Distributed software teams using scrum can spend a fair bit of time on the telephone. Even if you only talk for just sprint planning, daily stand-ups, reviews and retrospectives that could easily be 6+ hours in a two week sprint.
When the team is spread around geographically you inevitably have a mix of people: some feeling tired because it’s early, some feeling tired because it’s late and always some annoying peppy ones because it’s the middle of their morning and they’ve had 7 coffees so far.
Add in cultural differences and that English (or whatever your primary language for communicating is) might not be someone’s native tongue and you are sometimes going to have challenges.
Here then, after acting as scrum master for several months on a distributed team with people in six different locations, three different time zones and two different countries, are my top ten tips to help get past those inevitable awkward silences:
1. Use a lot of questions.
Sometimes it’s not clear where to go next. If you can think of lots of different ways to frame questions, that can help. A question that wasn’t clear posed one way may be more accessible put in different terms.
2. Ask specific people for their view.
Asking, “Hey Bob, what are your thoughts on this?” will usually trigger one of two things: either Bob is going to tell you he doesn’t really understand what’s going on, or he shares the thoughts he was sitting on. Sometimes you might do this several times in a row. So after Bob you could be following up with, “And what about you Sally?”
3. Ask the quiet people.
This is a variation on #2. When conversation is flowing well sometimes the quieter members of a team can be left without a chance to contribute. When conversation isn’t flowing at all it’s often tempting to prod the more vocal members of the team. Instead of starting with the “easy” targets seek out other team members to encourage their contribution.
4. Volunteer your own opinion.
Just because the Scrum Master is meant to be a facilitator doesn’t mean he or she can’t have a useful opinion. Myself I can often hardly keep my mouth shut. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to throw out what you see, what you think should be done and solicit feedback on that.
5. Volunteer a ridiculous opinion.
This may be a bit Machiavellian for some, but I confess I use it myself: “So how about we use to solve ?” If it’s daft enough, somebody will usually be unable to resist telling you why that won’t work…which is the perfect segue into “Well what could we do instead?”
6. Use some humor.
You don’t need to be a stand up comedian and you don’t need to aim for tears streaming down people’s faces and belly laughs. But a little comedy can help lighten the mood and reenergize a meeting. Self-deprecating humor is a good way to go. Especially easy when you’ve got a ton of things like me to laugh at about yourself.
7. Take a break.
Long meetings need breaks. When you’re all sat in a conference room together nobody thinks twice about nipping out to fetch a cup of water. Everyone else can obviously see who’s gone and carry on accordingly or wait for their return if it’s crucial. But when you’re “blind” at the end of a phone I find more structure helps. I either build in a 10-15 minute break midway through a longer meeting or, if I sense things are flagging, ask if people would like to stop for a bit.
8. Switch topics.
There is, as they say, no point flogging a dead horse. If you’re making no headway as team with something perhaps there’s some other useful topic you can pursue together. Something more interesting or less ambiguous than what you were struggling with.
9. Do a mini-retrospective.
You don’t have to save retrospectives for the end of a sprint. You can retrospect on a single meeting or even midway through: “Is this working OK? Should we go about this differently?”
10. Note when people are “done.”
Now I don’t mean “done-done” in the definition of done sense. I mean worn out and you’re not going to get anywhere. Sometimes it’s just time to stop. There’s always another day.
Do you have any more tips for keeping teleconference meetings for distributed teams going? If so please share in the comments.