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How to Make Location-Independent Agile Work

K. Subramanian
Head, Delivery Excellence, TCS
Mohammed Musthafa Soukath Ali
Head, Agile Initiative Network, TCS

Abstract

More than two decades ago, a group of software developers released the ground-breaking Agile Manifesto that 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.” – 6th principle of the Agile Manifesto, 2001

Reimagining the 6th principle: Location-independent agile teams

On the surface, it seems logical to view shifting workplace requirements through the lens of the pandemic. In reality, the challenges with co-location appeared long before COVID-19.

For small agile teams, it can be beneficial to have all the team members 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 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 brings 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 structure, 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: Location-independent models, enablers and principles

In 2017, TCS first abstracted and codified blueprints, best practices and tools to successfully implement location-independent agile teams. Since that time, TCS has 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 are spread across multiple countries.

Initiating a discussion on team model configurations starts 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 working within it. Enablement will typically encompass a range of challenges that can include:

  • Collaboration and communication among the distributed team and stakeholders
  • Effective utilization of the time zone overlaps
  • Team ownership and fast decision making
  • Effective infrastructure usage


Some tools and techniques represent the bare minimum needed to support any of the common team configuration models. For example, all teams will need collaboration and knowledge management technologies. Others will be more specific to a particular team model and may include twin roles and self-provisioning of infrastructures.

Third: Extend Agile principles

Organizations that want to nurture agility in remote collaboration will need both a solid foundation and an overarching guide to implement and iterate them. We’ve identified five key principles to help reimagine Agile in a location-independent framework. They include:

  • Harnessing the abundance of global talent for accelerating business agility
  • Leveraging high bandwidth communication for effective and efficient collaboration
  • Ensuring business teams, product development teams, and enablement functions work together throughout the product life cycle 
  • Building projects around motivated individuals
  • Bridging the location and language barriers of business and development teams


We have observed that many organizations experience dramatic benefits after successfully deploying these location-independent agile models, enablers and principles.

Real-world examples

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 team carefully evaluated the team models. Because there was minimal overlap between time zones – only around two hours total – the team chose Model 3.
  • Collaboration events such as sprint planning, review, retro and daily standups were scheduled during the overlap time using video conferencing and knowledge management tools. 
  • In addition, the firm 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, team productivity improved 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 team re-focused its approach to distributed agile teams.

  • The team assessed its time zone overlap and with an overlap of four hours, selected Model 2. The team 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, the team 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 enables real-time work visualization by any team member, regardless of location. 
  • The result: The customer regained confidence, and the offshore teams now work on major development projects apart from enhancements.

Rapid response: COVID-19 and the TCS transition to secure borderless workspaces

When COVID-19 swept the globe and closed workplaces, 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.

Existing business continuity models – site, city, country outages – and operations resiliency 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 framework encompasses a wide range of human functions, infrastructure, talent management and employee engagement, tools, governance mechanisms and collaboration practices.

TCS was able to transition 90% of its 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 transition’s speed and success was a result of the location-independent practices that formed the required backbone for remote working. These include:

  1. The importance of cross-functional roles taking ownership of both their tasks and goals. Twin roles provide required guidance on business and technology for all locations.
  2. A sustainable working model that ensures collaboration during the critical overlap among local business hours.
  3. Practices such as single product backlog that helps team members synchronize and visualize through digital information radiators for mutual visibility and transparency.
  4. A culture of self-organization and encouragement to identify impediments as they arise.

Capturing the benefits of location-independent agile

Distributed agile teams are the future of work. Harnessing the advantages of location-independent agile can maximize enterprise productivity and innovation, but companies need to know how to do it correctly. That means determining how time zones overlap, what tools and roles are required and how agile principles can be reimagined for distributed teams. As your organization gains experience, there will be greater opportunities to acquire additional benefits from organizational agility, and the ability to compete more successfully on a global scale.

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