer to mitigating COVID-19’s potential to disrupt your business.

These are the steps you should take in order to succeed with distributed Agile or Scrum Teams in any situation.

I’m breaking these into two blocks; communication and coordination. 

 

COMMUNICATION AMONGST DISTRIBUTED TEAMS

  • Video Is Your Friend: Video conferencing services are cheap. Some are basically free.  But the real reason to use them is because we are visual creatures. An immense amount of our brain has evolved to read the emotions and thoughts visible on another human’s face. We evolved that way as a survival mechanism. The human voice is a thin reed for communicating, faces speak volumes.

What you are after is the richness of communication. Slack and Teams and phone calls and texts and other chat tools are great, but nothing replaces the human face.

 

  • Transparent, Clear, and Accessible Backlog: If you have to rely solely on electronic Scrum tools for communicating about the backlog, you have to make an even greater effort to be sure that everyone understands the true intent of a Product Backlog Item.The team needs to know both what the Product Owner wants, and why. This context is key for teams working remotely. If the Product Backlog Item has the answers to all the key questions (Definition of Done), then the Scrum Team, or team members can easily get to work.
  • Tooling And Access: Everyone needs access to the same tools and to the work being done. If your work is behind corporate firewalls where remote access is difficult, now is a good time to find out what tools your people can use. And if there aren’t any? This is an even better time to set some up.
  • Swarming: This is always a great way to drive things to done (you can learn more about swarming here if you’re curious). Swarming also allows people to work on things together so they don’t feel so isolated. I’ve often found my most productive times have been working with other teammates on a document, or an idea, or a process together while on a video conference.

    Google Docs and Google Sheets are our lifelines and let us work all at the same time. There are lots of other tools that do the same thing, but group work on one problem is a great way to collaborate and innovate, but also, and this is important, it helps people to not feel alone.

And that is probably the biggest thing you will have to deal with. Fear. Loneliness. Isolation. Giving your people a way to do something meaningful in a time of crisis is a gift.

 

COORDINATING REMOTE TEAMS

The Scrum framework gives a structure to people’s lives that is even more critical in times of upheaval. Let’s walk through the events and the impact they have, and how they are even more powerful in a distributed situation.

  • Sprint Planning. The first event in the Scrum framework gives shape and structure to the coming week or two. It sets a clear goal, the Team commits to a body of work they forecast they can get done, and provides a strong Definition of Done that gives the Team specific and actionable things they need to accomplish to successfully finish the Sprint.Alignment is critical in a distributed environment. A clear Sprint Backlog coming out of Planning gives every member of the Team a shared understanding of what needs to be accomplished. This focus, in a time of disruption, is critically important. Otherwise it is far too easy for a Team to splinter. A clear Sprint Goal and Sprint Backlog gives them that focus.
  • Daily Scrum. Those precious fifteen minutes everyday. They are the heartbeat of a Scrum Team. And it is a critical touchpoint for Team members working far from each other. The Daily Scrum is where Scrum teams give clarity on where the work stands and surface impediments.

    It is also a daily chance to replan based on the latest feedback, information, impediments, or emergent changes. Replanning at the Daily Scrum is always important. It gives the Scrum Team the ability to quickly pivot as needed, when needed. And that is invaluable in situations where unpredictability can be the norm.  

There is another benefit of the Daily Scrum, one that is often overlooked. It gives people a reliable touch point of connection.

At a lunch I had with Professor Nonaka, one of the authors of the paper that gave Scrum its name, he stressed that humans are defined by connection. We tell ourselves the story of who we are in a relationship with other people. Working at home, alone, isolated, can claw at that sense of self and purpose. 

 

  • The Sprint. I have often argued with Dr. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, the co-creators of Scrum, about why the Sprint should be an event. I always saw it as a container for the other events. But when thinking about the current situation I have started to appreciate why it really is an event in and of itself.It is the sum, it is the cycle, it is the rhythm of life. It gives us the frame for our work. The consistency and dependability of a Sprint, over and over, gives us a predictable and knowable schedule. It removes uncertainty. It provides structure. That is valuable when such certainties are scarce.
  • Sprint Review. This is where stakeholders and customers give feedback on what the Scrum Team has accomplished each Sprint. These feedback loops can still exist with distributed teams. And feedback is always key. In a Team working virtually, this touchpoint reminds them that there is a world outside of their Team. That they are delivering value. That their work has meaning. 
  • Sprint Retrospective. Here is our chance to get better by identifying what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do better. In an isolated situation, this is a crucial event. If a Team that is used to working in physical proximity is suddenly thrust into a virtual world, it is going to be hard. Process will need to be examined, iterated on, and improved. People will need to learn to work with each other in a different way.  When things work well, they should be celebrated and replicated wherever possible. 

 

I have one final piece of advice to give: try this tomorrow. Set up a distributed team before any potential disaster strikes. Just have everyone work from home tomorrow. It’ll be messy, but it will let you figure out what needs to be done to make it better. It’s Agile, right? Learn by doing.

That’s one team. But what if you have more than one Team, or dozens, or hundreds? The same process you are doing now still applies. The Scrum Masters raise impediments in the Scaled Daily Scrum, up to the Executive Action Team. So the Teams know that their leadership not only cares about them in this situation, but is taking concrete action to make it better.

The Product Owners are still coordinating in their Metascrums, responding quickly to a rapidly changing world.

And that is how Scrum gives us the final value of the Agile Manifesto: Respond to Change over Following a Plan. We all know that the world moves at an incredibly rapid rate, that change is inevitable, and that has only been made more stark by the current spread of COVID-19. We don’t know what is going to happen. There is no way to know. 

What Scrum allows us to do is not only to respond to events, to be resilient, to recover from them. It gives us the tools to be stronger from them. Adversity makes a Scrum Team stronger. It’s not being able to survive change, it’s being able to thrive within it. 

 

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