Enabling Agile for Distributed Teams

Working with distributed groups in an agile development setting presents unique—but by no means insurmountable—challenges.

distributed agile

Agile development is a cornerstone of any technology-driven business these days, and PGi is no exception. When I joined PGi, I came on board as a new program director, joining a new CIO. Our initial goals were lofty and including reevaluating and reworking mission-critical systems. And we determined that we needed to tackle these challenges as an agile team and a distributed agile team, at that.

Agile, at its core, revolves around teams collaborating on projects that rely on a healthy amount of visibility and trust, among other things. How were we going to enable those processes at PGi with increasingly distributed teams?

The answer, wasn’t obvious to us at first, even though ultimately it was staring us in the face all along: collaboration. Collaboration tools have made it possible for us to completely overhaul our agile processes and embrace truly global teams without sacrificing productivity or communication effectiveness.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of challenges, however.

The Challenges of Distributed Agile           

The challenges facing distributed agile teams are not all that dissimilar from the ones facing any team with remote members. The issues of navigating time zones, cultural differences and visibility into each other’s work are all alive and well for distributed agile teams.

However, agile development presents a unique spin on some of these challenges. For example, trust is vital to agile groups: you have to know that if you're blocked on a task, you can rely on your team member to prioritize that story for the good of the team as a whole. Or when you're planning a sprint, the team has to trust each other to honestly commit to an amount of hours or difficulty level of a story.

Trust can be difficult to build for any team, but remote ones face the added challenge of losing that face-to-face interaction that can make that rapport more impactful.

So in the face of all these challenges, why engage in distributed agile in the first place?

Why Distributed Agile

If you're going to voluntarily take on the challenges presented by distributed agile as we did at PGi, there must be some serious benefits in place for you to reap. For us, we found that the best candidates for each role were rarely conveniently co-located. Rather than forcing ourselves to stay local, we embraced distributed agile and flexible workers by hiring far beyond our geographical boundaries.

In addition, our existing customers—be they internal or external—were already globally distributed, so we were already accustomed to working with remote stakeholders.

And finally, we're a global business. We have offices all over the world, with an established global workforce. There's no avoiding disparate teams and the hurdles you have to overcome when dealing with telecommuters and global team members. It was no big leap to extend these experiences to our agile processes.

As with any change, the cultural shift of agile at PGi has not always been an easy road. But with the proper practices, people and communication and collaboration tools in place, you too can distribute your agile team without sacrificing productivity, efficiency or trust.

If you’d like to learn more about our experiences and successes driving a distributed agile cultural shift at PGi, I'm fortunate this year to be speaking in-depth on the topic of distributed agile and collaboration at this year's Gartner Catalyst. I hope you'll join me there.

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