So here we are, working from home during the Coronavirus lockdown. No more daily commuting in grid-locked traffic, no more tedious late-afternoon meetings in the office. We have been force-marched into an unfamiliar virtual world.
One of our lead trainers at Change Dynamics is new to Zoom videoconferencing. Her performance anxiety peaked just before her very first ‘virtual’ training session, right at the beginning of lockdown. When she started introducing her lecture she said, afterwards, that she was “worried her voice was sounding shaky”. After a few minutes of the call, one of the delegates piped up “you’re on mute”!
Laughter erupted. The ice had broken. Everyone in the on-line session relaxed and the interaction was great, but something was still missing.
Scrum is an Agile process framework that has been used to manage work on complex products since the early 1990s. The essence of Scrum is a small team of people which is highly flexible and adaptive.
Co-locating members of a Scrum team seems like a no-brainer.
Many players in the Agile field, such as Alistair Cockburn, one of the signatories to the Agile Manifesto, make a big deal of co-location and “Osmotic Communication”.
Osmotic Communication refers to the free flow of information into people’s “background hearing”. They can pick up relevant information though “osmosis”. Team members seated in the same room often ask one another questions. Other Team members consciously or sub-consciously “tune in” on the discussion and gain new knowledge which they can apply to their own work.
Ok, so we are more effective as a team if we are co-located, preferably in the same room. But must distributing a Team inevitably lead to a negative impact on Team performance?
What are we missing?
Interestingly, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, the co-authors of The Scrum Guide™, make little mention of co-location in the guide.
They do talk about respect; “Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people”.
They also talk about trust: “When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone”.
Since lockdown started, we are forced to work as remote teams. Co-location is no longer an option. Our fellow team members may as well be in different towns, or even in different countries. We have no choice but to use on-line communication technologies such as Zoom, Teams, Hangouts and others. Is it really so bad? In Cockburn’s communication effectiveness graph, Video Conversation is pretty ‘hot’!
After her first training session on Zoom, our lead trainer organised a follow-up virtual coaching session with the same delegates. She wanted to ‘check in’ with them. Her first question to the group was ‘So how are we all doing in these stressful times?”.
One of the younger members responded. “I don’t miss the traffic and the noise”.
“And?” the trainer asked.
“I really miss you guys”.
Capable Independent People.
High-performing teams thrive where there is mutual respect. They trust their Scrum Master as a servant leader to keep them focused on the principles and values of Scrum. They trust their Product Owner to keep focus on value-driven goals. They trust each other’s knowledge and skills.
The foundations of trust are in relationships; “we trust our friends” and in consistency “when you say you will do something you always do it”.
Distributed Teams are naturally going to find it harder to build and maintain trust and respect when they each spend long hours alone. This is where leadership becomes so important.
Our trainer wasn’t just ‘checking-in’ with the Team. She was building trust, respect and cohesion. She was exercising servant-leadership.
Maybe it is time to rethink the traditional wisdom of co-location and build on these practices as Scrum Masters or Managers of high-performing teams.
Let’s keep ‘checking in’ with our teams and find new ways to create ‘Osmotic Communication’. More on Managing Distributed Teams in my next blog . . .
Your Scrum Master and Agile Coach