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Top 5 Agile Myths: Myth #4 Agile Only Works When People are Co-located

As I’ve written previously, it is exciting to see more and more organizations adopting Agile development processes, as Agile helps organizations speed time to market, lower project risk and improve relations between business and IT.  In my continuing efforts to clarify what Agile is and how it can help, this post addresses the fourth of my Top 5 myths about Agile development.

Myth #4: Agile only works when people are co-located

I hear a lot of people tell me that they want to move to an Agile approach, but they can’t because their team is not co-located. This is one of the more frustrating misconceptions I hear. Too many organizations miss out on the benefits of Agile because of statements like this.

Is it true that Agile practices are best implemented in a co-located environment? Yes.

Does that mean you cannot gain benefits from Agile practices when your team is geographically disbursed? No.

The geographic divide creates challenges, but they can be addressed. The three biggest problems caused by geographic separation are:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Planning

Communication is one of the most important factors to Agile success. Frequent discussions allow people to make quicker and more informed decisions. Geographically disbursed teams cannot interact as easily. My teams address this through technology. We select an instant message tool so that the team can quickly chat with one another. We use a video chat tool like Skype or Google Hangouts to simulate face to face communication. Finally, we use desktop sharing tools like join.me or Google Hangouts to “show” other team members what we are working on. The video helps with meetings to make sure that everyone is engaged and paying attention to what is being said.

The best Agile teams work closely together. Improved collaboration is mostly about coaching. It is important to get everyone on the team to think collaboration first. First, I find times and places to encourage the team to speak with one another. Typically I encourage quick meetings or fun events so that everyone is comfortable reaching out to one another. Second I look for opportunities to show team members where they would have more success or save time by collaborating with a teammate or the product owner. Regular, positive reminders help separated team members to think “collaboration first.”

Planning is harder when people are separated. Hallway conversations allow people to prepare for planning meetings and that doesn’t happen with geographically distributed teams. In-person dynamics make meetings run smoother because people can gauge other people’s reactions. To account for this, as part of scrum, I schedule a quick pre-planning meeting so that everyone on the team has a chance to understand the backlog and the product owner priorities before the formal sprint planning meeting. When people are remote, things run smoother when they are given that time to plan.

Geographic separation definitely makes Agile more difficult. However, don’t pass on the benefits of Agile delivery just because teams aren’t co-located. Geographically disbursed teams can still make use of Agile with a little extra work and effective use of technology.

Joe Hilger Joe Hilger A senior technologist with expertise in search, content management, and unstructured information. He focuses on creating solutions that have a meaningful impact for his clients. More from Joe Hilger »