Posts Tagged ‘distributed’

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?


I am currently working with a distributed team and we use JIRA for our sprint task board. We use it in our daily scrum (I can’t call it a stand-up) via Zoom. Over time, I’ve noticed that there are some things that come “for free” with a physical board, but are hidden or not as obviously visible on a digital board (at least not in JIRA). We have found workarounds for some and not for others and, perhaps, depending on the team, not having some of this information “in your face” might be OK. However, I thought I’d make a list of things to look out for if you happen to be using a digital rather than physical board for your team. Also this blog is all about learning 🙂

Please note, I’m only basing my observations on JIRA for this blog post because that is what we use. I suspect that most digital task boards have similar issues.

1. Who’s doing what?

My teams in the past have used personalised avatars to indicate who’s doing what task(s) for the day. We found this had two related benefits:

  1. You were naturally constrained to the number of avatars you happened to have available to you (although it was still fairly easy to take on more merely by initialing the sticky).
  2. It was very easy to see at a glance where a task had too many people, or where one person seemed to have spread themselves to thin, or where someone hadn’t committed themselves to a task.

When asking the question, “what do you notice about our focus?”, it was easy for the team to notice where they may have over- or under-committed themselves for the day. Or to notice and confirm where they were swarming for the day.

In JIRA, only one person can be assigned to a task. It’s not visually obvious where multiple people are working on a task. Also, because we usually only expand the story we’re currently talking about – and usually our full sprint of stories doesn’t fit into the view if we expand all rows – it’s very hard for the team to see good and bad patterns in how they have allocated themselves to tasks for the day.

2. Where are we stuck?

One of the tools one can use on a physical board when it seems a team is taking a while to get things done, is to start dotting tasks. The idea is that a task gets dotted for every day that it has been in progress and not finished. As the task develops measles, it’s pretty obvious where someone may be blocked or may need help.

JIRA does have the concept of task-dotting, but it’s very hard to see (it’s a light gray) and unfortunately the dots don’t stick around. They disappear as soon as someone moves the task to the next column on the board (so, for example, a task that may have been in progress for two days will suddenly have no dots when it moves to the show me column).

When dots have measles, it’s easier for the team to notice where tasks are dragging on for days and do something about it. You don’t really want tasks that have started to take more than a day to finish.

3. How big is our story?

This is probably (hopefully?) a JIRA funny. When we’re viewing the active sprint and sprint board, the story points aren’t visible. Assuming you use story points, they can be useful in helping the team notice when a story is taking too long – a supplement to the burn-down (see below) and tasks with measles (point 2 above). We have a workaround in that we add the story points to the end of the story title. It would be cool not to have to do this.

4. What’s our progress?

JIRA generates a pretty cool burn-down. But it’s not visible on the sprint task-board (which is the view we use for our Scrum meeting). How you’re doing on your burn-down is quite an important piece of feedback for how to adjust your plan for the day. Our workaround is to publish it on Slack before we meet, but it would still be useful to have it visible for the conversation.

5. What’s our goal?

I love (good) sprint goals. I find they give the team something specific to aim for that still allows for creative ways to respond to minor changes that emerge during the sprint. Goals are also a really useful way to bring the team back to the bigger picture in terms of sprint progress: “Are we on track to achieve our goal?”; “What are you doing today to help the team achieve the goal?”. So we create an awesome team sprint goal and ideally we want to have it front-of-mind when planning our tasks for the day. On a physical board, this is easy: it can be as simple as printing your goal on a piece of paper and sticking it to the board (ideally in colour and with sparkles). On a digital board, one needs to get a little more creative. In our case, we write the goal as a story at the top of the sprint and try remember to refer to it before we start our daily conversation. It seems to be working, but it does blend into all the other sprint work.

6. There are other aggregate data questions that are harder to answer

As Jacques de Vos once said: “If you have to scroll, you can’t see the whole“.

