In my previous blog posting on Agile GDD I overviewed several strategies for improving your effectiveness at geographically distributed development (GDD). Those strategies were fairly generic and directly applicable to both traditional and agile development teams. In this posting I focus on strategies which are more agile in nature, although they could also be applied to more traditional approaches as well. These strategies are:
- Get the whole team together at the beginning of the project. Your goals are to build rapport amongst the team, to get to know the people that you’re working with to facilitate communication later on, and to better understand the situation on the ground. The implication is that you will need to fly some people around, increasing your initial expenses, an investment that many organizations balk at. The reality is that you will eventually end up paying for travel anyway, either because you actually flew people around or because your communication costs are higher throughout the project. In short, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
- Organize your team around the system architecture. The most effective way to organize a distributed team is around the architecture of the system that you are building, not around the job functions of the people involved. In other words, if your team is in Toronto, Rome, and Bangalore then each subteam should be responsible for one or more subsystems. It would be a mistake to organize the teams around job function, for example to have the architects and analysts in Toronto, the developers in Rome, and the testers in Bangalore because this structure would require significantly more documentation and other forms of communication to coordinate the teams, increasing both cost and risk. As I mentioned in my previous blog posting you will need to invest in some initial architecture envisioning at the beginning of a project to identify the subsystems and their public interfaces, and that to do that you’ll also need to do some initial requirements envisioning to drive this architecture effort. I suggest that you take an Agile Model Driven Development (AMDD) approach to this to enable you to gain the value from modeling without the costs and risks associated with up-front comprehensive modeling and documentation that get many traditional project teams in trouble.
- Align your requirements strategy and your architecture strategy. When requirements cross multiple architecture components you create dependencies between the teams working on those components which need to be resolved (often through lots of discussion). When a requirement only affects one architecture component that makes it much easier to implement because a single team is responsible for the entire requirements. For example, assume you have a three tier architecture (UI, business logic, data) and have a team responsible for each tier. If a user story affects all three tiers then the three teams need to coordinate their activities. If a second user story only touched the business tier then it would be implemented only by the business tier team. Of course, if you're doing user stories they would likely touch all three tiers most of the time, an indication that organizing your team around a three tier architecture is likely a bad strategy (actually, probably a reflection of a desire to organize around job function, in this case UI people, Java programmers, and DBAs). Instead, you might want to consider taking a business domain component approach instead (e.g. for a bank have a Customer component, an Account component, a Brokerage component, and so on).
- Have “daily stand-up meetings”. A common practice on co-located agile teams is to have daily stand-up meetings where people share the status of what they did yesterday, what they intend to do today, and whether they’re running into any problems. These short meetings enable team coordination. Distributed teams can do this as well, the people in a given geographical location can hold local stand-up meetings and then representatives from each location can hold a shared meeting to coordinate the subteams. Whereas local stand-up meetings are held first thing in the morning, distributed daily stand-up meetings may need to be held at unusual times so as to include people at distant locations. See the Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) process goal Coordinate Activities for a more detailed discussion of collaboration strategies.
- Have Ambassadors. Ambassadors are people who travel between sites, often technically senior people or senior business experts, to share information between the subteams. Getting the team together at the beginning of the project sets the foundation for communication, but without continual investment in maintaining effective collaboration between teams you run the risk of your subteams deviating from the overall strategy. These are typically short engagements, a week or two in length, because of the pressures it puts on the people doing the actual traveling. The implication is that you’ll have several people flying between sites at any given time on a reasonable rotation schedule. Because you’ll have some people flying around, your local team rooms should accommodate visitors by having one or more desks available for them to use when they’re visiting.
- Have Boundary Spanners. A boundary spanner is someone who is located on site who focuses on enabling communication between subteams as well as within their subteam. On large distributed teams you’ll find that you have three flavors of boundary spanners – team leaders who take on project management responsibilities on the subteam, product owners who are responsible for representing the business within the subteam, and architecture owners responsible for technical direction on the team. These boundary spanners will work closely with their peers, having regular coordination meetings across all subteams as well as impromptu one-on-one meetings to deal with specific issues between individual subteams.
- Ensure that the global team gets the credit it deserves. In both offshoring and nearshoring environments it’s common to see small teams in North America or Europe driving the efforts of significantly larger teams in another country. Yet, at the end of the project it always seems as if the smaller team, often because they work for the direct customer, gets the lion’s share of the credit – unless of course the project failed, then the subcontracting team often seems to get virtually all of the “credit”. This clearly isn’t fair, and it clearly doesn’t promote effective teamwork between the subteams in the future.
- Take a agile/lean approach to development governance. As I’ve written in the past, effective governance is based on enablement and collaboration instead of the traditional approaches of management and control. Good governance measures progress through regular delivery of working software, not through status reports or delivery of detailed specifications. Good governance is based on the idea of having a living process which changes to reflect lessons learned as your project progresses. Of course, adopting agile governance takes discipline.
The strategies that I’ve described are clearly nothing more than common sense, something that can be said of all agile strategies. Sadly, as Mark Twain lamented, common sense isn’t very common in practice.