At AgilityFeat, we work by applying Agile methodologies in a distributed manner. Our clients are generally based in the US while our team members are located in Costa Rica, Nicaragua as well as the US (Charlottesville and Boston). Recently, I’ve had a few discussions with prospective clients who ask about how we manage daily stand-ups when team members are not in the same physical location. Here are some rules of thumb that we’ve learned that make distributed stand-ups effective as well as a few pitfalls to keep in mind.
1. Find technology that works for your team
Nothing can derail stand-ups more quickly than connection drops or poor connections. It may sound basic but it’s critical that everyone on the team have a reliable, fast connection for communication. We typically use Skype for our daily calls but there are times when GoToMeeting may be more effective (especially for demos that require screen share changes).
2. Establish clear start times and rhythm for the calls
Nobody likes to wait around. You can engender trust in the team and the process by setting a consistent start time and by starting on time. Furthermore, establishing a standard order for team updates can help people prepare to talk. Since the meetings are usually audio-only, having a pre-established order of team updates can make the conversation go more smoothly when it’s impossible to read the visual clues that you normally would get from speaking with a team in the same room.
3. Be vigilant about trapping discussions that should be held offline
As with all meetings, it can be tempting to try to dive into a conversation that is a better fit for one-on-one vs the full team stand-up. It’s especially important in a distributed setting to push these types of conversations to another time (right after the stand-up is fine). The Scrum Master should establish the rules for what types of discussion belong in the stand-up and the entire team should be responsible for catching conversations that should be moved out of the stand-up. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “does everyone on this call benefit from this discussion?”
4. Figure out what works for the team
Each team is a little different and so are the environments within which they operate. Being flexible is a valuable tool for distributed teams. The “three questions” rule that you read about in books is a great starting place but ultimately, the stand-up meeting is about coordination, not just status updates. Be open to changing the format of meetings to suit the needs of your team so long as that format supports the goals of the team. Surprises will come up during a sprint and teams need to be able to react to those surprises in order to accomplish the team’s goals.
5. Do video once a week
We love to co-locate our teams with clients or even better to have the clients come visit our team in Costa Rica when a project starts. It’s a great way to build relationships. While video chat quality may not be the best, especially for large teams, we’ve found that getting our team in one place for a video chat really helps to build teamwork. This is especially helpful for longer term projects of six months or more.
6. Make stand-ups fun
This is probably true for all meetings, not just stand-ups. If you are not enthusiastic about a stand-up, how can you expect the team to be enthusiastic? Make some time to tell personal stories (not too much time), jokes and share the type of camaraderie that you would for an in person meeting. Some teams will have fun penalties for late arrivers, like forcing them to sing a song or tell a joke. Again, a stand-up is about making the team more effective, not just giving status updates.