Virtual Agile Teams

In my role as VP Information Technology of the German national office of AIESEC, I was leading a team of 4 software developers who were living spread around Germany.

It was common among my predecessors to recruit developers from within AIESEC’s 1500+ local volunteers. For most of the volunteers, this was their opportunity to work on their first real-life projects. As an NGO, we did not have the resources to recruit a professional development agency. Our volunteers work 10–20 hours a week.

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We had been working on our projects that we had planned 6 months ago and things weren’t great in how our work was going.

  • Project timelines were not kept.
  • Inexperienced developers were discouraged from taking on more complex tasks.
  • Lack of commitment to fulfill a task within a given deadline.
  • Lack of clarity which tasks were done or still in progress.

When it was time to come together physically to plan the next quarters, I knew I needed to change things. However, I also knew that I needed to have the courage to admit that I did not know what to do.

I got in touch with one of AIESEC’s longstanding national partners BearingPoint who was generous enough to send one of their solution architects to our office and coach my team for one day.

He came down for one day and he gave us the full rundown: Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, Kanban, Estimation Poker, User Stories, Requirement Gathering, etc..

However, at that point, I did not know we were about to dramatically change the way we worked. During one of the breaks, one of my team members came to me and she said:

“Laurin, I believe we have to try Scrum”…

And so we tried. The remainder of that day was spent putting all our bottlenecks on the table and coming up with solutions through agile methodologies:

Sprint Length: 2 weeks

Daily Scrum: Twice a week

Product Owner: Me

Scrum Master: The developer who pushed for agile

Sprint Review, Retro & Planning: Bi-weekly, 2-hour meeting

Backlog Tool: Trello

One lane was the Product Backlog and the sprint backlog was visualized by cards that had an assignee. Lanes were: Open, In Progress, Done

Our events were designed around ensuring that the very limited amount of time was not eaten up through too many meetings, while still giving the opportunity to inspect and adapt.

In the end, the implementation was somewhat successful. We saw the following improvements:

  • When too many difficult tasks were in one sprint, inexperienced developers were actively encouraged and support was given by more experienced developers.
  • By committing to specific tasks openly, it was ensured that developers would do what they say.
  • Full clarity on which tasks were in which stage.
  • Buy-in from members to constantly suggest improvements.

So we can see that from the 3 pillars of Empiricism, Transparency and Adaptation were very well presence as well as the Scrum values Courage and Commitment.

However, there were also some issues that arose:

  • Team members being virtual and infrequent Daily Scrums led to impediments usually being identified too late.
  • Outside commitments of developers such as university exams made it hard to properly assess velocity and led to overcommitment.
  • Inspection and adaptation always focused on the process improvement and was sometimes used as an excuse when in reality the developers were not using their time effectively.
  • I was still formally the team leader and kept doing performance management, inhibiting Openness in the team.
  • Scrum was not implemented in the overall organization. We were not even in the Awareness stage and the Scrum Master did not have the power to do build that awareness. I could not fully exercise my role as Product Owner.

Unfortunately, I was only able to derive these learnings now as I was studying Scrum for my Professional Scrum Master Certification, way after I finished that assignment. I wish this would be a story of a hero’s journey where the whole situation was turned around. In the end, implementing Scrum still improved everyone’s overall experience as well as our deliverables, and my learnings have helped me immensely in my subsequent roles.

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