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Janet Gregory: Agile Consultant, Trainer, Advisor, Writer, Speaker

Distributed Teams – my experience

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been working with teams that work in a distributed environment and giving advice about ways to make it work. Lisa Crispin (my co-author of Agile Testing) and I are a distributed / dispersed team of sorts. She lives in Denver, U.S. and I live in Calgary, Canada. While we wrote our first book, we were always in different physical locations, but used chat, email, phone and visualization tools such as mind mapping to communicate. It worked very well.

We are now in the process of writing a second book and wanted to experiment a little bit. Friends of ours, Ellen Gottesdiener and Mary Gorman, shared a practice that they did on a regular basis while writing their book, Discover to Deliver. They got together in the same location to talk about the book, put visuals and pages of drafts up on the wall, and explore next steps. So, I got on a plane and flew down to Denver shortly after New Years to joined Lisa and her husband Bob on their acreage which houses 3 donkeys, 6 cats, and a dog.

I had been to their old place, but this was the first time here. I knew a few things before I got there, like their house was under renovation and Bob just had eye surgery so couldn’t do some of the things he usually did like cook suppers. I was prepared to work with Lisa pretty much full time for 3 days on the book except for breaks for feeding donkeys, and eating. Now, imagine my surprise when Lisa said she wouldn’t have much time … mmmm. Should I have reconsidered? Cancelled my flights? Return home?

Well, the Friday I got there, we managed to print out all the chapters and tape them to the wall. While Lisa was out feeding donkeys, I sorted the stories we wanted to put into the book by chapter and laid them out on the ping pong table. When Lisa, being the excellent hostess she is, went up to cook supper, I tried to figure out the best way to organize and work on the chapters. That evening I realized that Lisa was very distracted – she was worried about making time to work on the book, making time for her chores, and not least, about Bob’s recovery. That made me rethink our whole strategy.

Saturday morning, Lisa and I sat down and came up with a personal Kanban board and adapted pomodoro sessions. We listed all the chores that had to be done, and figured out which ones I could help with, like cooking and cleaning up after meals, and shoveling snow off the deck. I didn’t volunteer to clean up after the donkeys or give the cat his medical treatments! We put time estimates on the chores.

We set up our sessions – 45 minutes work, and then looked at the next chores to be done. The length of our breaks depended on what we were doing. This simple little trick made all the difference in the world. Lisa was able to concentrate, realizing that she would have the time to do the other things she needed to. I relaxed, realizing we would get done what we needed to.

The story doesn’t end there – When I got home, and we started working on our tasks, Lisa had another issue pop up preventing her from doing her tasks. Because I had been there and understood her context, I was able to help brainstorm possible solutions. I do not think it would have been possible if I had not been able to experience firsthand what she had on her plate. Now, more than ever, I firmly believe that team members need the opportunity to meet their counterparts in other countries, in other cities. Face to face experiences cannot be replaced, but there are things you can do to help build that personal relationship. When you get to know the other person’s needs and drivers, even if you are not in the same location you can let your empathy do the work.


6 comments on “Distributed Teams – my experience

  1. Very crisp & focused on the various types of collaboration(s) needed.
    I am involved in running a distributed R&D setup for a Dutch ISV.
    From our previous experience of working from off-shore locations, we put a lot of focus on enabling person-to-person level of communication as a good starting point apart from all the other formal communication.
    As you quote above, knowing each other helps identify alternates on either side based on specific individual situations which otherwise would appear as “bottlenecks”.
    To enable the right level of integration at the start, we introduced “Shuttle Diplomacy” where the teams stay together for around 2 months (2 sprints) and learn not only about the processes but also the culture/individual likes and dislikes.

    • I like the term ‘Shuttle Diplomacy’. Two months of the team learning to work together is amazing. I wish I heard of more companies like that.

  2. Hi Janet,

    Empathy is at the heart of design thinking, a topic I dearly adore and have been studying for 2 years. What you have done without realising “what is” stage of the approach by drawn a mental journey map of the customer (co-author in this case) so you can move to “What if” and explore new ideas and experiment with them. Some of the brainstorming you have already done which is design thinking is done after we have learnt about the touchpoints of the customer and address those later through prototyping. You have used ethnographic technique to observe, question/answer and may be some recording/imagery to build a mind map. I would say you have done very well given the tough challenge your host going through. Now you have to work out the journey map of the reader what they go through and how your book address those concerns.

    Good luck!

    • Mohinder, Thank you for your comments. You have given Lisa and I a challenge – create a journey map of our potential readers. I have to do some more reading now.

  3. Janet’s idea to use a kanban approach, timeboxed iterations and breaks in between reduced my stress level a huge amount. We got so much work done on the book, and I was able to take care of Bob, our pets, and make sure we got something to eat! This was a great way to foster collaboration, too. For example, when it snowed, Janet volunteered to shovel the deck, so I could get something else done while she did that.

    I’ve kept using this approach for myself and found it helps me get more done. Today, Bob and I have made a personal kanban board for all the things we both need to get done. We’re using 45 minute iterations, and generally 15 minute breaks, but longer if we need them. It helps prevent that “where did the time go” reaction. Yay for teamwork!

    And +1 on nothing can replace face time for distributed teams. My whole team will be together next week. That hasn’t happened for a couple of months and we’ve seen the results of that. A week in the same office will help us refocus and improve our process.

  4. Janet, great experience report, thanks for sharing.
    It really fits with my own idea of collaboration. Distance would have not allowed you to see the big picture and empathise with Lisa, once you were there, you were able to feel her worries and discomfort and then think of a solution that managed to make you both happy.
    Being able to empathise with a team mate is sign of great maturity.

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