One of the 12 principals within the Agile Manifesto for an Agile/Scrum environment is that the team needs to be co-located, the interaction has to happen in person because there is value in that personal interaction. "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation." So what happens when the team cannot be together? It's a question many people have asked when attempting to work in scrums when geographic boundaries are yet another obstacle to overcome. There are ways around it. We have technology that can help bridge the gap of the face-to-face. I've worked in a variety of team settings that were exclusively in person or exclusively phone and online based with limited personal interaction. I understand the pitfalls and why co-location harmonizes much more quickly than virtual teams.

Here at CapTech, like any company we have our own projects. These projects are in addition to our billable client work, so we've found an Agile/Scrum framework is working really well for some of our teams. We manage our capacity based on what we have going on, we try to meet once a month in person, we have our "stand-ups" or "dial-ins" in such a way that we get little increments of work done to serve our internal project needs. Albeit, this is a much slower pace than if we have a full time "40 hours" to devote to this work, so we take our achievements and successes as we can get them. Another aspect of our CapTech work is that we require a virtual aspect because even though we're in the same company, we're not always in the same part of town or even in the same state! Many large corporate firms also face this same geographic obstacle.

In our team, one of norms states that for our monthly sprint schedule, our sprint planning session should be the ONE in-person meeting we have as a team. However, that can't always happen because not all team members are present. Much of our work is done off line and brought together for shared desktop virtual presentation to collect feedback during the sprint or hold our Sprint Review at the end of our sprint. This past week, the extreme weather patterns forced us to make a decision asking everyone to be safe at home and not in the office, however, the show must go on! We decided to do an entirely virtual Sprint Planning Session. My overall thought is that it went really well. We normally have one or two team members that can only attend virtually, because Richmond is not their home town. This virtual session worked much better for them, because everyone was now virtually connected to the meeting, so the phone conversation was easier to understand. If you've ever been the only one on a phone call and everyone else in the room, sometimes it's impossible to really hear everything that is going on. Forcing everyone to attend in the same manner levels the playing field.

So here is what was different: Our ScrumMaster shared her desktop screen to all see our VersionOne backlog. The Product Owner had prioritized the work and wanted to discuss a few key stories for the sprint, so we focused on those. As in any sprint planning session, the Product Owner reviewed a story, answered questions about scope, intent and vision. Then using a whiteboard, our ScrumMaster asked everyone to immediately type or draw their point estimates for the story we had just discussed. We proceeded to harmonize on our estimates for stories and move along through our sprint backlog working up each estimate.

Having just been through a virtual planning session, I can say it worked! But we also have am existing team rapport built, and a commitment to the team. If we were starting from scratch and standing up a new team, I would venture to say that this wouldn't have worked as well. For teams getting started, having that personal interaction allows you to understand people better. You can slowly build that over time through lots of conversation, in person or virtually. Our virtual conference bridge lines and screen sharing capabilities allow us to overcome geographic distances when necessary. So is a virtual setting possible? Yes, it is! Is it always appropriate? My gut says "certainly not for fresh teams", but it is a setting a team can grow into. It may also be the only way your team can get together if plane tickets around the world are too expensive for the first few sessions. If your team is all over the world or the country, investing time together as a group helps build a bond that can't be created in any other way. Teams that have that bond can work virtually more easily than others.