Monday, May 5, 2008

Aloof Agilty

Yes, I suspect this might be a contentious post, however, I think its a subject that affects many people these days with offsite and offshore working habits on the increase. On a number of occasions, I have heard arguments that remote teams can work very well together and the reason I bring up this topic is to gauge opinion out there. There is no need for the sake of this argument to even consider language or cultural barriers, I would like to keep the discussion purely down to the communication aspects geographically dispersed teams.

It is harder to communicate with individuals or parts of a team who are dispersed - when I am deeply engrossed in a problem, I want to be able to quickly convene and discuss the items round a whiteboard or go to Starbucks - where many great ideas have been born. I am prepared to concede that some of the items listed below are due to my lack of understanding of how to make them work - I genuinely want to know if folk out there think it can succeed. Indeed can we call it agile if a team is not collocated?

Following are a few of the things I consider potential problems with distributed teams -
1. Try to call them - they can easily ignore the call
2. IM them - can easily be ignored
3. Post on a message board - delayed communication
4. Video link - can easily be switched off, ignored
5. Can't easily share ad-hoc conversations
6. Much harder to pair up for work or coach people
7. Tends to lead to less of a team and more of a rivalry culture
8. Much harder to use low-fidelity, low-tech approaches such as information radiators and story cards
9. Almost any form of agility puts the customer at the center - if the customer is only on one site, how can the people working away from that site be working in an agile manner?
10. Phone and video systems are prone to technical problems

My feeling is that all things being equal, a completely collocated team using big visible charts and other low-fi practices stands a greater chance of success than a distributed team who are forced to use hi-tech, computerized and error prone forms of communication. Simple techniques such as whiteboards, post it notes, index cards and flip charts help to short circuit communication and get the point across in a faster, simpler and less ambiguous way.

I have persevered with many different techniques with offsite personnel and non quite seem to fit the bill for me - maybe I am just not trying hard enough. Perhaps over time its possible to learn to be much more effective and communicate as well using complex communication mechanisms as we do face-to-face.

Thoughts?

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