New to agile? Tools for distributed agile

I’ve been working the past several weeks with some highly distributed teams.  Each team requires a way to track their project effectively (when you have people in 6 different states and a few countries cards on the wall no longer work!), collaborate, use planning poker and store things pertinent to the project.  What can you do when co-location is just not a possibility?

It turns out there are many ways to help overcome pieces of the problem.  Unfortunately, the problem also has many pieces!  Below I have broken out some of the tools I have seen used successfully to overcome various issues distributed teams face:

Issue: Lack of high-bandwidth communication

This is probably the biggest problem distributed teams need to solve.  How close can you come to high bandwidth communication?  That should be the question you ask all the time.  Since this is about tools, some that I’ve seen used are video conferencing that is live all the time (cheaper than you think when done over the Internet), extensive use of Skype, instant messaging of various flavors, and a good old fashioned phone call.  For teams that overlap the work day at all, some form of instant messaging is used nearly universally.  I’ve also seen teams use Twitter in “private” mode to share information with each other.  For any of these methods it is vital to have an easy method of storing the critical information which is exchanged. 

Issue: Cannot use “cards on the wall” to track iteration progress

This is the issue that is probably easiest to deal with because it is where most vendors of agile tools have focused.  You basically have 4 choices here:  1) create something of your own to solve this problem, 2) use something like www.cardmeeting.com to still try to simulate cards on the wall, 3) use an Excel spreadsheet for tracking, or 4) use a web-based tool designed for the job.  To me numbers 1 and 3 are not viable solutions.  There are too many problems associated with both of them.  Number 2 is interesting, but only for a short time.  It doesn’t quite have enough flexibility to make it easy to use for this particular type of situation.  That leaves number 4 as the only true option (again, this is my opinion, yours may be different).  In this category are LOTS of tools.  VersionOne, Rally, Pivotal Tracker, TargetProcess, Microsoft TFS and many other applications can do the job.  I have not mentioned any open source tools because I’ve seen too many teams try them, get stuck and have no good place to turn for help. 

The two having the largest market share by far are VersionOne and Rally.  Both have a free version for evaluation and in both cases they also have a free version which can be used by small teams forever.  I know there are lots of other tools out there, but I’ve not personally used them, so I can’t put them in here.

Issue: Cannot play Planning Poker remotely

OK, I lied earlier – THIS is the easiest problem to solve!  Assuming you can get everyone on the web at the same time, www.planningpoker.com will suffice quite nicely.  This site has several different variations of point scales to use, can import stories, has a timer you can use and basically makes playing Planning Poker remotely as simple as possible.  Kudos to Mike Cohn for setting it up and keeping it free for the agile community to use (Mike has also written a couple of books we have listed on our resources page).

Issue: Information storage and sharing is difficult

This is another area with lots of potential answers.  Wikis are very popular and probably the number one choice for taking a stab at this particular issue.  Sharepoint is another option that I’ve seen work well.  Many teams using an agile project management tool like VersionOne (or one of the others mentioned) will create links from the tool to wherever the additional information is stored, thereby allowing them to use any storage medium including something like subversion.

While there are lots of choices in this area, good agile principles tell us to eliminate waste.  This is a huge potential area for waste.  If you can’t find something then it might as well not have been there at all.  It is vitally important for teams to pick a tool and a way of using that tool which allows for easily finding information when necessary!

Other random tools:

www.etherpad.com – real-time collaborative text editing

Google Docs – online document sharing

www.tinychat.com – instantly create and use a chatroom

www.scriblink.com – online whiteboard

www.webex.com and www.gotomeeting.com – online meetings with presentations or sharing a desktop for others to view

As you can see, there are a LOT of tools available for use with distributed teams.  Let the agile process work for you by having the team use one for an iteration and at the iteration retrospective (you do have those, right?) decide whether to continue using it, change how you use it, or decide to try a different tool.  There are far more tools than I’ve listed.  Let Google be your friend and find ones that solve your specific problems.

Until next time my clients will be using many of these tools as they continue Making Agile a Reality™.

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  1. You missed the best Agile collaboration tool of all – Agilebuddy. Agilebuddy is based on the latest Rails technology provides rich collaboration features you’d expect from a modern Web 2.0 Tool.

    Jack

  2. Jack, I didn’t leave out Agilebuddy for any reason other than I’ve never used it or seen it used, so I just can’t recommend it at this time. The same is true of some Borland tools that I’ve heard are excellent. I didn’t want to have to mention every tool, which is why I made sure I said “I have broken out some of the tools I have seen used successfully…”

    Good luck with the tool. You have some pretty stiff competition in that space!

  3. Bob,
    Thanks for the mention of Rally and twitter RT on my blog post. It is clear to me that distributed agile requires more discipline than collocated agile. I think one important part of that message is that “tool” usage is actually required to increase visibility and trust across the distributed resources. Without trust agile tends to fall apart or degrade to “mediocre.” If you talk to Bill Woods at Ping ID in Denver, he will tell you things like – “If it is not in Rally, it is not in scope.” (Sorry can’t help but use one of our earliest customers who is very successful with a portion of his team in eastern Europe.) By having that level of discipline, his teams maintain visibility and trust. His teams also get on airplanes regularly to not just maintain trust, but actively work to increase it.

    He would make a great local interview for your blog. I would be glad to introduce you to him.

    • Ryan, that is an excellent point about trust. As for Bill Wood, no need to introduce us. I’ve known Bill since before he was a Rally customer. In fact, in the small world department, he was in the seat behind me yesterday on my flight to Boston!

Bob Hartman

Known as Agile Bob, brings over 30 years of experience and broad industry knowledge cultivated by serving in almost every role in the software industry including developer, tester, documentation writer, trainer, product manager, project manager, business analyst, senior software engineer, development manager and executive. Over the past 15 years Bob has grown from being an early adopter of Agile to his current status as a Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST) and Certified Enterprise Coach℠ (CEC) and an expert in training, coaching and mentoring across all areas of Agile development. Bob is a popular speaker, having spoken at numerous major conferences, seminars, workshops and user group meetings where his engaging style, holistic view of development and personal anecdotes are always well received by attendees.

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