Agile for large and distributed teams: conversations with Al Shalloway, Mike DeAngelo and the Wikispeed team

Three great conversations about Agile and Scrum in recent days, with Al Shalloway of the Lean Software and Systems Consortium in Seattle; Mike DeAngelo, Deputy CIO of the State of Washington; and Clay Osterman and Joe Justice from Team WIKISPEED in Lynnwood. Common threads in these conversations:

  • Scaling up Scrum to large projects (e.g. the global WIKISPEED team numbers close to 300 people), and
  • Adapting Scrum for distributed teams (where people are located in multiple offices).

Agile purists might well recoil at the prospect of Scrum teams that can’t be fed with a single large pizza (the traditional rule-of-thumb for the optimal team size, still followed at companies like Amazon) or having to deal with people in multiple locations that can’t have face-to-face contact., but these are real-world problems for many organizations, and simply saying “No”, because the idea of very large or distributed teams offends one’s theology about Agile, isn’t a useful stance to take.

Increasingly, large organizations are distributed across cities, timezones, and even continents, and complex systems require large delivery teams. A pragmatic approach is necessary, not a purist one: we need to consider how we can adapt the basic principles of Scrum to meet the real-world needs of large organizations. Here are some lessons learned over the years in how to adapt Scrum for large or distributed teams:

  • Let multiple project teams push/pull items from a single Backlog, so that many small teams can work in parallel on a single system, rather than a single, large team take on the entire Backlog. This requires coordination among the various teams through a “Scrum of Scrums”: each individual team does it’s Daily Standup, and then the Scrum Masters of each team participate in a second meta-Standup where they report to each other on their particular teams’ progress and impediments.
    To succeed, you need project tools that make it very easy to have multiple teams push and pull items from a single Backlog. The project management system must make it easy for any any member of any team to have real-time visibility into the progress of every other team, so that the task of managing dependencies can be pushed down to individual team members rather than concentrated within the Scrum Masters. (Leaving it up to the Scrum Masters alone to manage all the inter-dependencies leaves you with the same single-point-of-failure that you have with traditional Waterfall approaches.)
  • Try stay within the “1 large pizza” size for individual teams. There’s a simple, practical reason why you should avoid having individual teams become much more than 8 in number: the Daily Standup takes too long, and people start to either under-report, or tune out much of the discussion.

    If a team has 20 people for example, and each person simply took 30 seconds to say what they had done, 30 seconds for what they plan to do next, and 30 seconds to describe impediments, that still adds up to a 30-minute long Standup!

    When faced with a Daily Standup that has become something of an ordeal, people tend to under-report, as a coping mechanism, and, frequently, what they under-report (under-discuss?) are the impediments.

    This can be fatal to the team’s overall success: problems and worries are not discussed very well, and eventually accumulate to the point where they become fatally large.

  • Split up the work, not the team. If your people are distributed across multiple locations, it is far better to split up the work rather than the teams: in other words, give each location a different set of deliverables, rather than try to get people working in several locations to work on the same deliverables.
    Too many organizations, particularly when they first built onshore-offshore teams, cling to the myth of “following the sun”: the idea that a team in India, for example, could work on a deliverable during Indian working hours, and then hand that work off at the end of the day to a California-based team that is conveniently 12-hours away.

    This is the myth of continuous work: the notion that the same deliverable can effectively be worked on 24 hours a day, by having two shifts of people work on it in non-overlapping timezones.This simply doesn’t work for most knowledge-intensive professions, like software development or product design.

    A huge effort is needed to hand over work at the end of each workday, and invariably there is a significant impact upon the work-life balance of the people involved: either the India team or the California team, in our example, would have to sacrifice their evenings in order to accommodate regular phone calls with the other team. Eventually (sooner rather than later), people get burned out by having their workdays extend into their evenings on a regular basis, and you are faced with high turnover.
    Splitting up the work means you can have loosely-coupled teams, where there isn’t the same burden of keeping every person aligned on a daily basis. A project tool that makes it easy for everyone to have a real-time view of everyone else’s work is essential, of course, but you no longer have to have Standups that would otherwise easily take up an hour each day.

What do you think? Let us know your best practices!

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