An interview with Jesse Fewell, author of “Can You Hear Me Now?: Working with Remote Virtual and Distributed Teams”
ES: I found reference to your book at the end of Mark Kilby’s wikinotes from Agile Alliance 2014. He led a session called “Remotely Agile?” I’m really honored you have time to speak about this. What is the main pain point common to all teams working remotely across the agile space?
JF: Preparation. When you assume you’re set up and can just “hop on the call,” it becomes painfully obvious when you’re not. We’ve all been there and not followed our own advice. It happens.
ES: That’s for sure…my computer overheated once and I had to use frozen pizza as an emergency cooling pad!
JF: Hah! And then of course preparation means much more than gear, although the gear is important. It’s also more than simply setting an agenda and booking a meeting in Outlook. Preparation means asking ahead of time: what information needs to flow out of this meeting? What are the pieces to be unlocked by the exchange? How are we going to create a collaborative environment?
ES: It can be difficult to get anyone to focus on these questions in advance. How do you do it?
JF: I find it helps to have a framework.
There’s Innovation Games “Ideas into Action” model that invites us to choose a format based on the conversation we’re going to have. There might be a portion of time set aside for ideation where we use sticky notes. Then we do some shaping of the material, this might be in a shared GoogleDoc which we type in and look at together. Then there might be some prioritization which could involve an online poll. You can actually map a conversation through these different platforms.
Innovation Games has taken the effort to productize some useful things for online work, including the Budget Game. The idea here is how do you decide in a consensus in a collaborative environment? Everyone has monopoly money to spend, and they form alliances.
And check this out if you haven’t already: “We’ve Got to START Meeting Like This” by Dana Wright.
She says whenever there’s an event or a meeting, or say for instance an Agile ceremony, you follow this model:
- Beforehand, anticipate.
- During, use engagement techniques.
- Afterward, think about how to extend the dynamics, momentum, the energy.
ES: That makes a lot of sense. How can we equalize the dynamics on teams that have some members co-located and some remote?
JF: I like to have everyone dial in. Whether you’re thirty feet apart or thousands of miles, it’s a great equalizer so everyone can virtually collaborate.
When Verizon Wireless wanted to bring different silos together into the product requirements phase setup, not everyone could fly in but they still wanted to be involved. We achieved a collaborative dynamic with these people through a simulcast – virtual teams were established with a facilitator in the main room. They broke out then had a debrief at the end with representatives from each virtual team. It worked!
ES: Is there a set of meta-skills needed to arrive at protocols for how teams will operate virtually?
JF: Interesting question, facilitation is one. When you’re face to face, the speaker owns the room. The audience gives the facilitator a huge amount of authority to set up the collaborative energy. If he or she says, “Stand up and talk to the person next to you,” we do it.
In a virtual environment it’s much harder to rely on one single person to facilitate. Everyone’s distractions are a lot closer at hand, and so everyone has to bring a commitment that “we’re going to make this work.” Remote facilitation is about connecting people to their sense of purpose and reminding them why it matters.
The book Remote by 37 signals talks about this. Working remote is how they recruit the best talent, so getting it right is a badge of honor and a source of pride. You have to reseed that original emotional investment.
ES: Okay, facilitation. Any other meta-skills?
JF: Because the peripheral senses are missing in an online environment, we can’t read each other as well. So introspection becomes important. We rely on everyone to be a little bit more self aware than usual. Checking in needs to happen more frequently, not just at the beginning of a meeting.
I’m actually going to be speaking more about this at my keynote at the PMI conference in St. Louis in October. There is definitely a personal skillnet that is needed for individuals to help bridge the distance on teams.
ES: Well, thank you. Let’s speak again after you give that talk and before I go off and tell stories about remote teamwork at Agile Tour London!
There will be a follow up conversation in October 2014.
Jesse’s book is mentioned on this wiki from Agile Alliance 2014 http://www.agileorlando.com/wiki/doku.php?id=distributedrestrospectives
Jesse Fewell spoke with Big Visible about Learning and Engagement at Agile Alliance 2014
You can download a free e-copy of Jesse’s book at his website here: http://jessefewell.com/
For more Stories of Remote Collaboration, see my article on InfoQ: http://www.infoq.com/articles/stories-collaboration-remote-teams