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.