Remote Work
6 min read
June 12, 2020

Why Guardrails Are Essential for Distributed Agile Teams


Sharlene McKinnon

Guardrails mark the difference between team members who move quickly and successfully in a rapid agile environment and those who accidentally run off a cliff.

The guardrail concept is a universal truth for all agile teams, whether they are in an office or working remotely. This truth crosses companies, languages, and cultural boundaries. The objective of any agile leader is to facilitate the definition and building of these guardrails so teams can be successful. This definition is the foundation of high-performing teams. The more robust the foundation, the stronger teams will grow to be.

Here are some of the guardrails that I have set-up to ensure the success of teams at distributed agile companies. These are all grounded in a people-first culture that promotes supporting each other through teamwork.

Establish Baseline Practices

The base activities done by both remote and co-located teams should be the same. For example, co-located teams may start a project with a kickoff. This kickoff helps the team gain a shared understanding of the vision, direction, users, and work. The objective is to achieve a shared understanding.

This objective is no different for distributed teams. They still need to understand vision, direction, and goals. They need to know what they are trying to achieve and how they will reach these goals. The only difference is that the tools used to facilitate the activity are digital rather than physical.

Useful digital toolsets support conversations about the workflow from the beginning to end of the SDLC; included in the discussion are folks on both business and technology teams. Practices need to be predictable, consistent, clear, and continuous. This distinctness will alleviate any gaps caused by misunderstandings that may happen in between interactions.

Where Alignment Meets Autonomy

One of my favorite ways to explain the importance of following a plan comes from Spotify’s engineering culture “alignment vs. autonomy” diagram.

Teams need to have high alignment on goals and along with the autonomy to decide how to execute those goals. Alignment is especially critical in distributed agile teams where people go for hours without communicating with each other due to time zone differences.

Graph comparing alignment to autonomy
Henrik Kniberg / Spotify — Aligned Autonomy

Teams without direction (see the lower right-hand quadrant) will create their path because they want to feel useful and busy, and the course defined by the team won’t always tie into the larger company goals.

Conversely, teams that are given direction and micromanaged along the path (see the upper left-hand quadrant) will become demoralized and unmotivated. Work takes longer to do as the weight of demoralization occupies brain space and prevents the team from doing their best work.

As you can imagine, an environment with no-autonomy and no-direction (see the lower left-hand quadrant) creates confusion while demoralizing people at the same time. Teamwork is lost as individuals set their priorities and work to achieve scattered goals.

The best scenario (see the upper right-hand quadrant) is to give teams clear, value-based direction rooted-in corporate goals, and empower those teams to figure out how to get there. For example, the Ocean Cleanup Project’s organizational goal is to clean up 90% of ocean plastic pollution. One team within that organization was tasked with finding ways to use the recovered plastic waste to generate revenue. They weren’t told how to create this revenue. The team set out to figure out how — and aimed to reinvest the income back into the organization to fund more ocean cleanup initiatives.

Within distributed teams, if everyone understands the team goals, they can work towards them when other team members are offline. During overlap hours, the objective is to transfer knowledge, share context, and alleviate gaps in understanding. This communication leverages the full power of distributed teams that work across multiple time zones.
Having shared directional objectives and trusting teams to do what they do best is a guardrail.

“If anything, the need for teamwork is critical on distributed agile teams because distance demands consistent clarification.”

Teamwork That Doesn't Stop When The Call Is Over

When maintaining continuity within a distributed team, there is often the need to over-communicate. Communication and knowledge-sharing then become the foundation that prevents misunderstandings that erode the success of a project. Because of this, no one member of the team should work in isolation for days.

If anything, the need for teamwork is critical on distributed agile teams because distance demands consistent clarification.

It’s essential to understand the different types of tools available for the various forms of communication: what you communicate over Slack is different from what you communicate over video chat or email. Slack messages share pieces of information quickly, but contextual understanding should be exchanged over a video all. Clear communication helps especially when emotion is part of the equation. It is much harder to effectively convey emotion with emojis in Slack than through a video call where emotional cues are immediately apparent.

Team practices and tool choices should fit around rapid communication. Tools used for spreading information about program goals, progress, and history all need to work together seamlessly. These things should be traceable, meaning each person can refer back to previous decisions quickly and without risking the loss of information over time. Additionally, this eliminates the need for repeated questioning.

Communication, knowledge sharing, and teamwork are actions that spread the burden of software development across teams, products, and programs. These are guardrails, and they form the foundation of a company.

Leveraging Diversity

The universal truth about agile teams is that they need guardrails because they help them work effectively and safely. This truth applies whether you are working in person or working in a remote, distributed team.
There is one subtle guardrail that forms from distributed work.

When you work in distributed teams, you pull together a community of people from various cities, cultures, mindsets, and experiences. As these people grow together, the skills that they bring to the table create more robust teams.

Continuously working to form a collective, cross-cultural dialogue helps to build a diverse and inclusive company. And, knowledge on how to leverage this dialogue is much harder to find in co-located companies. This guardrail is priceless.


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