With a physical board, the team can usually notice useful things when answering questions like:

  • What do you notice about our tasks in progress?
  • Where do we seem to have the most focus?
  • What do we notice on the board about stories not started?
  • What do we notice about the state of our overall sprint in terms of stories in progress and not started?

Usually a quick glance at how stickies (whether stories or tasks) are grouped in the various lanes of the task board can provide a lot of insight into how things are going – especially if the distribution pattern is looking different to what the team is used to and/or expects to see. With JIRA, this view isn’t easily available. Expanding all of the rows creates a very busy view which is also not guaranteed to fit without the need to scroll. Collapsing the rows hides the task distribution (which may hide other things) and also the story status is represented by a word rather than the story’s location relative to the board’s columns and other stories.

7. There’s usually a driver

The way we use JIRA, someone screen-shares the taskboard in our Zoom session and that person automatically becomes the ‘driver’. What I’ve noticed about this is:

  • People are less likely to interact with the board during stand-up: they’d rather ask the driver to make updates or create emergent tasks
  • Some people are scared to drive (probably a tool thing – either JIRA and/or Zoom), so never do
  • The driver can get distracted by the mechanics of having the right story expanded, or making changes in JIRA, or whatever – so are not always fully present in the conversation
  • If the driver ends up being someone in a “leadership” position (e.g. a senior developer, the Product Owner), then sometimes they subtly control the decisions the team makes in terms of what they plan to do for the day because they can move things or assign things before the team have finished their discussion
  • All of the above means that the negative aspects of “you do it, you own it” sometimes sneak in…

I shared some of these challenges on the #zacoachclub channel in the Coaching Circles Slack Group and got some useful ideas to try out:

  • Write down in detail what information you really need the board to show so that it becomes your information radiator. Then lose all pre-conceived notions of how a board should look and how your tool sets up its boards. Based on the info you need: what could a board in your digital tool look like?
  • Try to represent the info you need in something other than your tool (i.e. JIRA) – maybe Google Draw or something. Once you have something that works, try implement that in your digital tool.
  • If the problem is too many things on the board, could your sprint/commitment be smaller to fit everything in one view?
  • Create a filter that filters out “old” done items and try to only work from the top story (limit work-in-progress).
  • Shift some of the information elsewhere e.g. Say pairs work on the story – they break down tasks in another place (Trello?) and feed back only relevant info to the greater team on the story which is in JIRA. Feedback to their mini team is much more granular and on another board/tool.

Do you use a digital board on your team? What challenges have you experienced? What did you try?


This is a post in a series on the talks that I attended at my first ever Agile Africa Conference in Johannesburg. All posts are based on the sketch-notes that I took in the sessions. 

agileafricaSam and Karen started by clarifying what they meant by distributed teams: teams that don’t sit in the same location. They then categorised distributed teams into three main categories:

  1. Teams that work in the same time zone and/or the majority of their working/office hours overlap
  2. Teams that work in different time zones but there is some overlap of working/office hours
  3. Teams that work in different time zones or have different shifts so that there is no overlap of working/office hours.

For each, they then shared some common characteristics and where best to focus energy.

Full Overlap

These teams are characterised by synchronous communication. Here the best focus would be on technology and tools to ensure that communication is as easy as possible when people are distributed. They suggested some ideas like a video wall (expensive option) or running Skype continuously in the background (cheap option) to allow synchronous communication and cues to happen as naturally as possible.

Partial Overlap

Communication in these teams is largely asynchronous (e.g. email), so time together is valuable. Rather than use this time for things that can be communicated is an asynchronous manner, focus on using team time to create understanding. A practical example in the Scrum world is rather than use overlapping time for something like a stand-up (which can also be done via an update in most cases), use it for things like Grooming and Planning where more complicated conversations are required to flesh out understanding and work through difficult problems.

