The Scrum methodology’s collaborative approach to agile project management (PM) has been applied to small, co-located development teams as far back as 1993. However, the methodology has been increasingly implemented by businesses with workforces distributed across vastly disparate time zones and geographies. These virtualized organizations seek full or partial integration of the customizable methodology that, when successfully enabled, has been proven to effectively increase productivity, quality and employee engagement as well as reduced time to market for deliverables.
The Scrum model of self-organizing, cross-functional team members is itself a radical shift from the classic waterfall process methodology and is typically used to manage projects in one to four week cycles known as sprints. Open communication among team members, along with full participation and attendance in the brief daily meetings that typify Scrum management, is key to the methodology’s successful realization in a co-located setting but necessary in a virtualized workplace where daily input by team members is crucial in maximizing work efficiency and preventing any unnecessary barriers already enhanced by distance.
Leonel More, Software Development Manager and Certified ScrumMaster, has been a member of globally distributed teams since 2008 and says communication is a significant challenge when applying Scrum to a virtualized workforce. “One of the hardest [issues] is the amount of informal communication lost when being distributed. Due [to] that, a lot of extra formal communication is needed.”
Full attendance and participation by all team members in a distributed work setting during each of the daily meetings that are foundational to Scrum’s methodology is essential to actualize the PM strategy across a distributed workforce possibly separated by long distances. In deciding on a mutually agreeable time between team members, it “is better and more productive to have them first thing [in the] mornings,” More advises. “Whole team participation requires extra coordination, especially if the time zones are widely different. The daily scrum meetings would be pretty different, with people having it during different daytimes.”
Within distributed teams using Scrum and other agile project management strategies, ease in communication among members is a possible difficulty not necessarily faced by a co-located workforce. Follow-up clarifications and other coordinated sessions outside the synchronized daily meetings are not typically required for co-located Scrum teams but may be imperative in a virtualized workplace. As distance may also present a further barrier to team unification, casual interaction among members is encouraged. More cites distance as an additional obstacle to enabling Scrum methodologies across a virtualized workplace. “Scrum improves with proximity, when people can see the other person working aside you, when every team member feels they are aboard the same boat. Distance makes that harder, and if you add culture differences, team cohesion could be your primary challenge.”
A ScrumMaster’s role, vital in a co-located workplace, is essential within a distributed workforce implementing the agile PM strategy. With the ScrumMaster acting as facilitator in assisting other team members in efficient use of Scrum methodologies, many decisions using Scrum management techniques are made by the entire team. For a workforce distributed across long distances, it may be necessary to employ two ScrumMasters to ensure so that no team members are excluded from the process due to time zone constraints.
Mandy Ross, Director of Program Management and ScrumMaster for Sococo, a technology company with a distributed workforce whose virtualized communications platform supports distributed teams, cites her biggest challenge as, “[ensuring] Scrum action items and discussion points are being driven to closure during the work day by the development team. A big part of Agile Project Management is ensuring the team self-resolves as many issues as they can during the day and any escalations are quickly and immediately taken to the appropriate decision maker.”
Ross recommends exploring innovative technologies to ease communication between team members. “[Ten] years ago, I had a bunch of different tools including a couple of IM clients, Skype, WebEx, a conference call bridge, and Outlook to get me through my tasks…These days we are lucky to have much better tools that have been designed for distributed teams.”
Agile Scrum strategies are typically used to manage projects that include five to twenty members divided into as many as three teams. Increased coordination is required to scale Scrum in both co-located and distributed settings, with a possible additional team member taking on the classic project manager role. Although there are significant obstacles to scaling Scrum across a virtualized workforce, there are no definitive barriers in its adoption.
Although more precise coordination may be required to integrate Scrum’s PM strategies into the virtualized work environment, technological advances have loosened geographical restrictions on talent acquisition. In this current age of accessibility to virtual meeting platforms, instant messengers, document sharing and other software, distance is a decreasing limitation on the effective implementation of Scrum methodologies across a distributed workforce.