Tips to empower a Product Owner with a remote Scrum team

 

Working with remote collaborators or teams is common in today’s companies’ environments, for organisational and/or economic reason.

Even if team member colocation in recommended when working with Scrum (and not only in Scrum), sometimes you have to face working with a distributed team. Different time zones, different work cultures, not able to maintain a constant contact with the team? Here are some tips and tricks on how to manage this situation, from my own experience as a Product Owner of a distributed team.

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COMMUNICATE

Communication while working with a distributed team depends a lot on the different time zones where the teams are located. The ideal situation is to have 4 hours of overlapping work schedule amongst all the team members. It’s easier that way to setup meetings and ceremonies.
Less than that, communication starts lagging as you might have issues setting up meetings without working or asking to work outside business hours, and you introduce delays between questions and answers.
If you work with a team located in a time zone where you don’t have any overlap, well, be prepared to work outside business hours!
A solution to this issue would be to have a Proxy-PO, to act as a relay. More on this later on.

In order to facilitate the communication inside the team, there are simple example rules you can propose to the team:

  • say “hello” on the team channel when you start your workday, so that the team knows when you start being available;
  • say “goodbye” or “see you tomorrow” when you finish working, so that the team knows you are not available anymore, and shall expect a delay in your answer;
  • using your “Status” indicator in your communication app in order to display your availability might also a good practice, but we tend to forget to modify it. Use it wisely;
  • there is at least one ceremony, the daily Scrum, which everybody should attend, independently of their time zone.

Two other basic rules will help to imitate the behaviour we have at the office:

  • questions asked in one-to-one chat shall be answered ASAP, as if someone came to your desk;
  • questions asked by mail can be answered later on.

FIND RELAYS

Communication relays are important in a distributed Scrum team. In each team, there are members who have a more “Agile” mind-set than the others. You have to identify those relays and build with them the internal and external communication of your team. They will relay your communication to their neighboring team members, and will make sure that the Agile principles are respected.
BUT, don’t fall into the trap of communicating to specific team members and only to them. Relying on specific individuals doesn’t mean that you forget the others, and you don’t want to isolate yourself from the team. Besides generating obvious issues in case of absence, or change in the team, communicating one only 1-2 people might lead to frustration or envy for the other members of the team.
As indicated previously, the solution of having a Proxy-PO collocated with the team is also a good idea. The Proxy-PO act as a placeholder for the PO in front of the team. In that case, the PO as a person will be more, if not completely isolated from the team as almost all the communication will go through the Proxy-PO. Be careful also on the responsibilities delegation:

  • a Proxy-PO without any delegation of responsibilities on the decisions, backlog priorization and the acceptance of the work results might result in an increase of conflicts and miscommunication, introduce latency in the decision process and impact productivity.
  • a Proxy-PO with a full delegation of responsibilities isolates completely the PO from the team, and might ultimately replace the PO in its role. Why then having a remote PO in the first place?

So, in case you decide to implement a PO/Proxy-PO, you’ll need to find a good balance in the responsibility delegation in order to minimise the impact on the decision process.

SETUP TOOLS

Communication inside and outside of the team is key to the success of a project. While it’s quite easy to communicate when working within a “one roof” team (all the team is located in the same physical place), working with part or all the team in remote implies to override the face to face communication with an online communication. Online communication needs specific tools for allowing the team to exchange statuses, information and knowledge.

Day to day communication

Setting up an instant messaging app, which allow chat, group chat and file exchange, should allow the team to emulate the presence and communication experience as close as in a real office. Tools alike are commonly deployed in companies.

  • Tools:Skype, Slack, Mattermost, Microsoft Communicator, etc.

Ceremonies 

Scrum framework implements several ceremonies:

  •      Daily Scrum
  •      Sprint Planning
  •      Sprint Review
  •      etc.

For those ceremonies, voice interactions are mandatory. For that, you’ll need specific tools in order to setup voice conferences and document sharing. Video is a nice-to-have feature, but also facilitates the exchange as it gives more context to the communication.

  • Tools:Skype for Business, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Hangouts, etc.

There is also the problem of handling workshops, retrospectives, brainstorms, etc. Tools such as  will help you setup such meetings.

Boards

Physical boards for tracking the project advancement are obviously useless when working with remote teams. This information must be centralized in a dedicated tool. Remote teams, depending on their size, can have a dedicated board for their activity but it needs a strict synchronisation with the digital board. For example, if all your development team is collocated in the same office, it can have a dedicated board for the development activity (ToDo, In Progress, In review, Done/Ready for QA) reflecting their progress.

  • Tools: Jira, Trello, etc.

Knowledge Repository 

A common place to store documentation on the product, accessible to anyone involved in the project. Decisions, meetings minutes and drafts are also to be stored in a centralized tool, which serves as a reference.

  • Tools: Wiki, Confluence, etc.

Syncing and sharing info

Setting up a Team calendar, showing release dates, Sprint dates, local holidays, and vacation plans is a good idea, as it helps tracking the milestones and planning the different meetings. The Team mailing list is mandatory, for sending meeting notices, important information, etc.
Those are basic tools that you might even implement and use if the Scrum team is co-located. It’s in their usage that there will be differences between a remote and co-located team.

TRAVEL !

Face to face communication is a basis of social interaction. Getting people to work together is easier if they know each other, and there’s no better way to know each other than physically meeting with your team mates. It’s really important to setup at least once a meeting where all the team gathers. Depending on the team locations, it should be done periodically, 3-4 times / year is a good rhythm. If that’s not possible for all the team to meet, the Product Owner should at least visit the different team members’ location at least once a year, in order to maintain the contact.

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Pierre-Marie CHATTON
Pierre-Marie CHATTON

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Comments

  1. Guillaume Says: December 6, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for the handfull advices !
    As we talk about tools, fogbugz is quite an integrated solution with Kanban, story points, wiki and a Jira compatible API.
    There is also the neat join.me screan sharring which lets you actually DRAW on the screen to share your ideas visually in real time.
    To me, they are must haves to enhance not only remote teams productivity… but morever pleasure of working along.

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