How do we work as a Team when our members are split between locations on opposite sides of the world?

There are three dimensions to this question:

  1. How to keep the process working smoothly
  2. How to conduct Team meetings
  3. How to collaborate on work

How to keep the process working smoothly

The usual case is that the ScrumMaster is in the same location as part of the Team, and the remaining members are in one or more other locations.


The ScrumMaster’s responsibility is to do whatever is needed to make the Team as productive as possible. The day-to-day work of a ScrumMaster is a mix of things, including facilitating Team meetings, maintaining situational awareness regarding the tasks people are doing, enforcing the process, and removing impediments to the Team’s productivity. This work can only be done effectively if the ScrumMaster is physically present with the Team members. In the absence of this presence, organization tends to decay, with a corresponding loss of productivity and ability to track work effectively.


The solution is to designate a “ScrumMaster Proxy” (SMP) to stand in for the ScrumMaster at each location where the ScrumMaster is not physically present. The SMP does 80% of the ScrumMasters routine work around maintaining situational awareness, removing impediments, and enforcing the process, as well as facilitating the various meetings.


How to conduct Team meetings

Story estimation requires real-time involvement of all Team members. This means that Backlog Grooming, Sprint Planning, or other moments when a Team estimates Stories for planning purposes must involve all Team members in a live meeting. Scheduling becomes challenging, and inconvenient, when Team members are in very different time zones, but it is necessary that all be present for this work. The best that can be done with respect to working hours is to make these opportunities very focused on estimation, and no more frequent than necessary.


Sprint Planning meetings will involve some or all of estimation, Story-level planning, and Task Breakdown planning. Given the estimates, the Story-level planning (creating the initial draft of the Sprint Backlog) is straightforward, and requires little additional time from the Team beyond that required for Story estimation.


The Task Breakdown work can be split in separate sessions across time zones, if needed, as it isn’t quite as time-critical as the other work. One part of the Team can draft and estimate Tasks as well as they can, then hand off remaining drafting to the other part(s) of the Team in other time zones. Work can begin on initial Tasks in Day 1 of the Sprint, even before the Task Breakdown is completed, as long as the latter is complete enough for the purpose of Days 1 and 2. After that, the Team should have an adequately defined and estimated Task Breakdown, which will be used to make the final scoping decision for the Sprint Backlog.


The Daily Stand-Up meetings can be conducted with the local portions of the Team, at times convenient for them, as long as the ScrumMaster and SM Proxy capture minutes and share them with the full Team.


The Sprint Review can be conducted with the part of the Team near the Product Owner, as the purpose is to provide final opportunity for the Product Owner to review the completed deliverables and make go/no-go decisions.


The Retrospective can be conducted in with the local portions of the Team, at times convenient for them, as long as the ScrumMaster and SM Proxy capture the information collected and share all of it with the full Team. The Team members should prioritize and schedule appropriate follow-up work over the next few days. This delay is acceptable because the follow-up work of a Retrospective, while important, is not usually time-critical.


How to collaborate on work

The Atlassian tools (Jira, GreenHopper, Confluence), source-code control system, and telecommunication tools provide the basic capabilities need to collaborate. The challenge is to use them effectively. Key contributors to success include having

  • At least the ScrumMaster and SM Proxy talk daily
  • Everyone exercise care in writing clear email messages that do not require follow-up clarification to be understood
  • Attaching discussion threads to specific Stories, so the accumulated discoveries about the Story are visible in one consistent (and expected) location