Some Thoughts on Virtual Scrum Teams

I’m interrupting my series on the 2020 Scrum Guide to examine a topic we’ve all been immersed in since March of last year – you remember last year, 2020, the year that just wouldn’t end.

A recent article published on the BBC offered some interesting, and to Scrum Team members, not surprising analysis of virtual teams. First of all, it turns out that teams already working well together in-person adapted pretty much seamlessly to working from home. The reasons behind this outcome are essentially that an established, high-performing team already contained knowledge of the work styles and personalities of all of its members. Established teams also have built psychological safety into their interactions, which makes the transition to dispersed, virtual teamwork smooth. The regular cadence of Scrum Events ensures that every member of a Scrum Team stays connected and engaged. Keeping the Team’s video meeting space active throughout the day allows teammates to collaborate and communicate in real time much like they did when they were working in a physically co-located workspace.

The only issue established teams experienced was the loss of chance encounters with people external to their team. Ironically, it turns out that to keep that kind of cross-pollination going we need to schedule “random” encounter time to replace the hallway or coffee break conversations that happen organically in a co-located office setting. The upshot is it takes a little more effort but really isn’t a big deal. Using your go-to virtual team tool, just set up an open breakout room where people can drop in as the mood strikes. When you see someone in the “virtual coffee” breakout room you want to chat up, just pop in and go. No big deal.

What About Setting Up a New Dispersed Team?

Setting up a new team in a dispersed setting, while not impossible, is much more difficult and time consuming than simply moving an established team to a virtual communication platform. We humans do still interact more effectively when physically present with each other. Given that we won’t be doing that again on any kind of scale for a good long while yet, waiting around to set up a new team really isn’t an option.

So what can you do to help a new, dispersed team get moving? This is where that regular cadence of Scrum Events comes heavily into play. Since each Event has both a goal and a time box, newly formed dispersed teams have good a great opportunity to score a continuing series of small yet satisfying wins. Even holding an effective Daily Scrum using virtual tools inside the 15-minute time box produces a satisfying sense of accomplishment to kick off the day.

You will, in your role as Scrum Master or Scrum Coach need more than the Scrum Events to help a new team get off the ground. Leverage the Scrum Values to build an effective team working agreement right out of the gate. Use pairing to build familiarity with individual work styles, competence in the product development domain, and trust between individuals. Make sure that pairs of teammates rotate regularly, twice daily at least, to move quickly toward building a real team. Also make sure management gives the new team space to grow into their new form of work. That means relaxing or removing entirely the pressure to generate some preconceived output every Sprint. On the other hand, make sure you set up your team to score small output wins early and often during every Sprint. And when the wheels come off, as they inevitably will, make sure to treat the experience as a learning opportunity rather than some massive downer that blows up the team before it even has a chance to get started.

All for now. Stay safe and Scrum on!

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming with the next installment of my review of the 2020 Scrum Guide….