Organizational & Team Best Practices

In the previous article in this series, we started exploring the general organizational and team best practices for agile-scrum projects. In this article, we’re going to finish up a few basic issues and then move into points for distributed teams specifically.

As we have said, the main issue to be considered for software development with agile-scrum teams is communication. If communication is in any way blocked or stifled by cultural or organizational constraints, the team and the project will suffer. In a very real way, knowing how far along the work is on a given user story is part of that communication.  We discussed building the technical elements of a system for test-driven development and continuous integration for projects, but there is an organizational element too.  Team members must feel these tools are a part of their obligation to their team. They must use them religiously and fully to ensure the tools are doing the job of maintaining code and the development process for all team members. Here a few simple rules to live by:

  • All development team members should check work into the common code base as frequently as possible.
  • Automated, continuous builds should be run hourly with full logs turned on.
  • Each individual team member must exchange a clean build by the end of their shift. Avoid situations where an individual is allowed to push multiple builds outside team core hours that could take planned work or tasks off course.
  • If a specific development issue is to be addressed outside of core hours by developers, ensure the scope, limitations, and boundaries are clearly negotiated with everyone and adhered to.

Distributed Team Best Practices

Agile Teams - Nearshore Development

When a software development project is based on distributed teams, some specific organizational practices need to be considered. It isn’t enough to just set up groups in a couple of places, and expect everything to work like it did when you were all sitting in the same big room and able to just turn around and see your teammate.

The first point to consider is how each distributed team in the project will work. One common practice is to put all the QA (as an example) in one team and to have another team be just developers. The problem is – when locations are role-based, they tend to lose overall team collaboration and become an island to themselves. The tendency in this situation is to move to an “us against them” mentality. To avoid this, set up fully cross-functional teams that have their own user stories and backlog. It promotes the team and individual responsibility and gives them a clear role in the project as a whole.

With that in mind, there are a few additional points to consider:

  • Use feature-based, rather than component or layer-based teams because it ensures teams continue to have a feeling of being integrated with other teams with shared vision and knowledge. It also allows them to be more flexible if the project changes. They can take on a different backlog because they understand where the project is going.
  • agile teams - nearshore software development Distribute work evenly – don’t allow one team to sit fallow while another catches up. This, of course, implies that regular discussions of workload (a scrum of scrums), dependencies, and assumptions is critical to the balance on the project as a whole.
  • When a team has a local “proxy” for the client-side product owner, it is critical that that proxy role has daily contact and communication with the core product owner to assure they can make decisions quickly and with the assurance they are in sync with the current vision.
  • Each team must feel enabled to clarify issues directly with the client side (they have their own user stories – remember…) and not be tied to a chain of notification. Invariably,  notification chains shorten messages, misunderstand the context, and create communication loops that just slow down clarification and decisions.
  • Teams must have daily points of contact between them (scrum of scrums again) to discuss progress, dependencies, impediments, etc. and assure product owners are not being quarried about the same issues multiple times.

One Team Member “Outside”

There are times when it is necessary to have one lone team member outside the main development group or even a couple of individuals remotely located by themselves.  This is not an unusual situation, but it is one that takes care to handle properly. All the work you do to assure a cohesive, collaborative team can be lost when one remote member is not paying their role and participating in the process properly.

In basic terms, all the distributed team and organizational best practices apply except:

  • Single development team members cannot be a stand-alone unit in the same way a minimal team can – so they need to be formally paired with other team members in a way that assures they will remain “in the loop” throughout the project. To make this work, consider pair programming (especially early in the project) and pairing with a specific QA.
  • Avoid situations where single team members are outside of the team core hours more by more than one or two hours. Longer isolation will simply assure they will not integrate easily with the rest of the team – they will remain the lone wolf on the outside you have to watch constantly to assure they don’t go off course.
  • “Standard practices” (development environment, burndown chart, shared repositories, active participation in meetings, communication systems, etc. become critical resources to assure the remote team member feels they are a fully integrated and vital part of the project. All aspects of processes must be proven, clearly documented and relatively easy to setup and use.
  • If the remote team member is new to your procedures and processes, have a standard initiation program as a part of the project initiation or before. The program should include not just the setup, practices and methodologies necessary to understand the way the team will operate. It should also include the reasoning and expectations they as a team member will operate under.

The single team member working remotely deserves some special consideration. They must feel they are part of the organization and able to be productive in their environment. For that reason, it is important to consider if they are working from their home, what kind of set up they have. Do they have good networking?  Do they have a regular work area with good ventilation, light, and isolation from distractions? A worker at home, with the TV blaring in the other room or perhaps a baby that requires attention on a regular basis is going to find it very difficult to be as productive as their teammates. What can you do to assure they are not at a disadvantage? Consider issues in the same way you would any impediment in agile development – what can you do to move the impediment out of their way?

The Take-Away

In the end, it should be easy to see that that making an agile-scrum project successful with distributed teams is nothing more than doubling down on the best practices that are an integral part of agile. If they were important in a team in a single location, they are doubly important in a distributed team and have even more impact on project outcomes. Does a distributed team model immediately burden a project with additional overhead? Well, we will discuss this aspect more in the last article in this series, but the simple answer is no. If you have been using best practices for agile-scrum projects religiously – a project with distributed teams just requires a little more focus and diligence. If you were not as judicious as you should be about your practices, then yes, there will be overhead because your risk of failure will be much higher for distributed teams until you get your practices in line.

In our last article in this series, we will explore common myths that crop up whenever anyone proposes any level of distributed teams in software development. Remember, as a nearshore software development provider, these are objections we discuss with potential clients regularly. So join us – won’t you?

If you jumped into the middle of this series, you can go back to the start here.