I had the privilege of speaking about the 12 Principles underlying the Agile Manifesto at Centare’s Agile and Lean Management conference in Chicago. The specific topic I was invited to speak on was Distributed Culture. Here are my slides.
In looking through the lens of cultural anthropology at how to support distributed teams working in an agile manner, my talk started with the concept of discourse, or culture that is observable through language. I asked the audience to consider whether applied discourse analysis might be a useful way to reveal the implicit or unspoken rules governing how members of an Agile team interact.
Keynote Craig Larman had reviewed with us his fourth “law of organizational behavior:” Culture Follows Structure. If this is indeed the case, and Larman points to evidence gathered by another thought leader to suggest that it does, then choices made about how to support the structure of distributed Agile teams represent a unique opportunity.
Might it not be possible, in fact, to work backward, selecting structures which prioritize individuals and their interactions over tools and processes? Can distributed configurations be set up primarily to address a team’s social needs in line with Agile cultural values?
First things first: where do we look to find these cultural values articulated? We look to discourse, where we find abundant examples of actual spoken and written references to the Agile Manifesto by members of the Agile community. For example, Big Apple Scrum Day 2015 culminated with a session that reinforced culture over tools when it comes to distributed teams.
We know from the discourses embedded in Scrum ceremonies that the practice of revisiting a set pattern of questions at regular intervals invites continuous improvement. The following questions comprise an inventory any distributed team or team member can use. As a whole, it is intended as a reminder to take a step back from tooling and inspect/adapt the communications structures we have selected to support Agile cultures.
#1 On Delivering Value
How are our trust levels with clients? Within the team? How does it feel when we deliver early and what’s holding us back from doing that more often? How do we let team members know that we care about improving communications with them?
#2 On Welcoming Changing Requirements
How do we presently track and manage our Product Backlog? How well do we preserve the context around decision-making so we can reference it later? How well do we work from the road and in transit?
#3 On Delivering Frequently
How do we share our calendars? How do we manage Time Zones? How do we discuss the time needed to complete tasks? What is our expectation around real-time versus asynchronous communications, and have they been communicated and agreed-upon? Do we co-design meetings to be productive use of people’s time?
#4 On Cross-Functional Teams:
Are we consistently using a shared drive for access to information? Do we have groundrules for “pinging?” How do we account for the water cooler effect, i.e., what kinds of serendipitous encounters can people have within the network? How do we build unity and demonstrate that different functional roles are part of the same tribe? Why broadcast availability to connect as a cross-functional team (both formally and informally)?
#5 On Providing a Motivating Environment:
How do people flag their interest in working on certain projects? How do we do we sense people’s emotions & gather their opinions? How do we share knowledge & insight?
#6 On Face-to-Face Communication
How do we see each other’s faces online? How do we make the experience as context-rich and information-rich as possible?
#7 On Working Product
How do we build things together? How well is this working?
#8 On Sustainability
What is the app that signals to others that we are “at work?” What are the protocols for checking in & out? How do we avoid burnout?
#9 On Good Craftsmanship
How do we recognize and track progress in skillbuilding? How do we disseminate good examples of craftsmanship?
#10 On Simplicity
Are there things we must do over and over again that could be automated? What apps are out there that can help simplify reporting requirements (i.e. bug reports, status reports)?
#11 On Self-Organization
What choices do people have about how to collaborate? How are meetings facilitated? How are shared working agreements arrived-at and stored (with version control)? Are there protocols about language and handling conflict?
#12 On Retrospectives
Have we trained or demoed with any of the numerous groups/communities/companies out there making this easier? How do we know we are headed in the right direction? How are we integrating play, artfulness and humor into our team interactions?
Have you found solutions that work particularly well in a distributed context for expressing any of these principles?
After nearly two years talking with people who have specialized knowledge about distributed cultures and team mechanics, next I will go principle by principle and delve into some things others have found helpful. You can also answer these questions and see other’s responses in a Google Form – coming soon.
Please note that all solutions to be shared are provisional and not meant to be prescriptive. As a whole, I hope they provide a touchstone and much-needed dose of encouragement that distributed networks are capable of expressing and reinforcing Agile principles throughout various communication channels.