Yes! You Can Be Successful at Being Agile Remotely

Being Agile requires a change in focus on the skills that we value. While face-to-face contact is generally preferred, it is not always possible. This does not mean that being Agile is not possible, but it does require a different level of focus.

Because communication has a material nonverbal component to it, we lose a significant amount of message content if we cannot clearly view the other party we are attempting to communicate with. You can gain significant insights by paying attention to body language and facial expressions. Remote team members typically lack the face-to-face time that is so instrumental to building rapport, understanding individuality, and enhancing relationships.

The Scrum Guide says nothing about team colocation. It does indicate that “development teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work.” In addition, one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto states that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” However, this does not mean that any other communication method is a non-starter.

In their book From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby describe what it takes to have successful Agile teams as follows:

  • Have the necessary skills and capabilities their team requires to deliver on their objectives
  • Are committed to a common purpose or goal
  • Are interdependent and therefore make commitments about the work to each other
  • Learn to understand each other: their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences
  • Plan and deliver the work in a collaborative fashion, which can include co-designing, co-creating, pair reviewing, or mobbing on the work
  • Reflect together, reviewing their work and their process in a collaborative fashion
  • Are committed to one team and one team only

At first glance, this seems to necessitate face-to-face contact in order to be successful.However, let’s look at the skills required before coming to that conclusion:

  • Embracing Ambiguity
    • Teams working remotely often need to experiment more in order to see what works and doesn’t work. While there are recommendations and guidance, each team behaves differently when working remotely and it will take time to figure it out. Distributed Agile teams – and their leaders – often need to experiment even more to understand what works for them.
  • Collaborate frequently and often
    • Successful agile teams implicitly use flow efficiency. They all work together to get work complete. In this way, the team does not suffer from handoffs the way other teams might. The more the team works together, the faster they are. The team learns how to work together, how to learn together, and how to solve problems together. They have few delays in their team process (Rothman and Kilby).
  • Empathy
    • Empathy is about identifying with other people's perspectives. It is important to better understand other people's competencies, their work preferences, and nuances in their communication patterns. This enables teams to come to a better understanding on how to work with one another to better function as a cohesive team.
  • Self-Management
    • While self-managing and organizing is a key element of successful Agile teams, it becomes even more important with the lack of day-to-day formality that comes with working remotely. Remote team members need to apply techniques to ensure that they are serving their teammates effectively.

These skills should look familiar, as we've discussed them before when talking about how Agile Skills Don't Revolve Around Ceremonies and Procedures. Additionally, Atlassian talks about this when discussing the secret to remote teams and how they can be part of a thriving Agile culture.

Our Take

Info-Tech sees these as valuable behaviors. However, our research shows that they are aspects of a broader quality: discipline.

The inconsistency of discipline across a team can be compensated for easily when the members are local. However, these variances in discipline become deal breakers for remote Agile teams.

We think about discipline as “the quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying particular rules or standards.”

There are many different aspects of discipline that are important:

  1. Working the method – Discipline in following through with ceremonies and processes is important to support the team and its ability to deliver software. This is different than knowing how to do the ceremonies and processes. For example, you could understand the rules around daily standups, but if you only do them every third or fourth time, then you are impeding your ability to deliver.
  2. Communication – This refers to not only communication methods but also communication frequency.
  3. Functional Decomposition – Understanding the why behind decomposition and the benefits that it offers the team and its ability to deliver is critical.
  4. Self-Management – Being vigilant and continually monitoring, regulating, and adjusting the work that you put out and how you interact with others.
  5. Learning – Discipline in learning refers to two areas:
    • Drive for self-improvement – Being self-reflective, understanding where one has gaps, and being willing to research and study to self-improve.
    • Constant curiosity – Being curious about new areas, whether or not they are related to what you are currently working on, and making the time to stay up to speed on new things.

Want to Know More?

To learn more about the Agile skills and values that are truly important, please refer to our research: