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Forget what the Agile Manifesto says: Distributed agile is here to stay

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

While many aspects of the Agile Manifesto, created 20 years ago this month, remain relevant, one principle is holding organizations back. It's the sixth principle, which states: 

"The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation."  

Agile purists have taken this to mean that unless your team collaborates face-to-face, you will be at a disadvantage. That mindset has been dangerous and wrong, because it has resulted in "rules" that require people on agile teams to be in the office, reversing previous policies that allowed for greater flexibility. But trust does not depend on seeing someone in person.

While most of the Agile Manifesto still holds, this principle is outdated. Those who hold on to forcing face-to-face communication will be at a disadvantage to competitors that embrace and adapt to change, as stated in the overarching principles of agile.

While there's no question that face-to-face communication has benefits, agile leaders in these uncertain times have discovered that having a work-from-anywhere approach saves money and gives employees more flexibility. Yes, this trend has been accelerated by the pandemic, but it was already happening—and there's no going back.

Here's how you can maintain a collaborative agile culture during the pandemic—and beyond.

Take advantage of a geographically distributed team

A global team brings different perspectives and the opportunity for round-the-clock teaming without anyone having to work outside of normal business hours.

I've led mission-critical support teams with staff members in Europe, North America, and Asia-Pacific, a distributed approach that allowed us to provide coverage without anyone receiving annoying wakeup calls.

Another mistake agilists who misinterpret the sixth principle make: forcing team members to attend meetings outside of their business time zone. While it's important to have strong communication and trust between team members, this does not mean you have to always have real-time meetings.

Even if your team is not geographically diverse, the freedom to hire outside of your location provides flexibility and diversity in hiring practices and allows people to live in areas where real estate and the cost of living are more affordable.

As with all agile processes, your team needs to self-organize and determine the communication strategies that work best for the team, while continuing to reflect and improve. There's a multitude of communication tools you can choose from that foster teaming and collaboration and offer alternatives to face-to-face, real-time meetings.

Misunderstandings can occur whether you're using tools, email, or talking directly. However, the "paper trail" these tools generate provides a better avenue for being able to drill down and get to the root of misunderstandings and correct them. These tools also provide a better means for everyone to get on the same page.

Often, it's the face-to-face conversations that cause the biggest misunderstandings, and there's no easy way to go back and analyze the root cause.

Foster personal relationships and stay focused

The intent of the sixth principle of the Agile Manifesto was to serve as a reminder that we all communicate not only by what we say, but also with our body language. More trust can be established when you are looking into someone's eyes and read what they're saying—and what they're not saying—through their body language and tone.

When teams are in the office together, camaraderie builds and people can easily share smiles, small talk, photos, frustrations, and all the ups and downs of their day. They can take walks to brainstorm, meet for coffee, celebrate birthdays, and go for happy hours. Friendships flourish, and work provides a place where people want to go every day because it's where they see and work with their friends.

When people are not physically together, you need to expend more effort to foster those relationships. One way to do this is to turn on those cameras for online interactions.

Most people don't like to turn on their cameras because, let's face it, with the cameras off, they are freer to multitask without anyone knowing. They keep one ear open to listen for their name during meetings, but more often than not, they're on mute, maybe doing pushups, doing the laundry, or walking the dog.

How to stay engaged

During the pandemic, people are dealing with a lot of unusual circumstances, often with kids at home doing their classes over Zoom. Personally, I disagree with having rules of any kind unless they are agreed upon by the team. However, to build trust with your teammates, you need to listen and be engaged.

Make an effort to get to know your teammates personally. Take the time to share stories and pictures or have one-on-one chats and phone calls. Certainly, if you are a leader or manager, make one-on-ones a priority and keep your camera on as often as possible. Make sure you have a virtual open-door policy and maintain transparency, approachability, and availability.

Take advantage of the flexibility that comes with remote work. Schedule walk-and-talk one-on-ones where you can walk and enjoy nature at the same time, in different locations. Let your entertaining pets join a chat, and let others know if you have to break away from a meeting for a personal issue, with the promise to catch up on whatever's necessary.

The pandemic has taught us that there is no substitute for the human connection that can result when we are physically together. Indeed, in some agile teams I engaged with before the pandemic that had remote members, those remote participants felt excluded.

The rhetoric from agilists implied that the remote team members were at a disadvantage and could never be as effective as their co-located counterparts. But this is not the true mindset of an agilist.

Agile teams must embrace diversity and talent, regardless of physical location or time zone, and provide opportunities for strong communication and collaboration.

Embrace change, self-organize, adapt, and improve

Other than rebelling against the sixth principle that drove some behaviors that have been detrimental for teams, I'm a firm believer in the overall agile philosophies. For healthy teams, we need to have trust, strong communication, and caring, supportive relationships.

There are no one-size-fits-all answers that tell us the "best" way to communicate. Every situation is different, as is every team.

We live in an age with wonderful technology advancements that allow us to foster collaboration, communication, and teaming with people all over the world. At the same time, we can be spending physical time with our families.

Use this time to experiment and creatively communicate. Embrace and celebrate these technological advancements and their abilities to keep us connected during the pandemic.

If I could make one amendment to the Manifesto, it would be to add trust over co-location as a value statement. Co-location is beneficial, but trust is golden.

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