Saturday, June 6, 2009

Agile Virtual Teams

Somebody asked: can a virtual team do Agile? Of course, with some adjustments. Here are my thoughts on this.

The communications channel:

Virtual teams often begin by emulating the behavior and circumstances of real teams. The first thought is communications. Real teams can handle a much greater N2 communication intensity because much of person-to-person communication is non-verbal.

What is N2? It's really N-squared. It's the approximate number of ways objects can communicate. The real formula is N(N-1). There are 5*4 ways 5 people can talk among themselves.

Non-verbal is a very high bandwidth channel, capable of communicating a large information message instantly, although the messages are often highly encoded and subject to inaccurate decoding. It's much easier to sort out the cacophony of discussion if you can put face and voice and context together.

Consequently, when planning for virtual teams, bear in mind that virtual teams don't have the luxury of infinite bandwidth

Velocity impacts:

Some teams relish the hub-bub of real time communications, and others do not. Good practice is to benchmark the virutal velocity before beginning the first iteration.

Assigning team work:

Assigning work to virtual teams should follow this simple rule: partition work according to its natural boundaries that minimize and simplify interfaces. Albert Einstein has been quoted to the effect: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not too simple". But over simplification is hazardous also. The solution can lose cohesion and the bigger picture becomes so obscured that effective solutions are not possible to build from the too-small parts.

Iteration Planning and tracking:

The iteration planning meeting is the agile mechanism for assigning work. All the team's complement attends. The same applies to a virtual team.

Tracking progress and identifying problems:

Only the daily stand-up meeting is affected by the communications unique to virtual teams. The less efficient electronic channels may have to be compensated by extending the time-box of the daily stand-up.

The burn-down and trending data is part of the team scorecard posted electronically as opposed to marking a whiteboard in a team space.

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