More than two decades ago, a group of software developers released the ground-breaking Agile Manifesto, which gave rise to a new way of working.
Since that time, evolving business requirements have dramatically altered the landscape. Insisting that co-location, one of the original principles of the Agile Manifesto, remains the default preference is both unrealistic and increasingly disadvantageous.
“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to, and within, a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
–Sixth principle of the Agile Manifesto, 2001
Reimagining the sixth principle
On the surface, it seems logical to view shifting workplace requirements through the lens of the pandemic. In reality, challenges with co-location appeared long before COVID-19.
For smaller agile teams, it can be beneficial to have all team members be co-located. But for many large organizations that tried to embrace agile projects at scale – across offices, states, countries, time zones, and continents – co-location rapidly went from catalyst to constraint. In its consultations, TCS noted two important drivers for location-independent teams:
-The ability to tap into specialized skills and expertise from multiple disciplines, many of which are spread across the global talent pool in the organization and marketplace.
-The need to speed up local decision-making without incurring the time and expense of travel.
Necessity and advantages notwithstanding, turning globally dispersed individuals across multiple disciplines into highly collaborative, self-organized, and self-disciplined agile teams brought its own set of challenges. As the scale of change involved suggests, aligning multiple agile teams located in different time zones and countries is a complex endeavor.
Our experiences have shown that organizations with location-independent teams – either by choice or chance – often struggle the most in three areas:
-Big requirements with dependencies
-Lack of a structure or working model
-Lack of skill or experience across distributed locations
Overcoming these challenges requires rethinking how processes, management structures, techniques, tools, and technologies can help agile teams transcend location constraints. Processes and techniques designed to support co-location in alignment with the original sixth principle will no longer suffice. Legacy ways of working, and employee attitudes toward them, can hinder the cultural change needed to pursue distributed agile teams.
Criteria for successfully implementing location-independent agile teams:
-Assessment of time zones to optimize where, when, and how they overlap
-Alignment of infrastructure to remote collaboration needs
-One-team ownership culture through transparent digital work management routines
-New work delivery methods to reduce dependencies between locations
-Replication of critical roles across locations for faster decision-making
Getting started with location-independent teams
In 2017, TCS first abstracted and codified blueprints, best practices, and tools to successfully implement location-independent agile teams.
We have continually evolved these techniques as new learnings emerge, including those resulting from the recent unprecedented shift to distributed locations.
Having a clear understanding of success factors for location-independent agile teams can help organizations identify the best approach, moving forward. These include the ability to:
Choose the right agile team model to meet the organization’s needs.
Select the right techniques and tools for enabling remote agile team infrastructure.
Continuously nurture agile capabilities to improve location-independent collaboration.
First: Choose the right team model
Given the diverse range of time zones and physical locations for team configurations, the right team model will depend on a variety of factors. For example, some teams may be spread across multiple cities in the same country, while others could be spread across multiple countries.
Initiating a discussion on team model configurations should start with this primary question: What is the maximum number of hours where natural time zones overlap between the geographically distributed team members?
Second: Select the right enablers
Once an enterprise has determined the right team model, the next step is to select the best techniques and tools to enable team members. Enablement will typically encompass a range of challenges that can include:
Some tools and techniques represent the bare minimum needed to support any common team configuration model. For example, all teams will need collaboration and knowledge management technologies. Other needs will be more specific to a particular team model and may include twin roles and self-provisioning of infrastructure.
Third: Extend agile principles
Organizations that want to nurture agility in remote collaborations will need both a solid foundation and an overarching guide to implement and iterate the same. We’ve identified five key principles to help reimagine agile within a location-independent framework. They include:
We have observed that many organizations experience dramatic benefits after successfully deploying these location-independent agile models, enablers, and principles.
For example, a large global management consulting firm faced productivity challenges with its product owner and development team members, who were spread across three countries.
-The firm carefully evaluated its team models. Because there was minimal overlap between time zones – only around two hours total – the team chose Model 3.
-Collaborative events such as sprint planning, review, retro, and daily stand-ups were scheduled during the overlap time using video conferencing and knowledge management tools.
-The firm also introduced a twin product specialist role to drive product management activities, along with local test data, infrastructure, and investments to enable self-provisioning.
The result: By introducing these enablers, the firm improved team productivity above 95%, which in turn increased customer satisfaction scores.
In another example, a large European bank had a product owner and scrum master located in one European city and development teams located across another country. With customer confidence plummeting and the offshore development team restricted to delivering enhancements, the firm re-focused its approach to distributed agile teams.
-The team in question assessed its time zone overlap and with an overlap of four hours, selected Model 2. It then calibrated its working hours to increase the overlap time to more than six hours and scheduled all critical events during these hours.
-The team set up a digital routine and mapped all practices to its collaboration infrastructure.
-In addition, it introduced a twin role of product specialist and an agile coach trained in remote collaboration to facilitate all common events.
-Self-provisioning of infrastructure enabled a continuous flow of work and digital Kanban enabled real-time work visualization by any team member, regardless of location.
The result: The customer regained confidence and offshore teams now work on major development projects apart from enhancements.
COVID-19 and the transition to TCS Secure Borderless Workspaces™ (SBWS™)
When COVID-19 swept the globe and closed down entire nations, organizations had no choice but to opt for ‘anywhere working’.
From the smallest start-up to the largest global corporation, formerly shoulder-to-shoulder co-located teams were suddenly screen-to-screen across organizations.
Existing business continuity models – for site, city, and country outages – and operations resilience required alternative thinking. While organizations everywhere navigated an unpredictable global emergency, TCS was able to quickly transition to a secure, borderless operating framework. Along with location-independent agile practices, the SBWS framework encompasses a wide range of human functions, infrastructure, talent management, and employee engagement, tools, governance mechanisms, and collaboration practices.
We were able to transition 90% of our hundreds of thousands of on-site workers to a remote operations model, securely connecting to clients and TCS systems and networks within weeks of the onset of the pandemic.
A large part of the success of this transition was thanks to the location-independent practices that formed the backbone for remote working. These include:
-The importance of cross-functional teams taking ownership of both their tasks and goals. Twin roles provided required guidance on business and technology for all locations.
-A sustainable working model that ensured collaboration during the critical overlap among local business hours.
-Practices such as single product backlog that helped team members synchronize and visualize through digital information radiators for mutual visibility and transparency.
-A culture of self-organization and encouragement to identify impediments as they arise.