Going Beyond Remote Agile: Are You Ready for Your Next Change?


Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a “black swan event” that has forced most organizations to scramble to figure out how to do their work remotely. Many agile teams are struggling to work remotely, this being particularly tough for some agilists who had mistakenly convinced themselves that they needed to be co-located to be agile. By the time you read this article, you have likely addressed many of the challenges you face when working remotely and are well on the way to adopting common solutions to this challenge.

So, let me show you how you can organize your work smoothly and what you can do the next time you need to identify a new way of working (WoW).

1. Remote agile isn’t new. Agile teams have been dealing with geographic distribution for a long time. For years I have led research efforts to discover what was actually happening within the agile community. We have explored agility at scale – particularly during 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2016 – including how geographically distributed agile teams are in practice. The research tells us how others have dealt with, and overcome, the challenges presented by remote agile. We can learn from them and adapt our WoW quickly to address the current context.

2. Geographic distribution is only one of several scaling factors. Although we are now all focused on learning remote ways of working, the fact is that geographic distribution is only one of several potential complexities that our team may have to overcome. Figure 1 depicts the six scaling factors, sometimes called complexity factors, commonly faced by agile teams. This is important because the mantra of “agile teams should be small, co-located, and taking on a straightforward problem” rarely seems to hold true in practice. We must tailor our WoW to address the situation that we face – just as we are seeing many teams tailor their WoW to work remotely, they must also tailor their WoW to address these other scaling factors.

3. Choice is good. The good news is that choosing your WoW to reflect the context that you face doesn’t have to be hard. This is where the DA toolkit can help you. Instead of prescribing a WoW for you, and then leaving it to you to tailor it to your situation, DA instead guides you through the process. It tells you what you need to think about when choosing a WoW that’s a right fit for you and presents you with choices via easy-to-navigate process goal diagrams. Figure 2 depicts the process goal diagram for coordinate activities, which addresses how to coordinate both within and across teams. It addresses remote strategies. Interestingly, the options that it calls out are ordered, something that is indicated by the arrow beside the list. What that means is that the strategies toward the top of the list are generally more effective than the strategies toward the bottom. Adopting collaborative tools such as Skype, Zoom, Slack, and many others are a good start. But there are other, usually more effective options available too. Unfortunately since even an occasional meeting may not be possible now, strategies such as ambassadors, gathering physically at critical times, and moving the team to a single location are not viable options. But we can ensure that people are communicating effectively and provide them coaching if they need it. If you know your potential choices, you are more likely to identify a strategy that will work for you in the current situation.

4. You don’t need to work everything out on your own. Your team faces a range of issues that other teams have faced and overcome before. You can leverage these learnings if you know that they exist, when they are likely to work or not work, and how they potentially fit together. Behind the goal diagrams, such as Figure 2, are descriptions of each technique, which in many cases links to more detailed information about the technique and the tradeoffs associated it. With that you can determine whether it is right for your team. E.g. how you coordinate between locations is only one of many potential issues that your team faces when coordinating activities. Furthermore, coordinating activities is one of many process goals that a team needs to address to be effective.

5. We need to do better than simply “failing fast.” Many agile coaches will tell you that you need to learn to “fail fast,” but frankly this is a bit of a cop out. We can improve on this by saying that we need to make it safe so that you can fail fast, or would it not be better to succeed fast? By knowing that there are potential solutions to these challenges, that sometimes some options are more effective than others, and that there are tradeoffs to consider, we can increase the chances of picking the right strategies for ourselves. Thus, we fail less often and improve our WoW faster. This is a strategy that we call guided continuous improvement.

We live in interesting times. Agile teams choose to embrace change, and part of embracing change is being able to tailor our WoW to address the context of the situation that we face. COVID-19 has motivated agile teams to find ways to work together remotely, something that many agile teams have struggled with at first (and some still struggle with). DA teams were able to address this new situation faster and more effectively by applying the DA toolkit. Since you are guaranteed to face new and different changes in the future, would it not be a good idea to learn how to respond to them well?

(Scott Ambler is vice president, chief scientist of Disciplined Agile at PMI, and co-creator of Disciplined Agile. He leads the evolution of the DA toolkit.)