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Agile Teams In A Time of Disruption: How To Optimize Distributed Team Performance

Agile Teams In A Time of Disruption Webinar ScreenshotThe pandemic has changed the way we all work. 

And it’s time we embrace reality; even when the disruption of COVID-19 ends, some elements of the virtual ways we now work will remain. 

This can be beneficial for organizations, teams, and individuals. For example, the ability to work remotely has proven to be a boon for recruiting and retaining talent. 

However, for organizations to truly capitalize on the potential of distributed teams, they must be able to optimize virtual team performance. 

This begins by understanding the nature of virtual teams themselves. Not just the tools needed to coordinate and align these teams, but how to form them, launch them, and nurture them in ways that empower these teams to perform as well as they did when co-location was the norm. 

It can be done. Actually, it must be done, if your organization is to succeed. 

Scrum Inc.’s Avi Schneier is one of our principal consultants who has helped organizations large and small meet this challenge. He recently shared his insights during a 30-minute webinar hosted by the International Institute for Learning

Here are just two of Avi’s insights into how you can optimize the performance of your distributed teams:

The Power of Working Agreements

There is no way Professor Bruce Tuckman could have conceived of today’s virtual world and distributed teams. Yet today his work may be more than ever.

Back in the 1960s, Tuckman began studying how the dynamics of small groups and teams evolved over time. He eventually identified five stages of a team’s life cycle:

  •     Forming: Members are excited to begin their new endeavor together
  •     Storming: When personality, approaches, and work styles clash as the team begins to work together 
  •     Norming: Member discover each other’s strengths and how to work with one another
  •     Performing: This is when the team reaches peak productivity and creativity. Achieved only after they have built strong relationships, are comfortable working together, and have streamlined their process
  •     Mourning: When team members feel a sense of accomplishment and disappointment when the team breaks up.

 Avi is quick to point out the mourning (also called adjourning) stage is not usually associated with Agile and Scrum teams because “we want our teams to be persistent and stay together.” But the first four stages are always at play. 

Professor Tuckman saw these stages as a linear progression. Avi believes it’s time to revisit that belief. “We see the Tuckman model as a cycle,” he explains. All the stages are present, but the team can move up and down the cycle based on changes, disruptions, and conditions. “For example, when a new person joins or when someone leaves it can push you back into a previous stage,” such as from performing to norming or even storming. 

This was true even before the pandemic which made remote or distributed teams a necessity and not a choice for most organizations. An instant disruption of that magnitude left many enterprises unable to focus on distributed team processes, alignment, and cohesion. 

Communication can easily break down in these situations, and that’s not all. Avi adds this kind of disruption leaves “team members feeling isolated, lonely, bored,” and worse. These negative feelings, in turn, can revert even high-performing teams to the storming stage. “So, we have to focus on how to get them back to the performing stage as fast as possible.” 

Enter the Team Working Agreement.

Avi explains it as a form of a social contract as posited by Jean Jacques Rousseau. “When it comes to a culture or any group of people, there is an unwritten code of behavior and an unwritten set of rules.” He adds that “high functioning societies write those rules down.” 

The same is true for high functioning teams and organizations.  Just where to start, however, can be confusing. 

So Avi created this team working agreement canvas inspired by Lean canvas. “In this working agreement, we handle a lot of different things, like their mission, roles, responsibilities, metrics, and our products.”

Having a distributed team establish a working agreement can drive them to the performing stage by accelerating their progress through the less optimal storming and norming stages. 

This tool, Avi explains, allows teams to identify things like, “What are our strengths and skills? What are our gaps and growth opportunities? How are we going to communicate? Celebrate successes and improve? What values do we as a team wish to live by? And then of course we have our norms and guidelines, our code of behavior that we want to institute for our team.”

Overcoming the Co-Location Conundrum 

In the past, explains Avi, distributed teams “were classified often as ones that had a group of workers in the office and then some remote workers”. This was often based on a pre-established work from home schedule. 

 Co-location was still a cornerstone of high-performing Agile teams. 

The sudden switch to all remote disrupted this pattern for success. So how can organizations achieve the same level of productivity in the current scenario? Avi suggests examining different styles for distributed teams. 

Avi refers to one such style as ‘isolated Scrums’. “The idea behind this is a Scrum Team operating on its own. Or you might have multiple Scrum Teams in different geographic locations that don't need to coordinate.”  

Scrum Teams should be cross-functional, meaning they possess all of the skills required to do the work. “Everything,” he states, “from ideation to implementation.” 

This style may sound great and was widely used before COVID-19. But, Avi ads, at scale “it didn’t work very well.” 

Why? It lacks coordination. Which inhibits alignment. Two of the key reasons co-location is so effective in boosting productivity. 

Therefore, to overcome the co-location conundrum, Avi says you need a framework that reestablishes these functions of co-location. “They need to hold something like a distributed Daily Scrum. And what I mean by this is you have to have a touchpoint for everyone even though they may be in different time zones or even in multiple countries.”

And there are multiple ways to effectively hold a distributed Daily Scrum across time zones. If no such touchpoint exists, he warns, “dysfunction can arise.” 

The lesson here is clear; co-location can’t be faked. But your organization can compensate when it is not an option by utilizing prioritized virtual Product Backlogs with clear Acceptance Criteria and Definitions of Done. By holding virtual Scrum and Scrum@Scale Events on regular cadences to provide structure. And more. 

If you fail to do this, your remote teams will be left to act in isolation. Productivity, alignment, and communications will suffer at the team level. 

These problems compound exponentially when multiple teams are involved. 

These are just two of the ways to optimize distributed team performance Avi explored. He also explains how to create the right communication channels, tooling, swarming, and how to effectively use a Product Backlog to keep remote teams aligned, coordinated, engaged, and productive.  

You can watch that 30-minute webinar, complete with slides here

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