The Myth of Distributed Agile

  • Published on: 22 June 2015
  • By: Lesley Michaelis

There is a common myth that it is difficult to use Agile working in an offshore environment and that it can only work successfully onshore. In our experience, this is untrue; a well implemented offshore Agile delivery model will bring enormous benefits and value to an organisation.

We have seen many effective offshore Agile delivery models and have found that there are a number of “building blocks” that need to be put in place to ensure success. Many of the elements are similar or the same as those for enabling an effective offshore delivery organisation. However, due to the nature of Agile delivery, there are some key items critical to success that could become significant inhibitors to a quality and effective delivery team if not taken into consideration. These are summarised as follows:

1.  Cultural alignment and understanding – the number one priority

Underpinning robust Agile implementation is the “one team” approach because the ability to work as a collaborative team is key to the project’s success. This means understanding and appreciating any cultural differences within the team and putting in place ways of working to utilise this diversity for the better.

On the assumption that the offshore team is in the East, it is important that both sides accept that there are fundamental cultural differences between East and West which need to be understood e.g. the hierarchical nature of the Eastern culture, the perception of time, structured versus unstructured way of working and individualism versus collectivism. Once understood and acknowledged, there are many benefits that the cultural differences can bring which actually make this a great model for Agile delivery.

In the experience of Quantum Plus, a cultural understanding workshop to ensure that all involved have a good appreciation for one another is a great enabler. The workshop should be supplemented by an ongoing programme of visits to mature the understanding and ensure that the team is constantly learning. It can also help to embed an offshore person into the onshore team for a period of time in order to help with this learning curve. 

2.  Selection of the right offshore partner to work with you

Based on the fact that Agile is very team focused, underpinned by collaboration and trust, a paper based, “arm’s length” process driven RFP may not provide the right partner for the parties. Instead, it is important to focus on ways of working, culture, relationship and how the teams would integrate and collaborate during your selection. A process driven workshop based approach that tests the behaviours of potential partners when subjected to rapid change, with careful consideration of access to data rooms, agendas and overall output, will enable a fair, equitable and accurate method for evaluation and assessment and can deliver a better partner choice, ultimately leading to securing the long term benefits. 

3.  Agile contracting

As previously mentioned, a key factor in the success of Agile is based on “one team” behaviours and metrics which must be reflected in the contract. This contradicts most traditional commercial models of clear division of responsibility through tight contracts, service definition and service level agreements. Effective Agile contracting needs a new paradigm but one which provides predictability and comparability. Contracts must accommodate both the hard and soft factors associated with a successful Agile delivery, plus changes are needed around requirements, approach, governance, metrics and measures, people and relationships, warranties and liabilities and pricing and commercials. 

4.  Governance and team structure

Putting in place effective governance and a robust team structure around the delivery in the correct locations is another key aspect to success. A scrum team has the best chance of operating effectively by having a small development and testing team onshore, with the bulk of that capability offshore. Having a Business Analyst in the offshore team is an effective way of ensuring that business requirements are understood and reflected in the deliverables. The Scrum Master needs to be onsite together with the product owners and other key business stakeholders.  

5.  Tools

Planning for and implementing the required tools prior to setting up the delivery organisation is essential to success. Much time and effort is wasted trying to find a room, a conference phone and other equipment to enable communications with the offshore team. It is vital that standards and tools are defined upfront and that there is acknowledgement and understanding in order to operate as one team. Aspects to be considered are:

o   Communications e.g. teleconference, video conference, Skype, Instant Messaging

o   Collaboration tools e.g. knowledge sharing, artefacts, screen sharing

o   Planning tools e.g. progress, backlog, resource planning

6.  Operating as one extended team

Consideration for the extended and virtual individuals’ working needs to be put into place. Ensuring that everyone operates as one team is important and anything that can be done to bridge the thousands of miles between the team members should be implemented. Using the customer branding, corporate messaging and brochures in the offshore delivery centre works well, as does making sure that the team is included in town hall meetings and other communications. This helps everyone feel like a valued team member, all working towards the same goal.

As previously mentioned, Quantum Plus would recommend that key offshore roles have an extended period of time onshore, getting to know the customer culture as well as the onshore team. The onshore team spending time visiting and working from the offshore location is also effective. Time zone differences need to be accommodated in the ways of working as well as public holidays and religious festivals. 

7.  Run a pilot

Our final point is to start small and expand. The most successful delivery teams have scaled up over time. We recommend that you put in place a firm foundation and robust way of working first and then expand based on the specific lessons learned. Once you have the basics in place, the model can be expanded but it is important that they are there prior to up-scaling.

In our experience, taking the time to consider all of the above points and put in place the plans to implement will enable a successful robust delivery model that will bring value and benefits on an ongoing basis and ensure that you have a successful and robust Agile delivery model. 

Quantum Plus’s next Agile Development Special Interest Group will be discussing Distributed Agile in further detail. If you would like to understand more about this or Agile in general, please contact