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How to implement scrum with your remote team

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Let’s first start with the very basics, what is scrum? Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams and organisations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.” Scrum helps teams and organisations become more agile, building and releasing iteratively. And becoming agile involves a change in mindset because agile is a mindset not a specific framework or process as is often misunderstood. 

Let’s tackle the remote bit of scrum: the key to anything moving from being in a physical place, to remote is about realising that the same process doesn’t transfer like-for-like. Why? Because we can’t touch things; we can only see people if they choose and there are different health implications to staring for hours at a screen over sitting, standing and moving in and around a physical workspace. An obvious statement but the number of remote scrum meetings I have attended that have been copy and paste are all too many.

As a team, it’s vital to agree on how we work together so here are my top tips on going remote with scrum:

1. Figure out the tools early

Instant messaging (IM) apps are fantastic until we pester one another. Harsh, however, I have noted that instant messaging has changed dramatically in remote environments. It’s important as a team to agree on how to use it.

  1. Why and when to create a channel?
  2. Response time - as a team do we expect immediate responses or would several hours be acceptable? This is for the team to decide rather than be dictated to.
  3. It’s a red flag if you are bombarded with IMs; you have the agreement with the team to speak, be heard and be given time to focus. Remember your Scrum Master is there to protect the team from disturbance so reiterating this is important.

2. Define ready and done

The ‘Definition of Ready’ and ‘Definition of Done’ matters, in-office and remote. It forms part of your team's agreement: how do we as a team know and agree the requirement is ready for sprint? And how do we as a team agree it’s done, and potentially releasable to the customer? Have this readily available for all to see. I have seen this pinned in Slack channels and as Jira checklists. Anywhere that is regularly visible is good. These tools are best used in the context of the team and within the existing tools used, avoid introducing more things, they can create noise and confusion.

3. Sort out your values

What are your values as a team? This will form glue between you that may be invisible at first, but when the going gets tough, that glue, those values that you made as a team will energise and enlighten. I’ve seen scrum teams decide on characters, and have a logo or icon, something that draws them back to why we are here and what is important to us.

4. Keep sprints short

Longer sprints, mean long releases which mean long meetings, the lengthy decision calls, forgotten requirements, priority out of project works… you name it. Long sprints (three to four weeks) come with pain points, and that is the last thing you need when everyone is remote. It can lead to distrust, disorganisation and other unnecessary issues.

So keep your sprints short, one to two weeks at max. This lets you and your team spend less time in meetings and more time focusing on bringing value to the customer sooner, keeping to commitments and doing it all with a smile on your faces.

5. Tiny stories are valuable

‘Bigger is better’ is totally overrated, especially in scrum. The smaller the story, the smaller the build, the smaller the test, the smaller (unlikely event of) the bug, and the quicker to find and fix. Keep the story simple, keep it small. Not only is this feature-friendly, it brings energy every day when the scrum team start closing out stories faster than it takes for your laptop to switch on. This is useful both on-site and remote.

6. Energise ceremonies

There are five key meetings (ceremonies) in scrum; backlog refinement, daily standup, planning, retrospective and show and tells or sprint reviews. Bring energy to each one of these.

  1. Need decisions? Play rock-paper-scissors (agree-option-disagree).
  2. People getting distracted? (tell-tale sign “Could you repeat that please?”) take a five minute break and reset with closed distracting applications.
  3. Stressful time? Box breathing, or a grounding exercise at the beginning of the meeting, (they’ll think you’re mad and then be grateful).

If you have a sprint planning meeting (ceremony) that lasts three hours, and you go remote, that is a classic fail situation. You may get through the first one, but you’ll be lucky to get past the first hour. An hour is a long time to be staring at your laptop, sitting or standing. Agreeing on a shorter sprint cycle will inevitably bring your ceremony time down.

7. Maintain trust

Just because you can’t always see or hear your team (including on instant messaging tools), it doesn't mean they aren’t focused on the sprint work at hand.

There is no one plan fits all, for the easy reason that we are human and we are motivated differently. These tips are for you to try; as with all scrum teams that go from good to great, the key is experiment. Retrospectives at the end of each sprint give you and the team time to pause, think differently and celebrate the work done. This allows you to pivot, fail fast and propel yourself forward.

If we apply a way of working that allows teams and organisations to thrive, be flexible and plan to bring value, over plan to bring what “had been decided many years ago and the world has changed since”, and continue to evolve daily, then whether you are experimenting with scrum remotely or on-site you will succeed.

If you are hungry for more on scrum, I highly recommend reading Jeff Sutherlands' book: Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time and checking out this hub of knowledge.

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