No Overlap

Their main ideas here related to being creative with

  • Tools e.g. creating a video for reviews and stand-up that can be distributed to the other team(s)
  • Rotating a team member who “takes one for the team” and changes their office hours so that there is some overlap with the other team(s).
  • Planning work to try to keep work where there are dependencies in teams that are working in similar time zones.

Besides the advice above, they also had the following general tips:

  • Use Good Technology
  • Have and Use Working Agreements
    • “Bottom Line” – a phrase used when people start to waffle and need to get to the point
    • Talking Over – agreement on what happens if people talk over each other. One idea is to give the facilitator permission to provide the order of who speaks in what order.
    • Multiple back-up plans – So if (when) the technology fails, everyone automatically knows which one to try next (and it doesn’t need to be discussed)
    • Silence – Silence is OK
  • Good Voice Trumps Bad Video
  • Same Experience for All
    • If one person needs to dial in, then everyone should dial in
  • Prepare
    • Prepare for sessions more than you would for face-to-face: agendas, tools, pre-reading, etc.

You can find more tips at

I’ve shared some of my thoughts on distributed teams in a previous post. What have your experiences been with working on a Distributed Team?

chasm1I’m currently a member of a coaching circle and our topic last week was “Non co-located or distributed teams”. Then this week someone from our marketing department approached me. We’ve decided to bring our public website in-house and they need a new team, but history has shown us that finding new developers of the calibre we want is no easy feat. One option we haven’t explored to date is developers who work remotely (which would mean we could look farther afield) and he wanted to know what my opinions were. I offered to compile some information for him, including some of the conclusions from my coaching circle discussion, and then figured it was worth adding it to my blog too.

I have worked in distributed teams before – from formal project teams with developers on-site in Cape Town working with off-site analysts, testers and project managers in London; to informal ‘leadership’ teams across offices over three locations and two countries; to performance managing direct reports working in an office 2000 km away. The common point of success or failure every time? The people on the team. The next biggest point of frustration every time? The type and quality of communication tools available.


There is a lot of literature out there around the types of behaviours you want in agile team members and, obviously, each company also has its own set of values and culture it looks for in new hires. This list is a list of traits that stood out for me as things that made someone great to collaborate with when working in a distributed fashion. All too often, people without these traits made distributed collaboration quite difficult and sometimes impossible!

  • Emotional maturity – able to communicate without getting emotional about things; can handle openness.
  • Strong team norms – when the team agrees to try something or work in a particular way, this person will take accountability for whatever they have to do even if it wasn’t their preferred way of doing things
  • Effective communication – verbal and written. Can write and read well. Can get their point across and summarise well.
  • Takes responsibility for preparation – if things are distributed beforehand for people to read or prepare, then this work is done. Doesn’t walk into meetings “blind”.
  • Knows how to use tools and knows about conference call etiquette (this could be covered as training for the whole team).
  • Is proactive in staying ‘in the loop’ – will ask questions if they see something that they don’t know about (defaults to information gathering rather than assuming if it was important enough someone would let them know).
  • A T-shaped person – or at least someone who is prepared to do tasks that are not ‘part of their job description’


Other Success Factors

This list was compiled by my coaching circle:

  1. Face-to-face is necessary for initial trust building and to create coherence. Where possible, having everyone co-located for a period at the start of the project makes a huge difference. Also gets people used to the way others work without the ‘noise’ of not being co-located.
  2. Would be helpful to find ways to have online virtual interaction (outside of work) e.g. online games/ice breakers/other experiences.
  3. Face-to-face tools are a must.
  4. After an extended period, it helps to have team members ‘rotate’ as traveling ambassadors.
  5. Need to understand cultural differences. Probably worth having a facilitated session to highlight/understand these.
  6. If you have teams working in areas, then have an on-site SM/coach per team.
  7. Keep teams small.
  8. Try pair/collaborate with an offsite person as often as possible.
  9. If you have teams in different locations, have a dedicated facilitator in each location for meetings (like planning, review).



What has your experience been with working in or with distributed teams? What did and did not work for you?