March 25, 2020

An Agile Recipe for Non-Technical Remote Teams

by Vladimir Shifrin in Remote Teams

Many organizations and businesses face inevitable remote workforce. By applying Agile software methodology to non-technical remote teams, I’ll show you how to run your remote teams effectively in no time.

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First thing first: what is Agile?

Agile is a process by which a team can manage a project by breaking it up into several stages and involving constant collaboration and continuous improvement and iteration at every stage. There are many different forms of Agile, but two of the most common are Kanban and Scrum. While Kanban is a lightweight framework that focuses on visualizing tasks on a board, Scrum is more prescriptive and complex, with specific roles, meetings, and time-boxed sprints.

For our “recipe”, I’ll be using Scrum framework which places value in responding to change over following a plan, continuously improving the process, and giving the team autonomy to determine how the work gets done.

The “Ingredients” (tools needed):

  • Managing & Running Teams:
    • Jira Agile – agile project management tool that supports any agile methodology, be it scrum or kanban (create agile boards, plan, track, and manage all your agile software development projects).
    • Monday.com – is a visual tool that simplifies the way teams work, run projects and workflows.
    • Microsoft Project – plan projects and collaborate with the right tools for project managers and project teams.
    • Smartsheets – plan, capture, manage, automate and report on work
    • Trello – flexible and free way to organize plans and projects (intuitively simple boards, lists & cards).
  • Meetings:
    • Google Hangouts Meet – easy-to-join video calls, meet face to face with your team
    • Calling w/Microsoft Teams – voice calling capabilities to the cloud with integrated calling to landlines and mobile phones
    • Zoom – video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinars
    • BlueJeans – video conferencing, screen Sharing, video calls, online meetings & recording
    • Skype – free online calls, messaging, affordable international calling to mobiles or landlines for effective collaboration.
  • Collaboration:
    • Slack – instant messaging platform, direct chat, tools and files
    • Microsoft Teams – chat, meet, call, and collaborate all in one place
    • Hangouts Chat – direct messages to group conversations and chat

The Recipe (step by step):

1. Structure and Supervision

Agile methodology utilizing Scrum framework is done in small iterations (“sprints”), in a highly collaborative fashion (“teams”), and with many opportunities to reflect, evaluate, and make changes (“retrospectives”). Team Leads guide their teams through the iterative process, and are empowered to make decisions that get the prioritized work done in the most efficient way.

2. Teams size: 5-6 people

Because much of the success rides on the team’s autonomy and their ability to determine how the work gets done, make your teams small and thus manageable. Stick to your current team structure, but break larger departments into smaller groups when going remote and have cross-team meetings (see below).

3. Team lead and/or Cross-team lead functions

Assign a Team Lead to each team; experienced Agile supervisors can lead several teams (“cross-teams”). This is a great opportunity to train an up and coming supervisor by assigning him/her a small team to lead remotely. A person who is familiar with team tasks and can properly assign tasks to team members is the right candidate.

4. Themes, Initiatives, Epics, Stories/Tasks.

Initiatives / Projects / Deliverables in your organization should be broken down into small manageable outcomes. Each task should be a part of the larger goal puzzle – let’s explain them:

  • Themes are large focus areas that span the organization.
  • Initiatives are collections of epics that drive toward a common goal.
  • Epics are large bodies of work (projects) that can be broken down into a number of smaller tasks (called stories).
  • Stories/Tasks (also called “user stories”) are short requirements or requests written from the perspective of an end user.
Themes, Initiatives, Epics, Stories / Tasks
Source and more info at Atlassian Agile Coach

5. Tasks & Priorities

Tasks should be manageable to close within a few hours (not days!) – keep breaking down until you achieve smaller manageable subtasks. Prioritize them simply as:

  • “High”
  • “Medium”
  • “Low”
  • “Urgent” – a special case for critical tasks that take precedence over the other priorities)

Each team member will start with High-priority items first and then deal with Medium and Low.

6. Sprint planning, backlog and task assignment

A sprint is usually a period of 2 weeks during which your team is working on the tasks within the Sprint only – like a “running sprint”. First, create a backlog (a list of all tasks), then prioritize and pick those tasks that are most important for the current sprint. Make sure to measure your tasks to be manageable within a sprint.

Source: Scrum.org

7. Daily Standups

This is a daily morning meeting (start the earliest the work day starts) where you go with your team members over the tasks completed yesterday and tasks planned for today. The meeting is led by a team lead / cross-team lead and each team member goes over his assigned tasks. This is a SHORT meeting that should not exceed 10-15 minutes (thus the word “standups” as people usually stand at this meeting to make it brief). All time-consulting discussions should be taken out of this standup and discussed separately via another video call, chat or meeting. The purpose of the standup is review and align everyone on the tasks at hand.

8. Retrospective & New Sprint

When you finish a sprint – you will do a Retrospective” – basically a “review” to evaluate the performance of the current spring and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint. During the Sprint Retrospective, each team member participates and has a voice in the proces; the team usually discusses the following:

  • What went well in the Sprint
  • What could be improved
  • What will we commit to improve in the next Sprint

When you are done, start planning the new sprint with the above in mind! That’s how you optimize and learn!

9. Reviews, Evaluation, Retention

It’s critical for a team lead/manager to maintain consistent and meaningful relationships with each team member. Your manager needs to do 1-on-1’s with each team member regularly, plus quarterly reviews and bi-annual evaluations (not yearly) – don’t let things slip and wait for your team members to come with real concern when it’s too late and they are already interviewing with other companies. The two key “takeaways” here:

  • Remote work improves employee productivity, happiness, and retention – see this article
  • For many – a great manager is 50% of their success and well-being in the company

10. Expert Help and Agile Coaching

It’s hard to adopt Agile practices if you don’t have prior experience. Get some expert help – it is critical to have an experienced “Agile coach” to support your teams, provide guidance and offer spot training and coaching. You could also hire an Agile consultant or perhaps find pro bono volunteers from the private sector.

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Armix Group – we help set up and optimize remote teams!

Remote Teams Strategy, Agile Coaching & Tools.
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