Agile to Agility Highlights with Mark Kilby

Agile to Agility Highlights: Distributed Teams With Mark Kilby and Miljan Bajic

What distributed and hybrid-remote teams can do to connect and be most successful

“Most people confuse hybrid-remote work as a destination for their workforce,” says Mark Kilby, author and long-time agile coach, on his blog. “It’s actually just a transition point on a much longer transformation of work in general.”

In his book, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, Kilby offers three mindset shifts that are needed when using Agile and lean principles to support distributed team members. Busting the myth that distributed Agile teams don’t deliver on time, Kilby’s expertise has been in high demand since many teams became distributed during the pandemic.

He talks with Miljan Bajic, in this issue of Agile to Agility Highlights, about how distributed teams can be most productive, and the future of hybrid-remote for organizations.

When did you start work with Agile teams?

I like to joke that I started as a rocket scientist, because I was a developer with NASA, but my work as a ScrumMaster began in 2003 with the Department of Defense. When I went from tech lead to project manager I was seeing a whole class of problems that school didn’t prepare me for, and it was called “people.” Everyone has similar tech problems, but they also have similar people problems. My engineering background did not prepare me for all this, so I needed to learn how to do this work for myself and others, and do a lot of self study to really understand it. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 20-plus years.

How did you get to the remote piece?

It’s not unusual in the Department of Defense for one part of the team to be in one country and one part to be in another country 13 time zones apart. So I had figure out how to make that work. We were a subcontractor to a subcontractor to the prime, you know, way down on the food chain, but someone said, “We needed to wait six months for changes from the prime, but we just mention something to you and it changes in a few weeks. Can we ask you some questions?” We said sure, and they invited their friends and other agencies, and when they decided to bid it out again they made it a small business set aside so only small business could bid on it. We got the contract and everyone we used to report to became our subcontractors.

How did you shorten the feedback schedule and build trust?

It was about giving the team as much as autonomy as possible to react to the feedback because that will be faster. If you have to run it up the chain and back down it again that slows the process. We were good about asking the remote team, “What is it you’re seeing? Let us work on it and we’ll get you some kind of fix in 12 hours.” Then we’d all swarm the problem. What will build trust, but also give value?

You want teams to collaborate so they collectively solve the problem. You might some get pride out of solving it yourself, but it’s better for the team to work together.

What methods do you use to get distributed teams to connect?

You name it, I’ve probably tried it, Myers Briggs, StrengthsFinder, Crucial Conversations. I prefer one exercise called the Compass Activity that I have on my website. It’s very simple, you define North, East, South, West. North jumps into action. East needs the big picture, why are we doing this? South really wants to get everybody’s input, I tend to be south. West needs all the details, QA folks usually. Then we grab avatars, put them on the board, and ask everyone to move them where they typically like to operate. You hear some people say, “Oh, so you put yourself between North and West, now I know why you get mad at me when I say slow down.” You know it’s successful when they start joking with each other, “Oh that’s such a North comment.” I find it the easiest way for teams to think about where they run into problems.

I also like to provide space for casual conversations. I’ll say that I’m going to get on a meeting few minutes early and some team members come on and we talk about the weather. When the others get on they say, “Why are you on already?” We tell them and they join early next time. Sometimes I say I’m going to stay on a little longer, just five minutes is enough to connect.

I was really struggling to get to know one team where none of them used video and thought, let’s try ending the meeting a different way. So I tried a couple different endings, like “That’s all folks.” That got no reaction, then I tried, “And on that bombshell.” Five seconds later the quietest guy on the team reached out on chat and said, “Was that from Top Gear (UK)? I love that show!” We spent half an hour on chat, and that’s how we connected.

Sometimes you have to be creative, and don’t be afraid to share a bit about yourself. If my kids come in when I’m working with a team on video, I’ll introduce them. Because if your kids came into your real office, would you not introduce them? Right now my warning light is on and the family agreement is if they come in when the light is on, they will be immediately introduced to whoever is in the video.

Another idea is to bring everyone together at least once a year to socialize, even the introverts. You find out, what do they like to do? Not everyone likes to go to the bar, so bring your favorite board game. We used to have long gaming competitions and it built a broader camaraderie.

Do you have any tips for hybrid-remote teams?

If you do hybrid-remote you need a whole new set of disciplines. We are wired to pay attention to other humans who are around us, so how do we get the people in the room more connected with those in other spaces? One idea is to ask each team member in the room to stay connected with one remote person. If sticky notes came out on the whiteboard, the local person might put one up for the remote person. You get the sense that there are others here who we need to take care of as a group. It should be the tribe taking care of each other, not just the facilitator or coach doing it.

The words we use right now like remote, virtual, and distributed create an “us versus them” difference and that worries me. We’re all a team. I’m experimenting with the term “location free” to see how that sticks with people.

Some companies like Dropbox are getting rid of individual desks and the office is becoming a studio space when the team wants to come together for meetings. In absence of an office, another option is to get an AirBnB when needed and work on the project during the days, then bond as a team and cook together the rest of the time.

What role do tools play?

Tools have played a huge role in supporting remote work, but we’re looking at the Model-T of online communication right now. It will get you where you need to go, but don’t take it on a long trip!

We’ve all realized that day long meetings in a grid of pictures is not fun. There are a huge number of startups now trying to crack this problem, a lot in the augmented/virtual reality space, but it has some issues. We have the platforms to connect us, but none of them do a great job with hybrid. Zoom is supposed to be coming out with something to support hybrid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some more pragmatic solutions in the maker space.

How do we make remote meetings better?

Good facilitation skills are still important. We still need to have a purpose, an agenda, and also be willing to adapt so there’s a human side. Spread the responsibility out, if you take notes in a Google doc, let someone else take the notes. As as mentioned before, you might provide a little buffer space for the human connection. How are people doing? Anything you need?

Those companies who have been remote for a while only meet when they need to be very focused to make a decision or brainstorm some options. If it’s information sharing, we can do that online, we don’t need to meet, if it’s a Q&A, we can do that online. We don’t need everyone piling on Zoom to see if we can get 50 squares in the meeting. Going from Zoom meeting to meeting to meeting is inhuman.

What do you think is the future for hybrid-remote?

Hybrid-remote is was what we didn’t like before the pandemic, and now is proposed as the solution. I’d be surprised if a lot of companies stay hybrid unless there’s a change in technology. I could be wrong, but hybrid is difficult for us as humans and you’ll lose the employees who want to be all remote. A lot of companies are going hybrid to retain staff who want to be in the office, but if they really want to provide a benefit, my guess is they will eventually shift to more and more remote because they’re going to realize there’s a better way to implement this.

In April 2021, there was the big shift in labor, four-plus million quit. There will be other shifts, probably this fall, as people experiment with hybrid-remote and decide they don’t like it. The people who are very comfortable working both face-to-face and online will have some opportunities.

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