It’s a distributed stand-up! Now what?

Posted: August 31, 2017 in Agile, facilitation, Scrum, Team
Tags: , , ,

download In my opinion, one way to make a team coach feel really useless, is distribute their team across multiple locations where it’s really hard to observe their interactions with one another. For me, a lot of my “obvious” work and channels disappeared when that happened and it’s taken me a while to find alternative ways to provide the insights and support that my team needs. I also had to take a step back and acknowledge that when working distributed, certain elements of effective co-located collaboration no longer matter or have negligible impact on team greatness, whereas new elements turn out to be important levers. The trick, it turns out, is to identify what exactly those are. And I suspect, as always, that they will be different for each team.

For example, the daily stand-up or Scrum. A time for the team to sync up and share what happened the day before so that they can plan and adjust for the day to come. An opportunity to celebrate achievements and adjust for disappointments. A good time to interact and build some team rapport. The standard method is everyone stands up (to help maintain focus and brevity) around a task board (for visibility) and speaks to what they achieved yesterday (speaking and moving their tasks to show progress and create psychological ownership) and what they hope to achieve today that will help the team achieve their sprint goal. The Scrum Master and Product Owner observe – and perhaps facilitate – and ask questions where blockers might be hiding in what the team has to say. And the outcome is everyone on the team walks away with a plan for how they will contribute to the team’s success today – and a commitment to each other that they will do their utmost to complete what they have agreed to do for the day.

There are some parallels when we are working distributed – the task board, for example. There are some practices that are just impractical – like standing up. And there are others that may detract more than they add (for example, in our case, it seems less confusing to have one “driver” for the session than to pass control during the stand-up). Sometimes the limitations are tool-related. Sometimes it’s just the nature of working as a distributed team.

So what changes have I tried when facilitating a distributed stand-up? So far, these ones seem to be working:

  1. I try to watch all of the faces. We use Zoom and there is a setting where you can view all of the attendees on a single screen. Whenever we have a distributed meeting – not only stand-up – I spend most of my time and attention watching the faces of the attendees. It’s a good way to notice how people are responding to the session and give clues as to when people are tired (my team can’t do distributed for much longer than 45 minutes), or confused, or distracted, or are trying to ask a question.
  2. I make a note of who has spoken or been “spoken for” in terms of the plan for the day. Basically I listen out for what each person or pair is doing today and at the end of the stand-up, I explicitly ask individuals to share where I haven’t managed to tick them off on my list of names. Note, this is less about everyone having a chance to speak, and more to ensure everyone has made visible to the team what they plan to do for the day. I’ve noticed it’s really hard for my team to keep track of this themselves in a distributed stand-up.
  3. I try to notice if people are trying to say something and find ways to ensure that they get a chance to speak without speaking over the person who is currently speaking. Sometimes this may mean providing an order for people to speak in (you then you then you) if a group happens to accidentally speak over each other.
  4. In my opinion, certain on-line tools (like a digital task board) may satisfy the superficial purpose of the physical tool (e.g. visible stories and tasks for the team to talk to), but not necessarily the deeper purpose (e.g. the psychological ownership that comes with writing and moving a physical sticky). So I’m continuously researching and experimenting with new ways to achieve these outcomes within the context of a distributed team.

For me, the following facilitation activities are still valuable when facilitating  a distributed stand-up

  1. When necessary, introducing the session to re-confirm the purpose and outcomes – especially if there are newer team members or things have started to go a little off-track
  2. Listening out for impediment words
  3. Using open-ended questions to help the team develop insights or notice information

One thing I have noticed, is paying attention in a distributed session is REALLY exhausting. It is also very difficult to split your attention between people “watching” and understanding the content. In my case, I have decided to prioritise the former over the latter, which sometimes leads to other interesting side-effects. On the upside, I’ve become great at asking “stupid questions” 😉

What have your experiences been with distributed stand-ups? What were the challenges? What were the opportunities?

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