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Approaches to Handling Time Zone Issues

Teams can use four different methods to deal with distributed Daily Scrums where the team has members with no overlap in their work hours, as follows:

  • Daily Scrums through documentation
  • Liaison approach
  • Alternating meeting times
  • Share the pain

Each solution has pros and cons the ScrumMaster and team should consider in deciding how to conduct their Daily Scrum meetings.

Daily Scrums Through Documentation

Perhaps the least effective way of handling distributed Daily Scrums with no overlap in the workday is scheduling the Daily Scrum during a time when most—but not all—team members can meet. With this approach, team members who cannot meet as scheduled document their answers to the three questions in a wiki, through email, or in a document the team can access.

Figure 6.2 shows an extreme example of a team distributed in locations from San Jose, CA in the United States to Beijing, China. If the team adopts a single Daily Scrum meeting that is held at 9:00 AM in the morning in Toronto, Canada, the meeting will likely be outside standard working hours for the team members in San Jose, Bangalore, and Beijing. Such a team might try to compensate by having all team members document their answers to the three questions.

Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2 Single meeting time that works for both members

The primary advantage to this approach is that it can be better for sustainable pace. And it inconveniences no one since nobody is meeting outside their normal working hours.

However, because this approach is not interactive, those who cannot attend do not have the opportunity to hear directly from other team members or to get quick comments from them on their answers to the three questions. Also, this may cause members who do not take part in the Daily Scrum to feel less a part of the team or to feel the other members of the Scrum Team do not value their contribution as much. It is important that all members of the Scrum Team work together to make compromises to show they value everyone equally.

The lack of direct communication may also lead to some miscommunication when the documentation is not clear and the teams need some clarifications to understand. As an example, consider the statement: "We think we should meet biweekly." Does this mean the team would like to meet twice each week or once every two weeks? And consider the statement: "We should write the code in a way that is unlockable." Does this mean the programming language used should be unlockable or that the code should prevent locking?

Also, team members who do not verbally commit may not feel the same commitment to deliver. The Daily Scrum is a verbal commitment in front of peers that helps to put pressure on the team to meet their commitments.

Table 6.5 summarizes the pros and cons of the Single Meeting Time approach.

Table 6.5. Summary of Pros and Cons for Using a Single Meeting Time Approach

Pros

Cons

  • Better for sustainable pace.
  • Nobody is inconvenienced by having to attend the Daily Scrum at a set time.
  • Loss of information because of indirect communication.
  • This approach is not interactive and does not allow for questions.
  • Adversely impacts "whole team" experience since team members are not interacting.
  • Lessens accountability through peer pressure.

The Liaison Approach

Another approach to conducting Daily Scrums with distributed teams with no overlapping work hours is to conduct two different Daily Scrums and to have a liaison attend both. Each meeting is at a time that is convenient for half of the members of the Scrum Team. The liaison, who is commonly the ScrumMaster, verbally shares the information from the other team with the team they are meeting with.

Figure 6.3 shows an example of a team that holds two different Daily Scrum meetings each day. The first meeting is at a time convenient for the half of the team in the more western time zones. The second meeting is at a time convenient for the other half of the team in the more eastern time zones. The ScrumMaster serves as a liaison, attending both meetings and verbally presenting the notes from the half of the team that is not present.

Figure 6.3

Figure 6.3 Liaison approach using two different Daily Scrum meetings

The advantage to this approach is that it helps with sustainable pace. No one other than the liaison is meeting outside their normal working hours. This can also help the whole team to have visibility into each others' efforts, though the team cannot address questions or blockers brought by team members who are not present immediately.

Pushpa Baskaran, a technical leader working at IBM, shares her experience using the Liaison approach:

  • I led a team of developers with subteams in China and the United States. It was impractical to expect all team members to be available for all meetings, and it was challenging to find a time slot that worked for everyone. So, I had two weekly scrum calls, one for the U.S. time zone, where Chinese developers were optional, and another for the Chinese time zone, where the American developers were optional. This approach allowed flexibility for team members and only the ScrumMaster (myself) needed to manage my work hours.
  • When the China and North America team members were co-developing a task, one of them made the extra effort to work outside their regular hours. As the team gained more experience working in a globally distributed team environment, assigning and separating work modules, working outside regular hours reduced significantly.

Possibly the worst side of this approach is that it is not the ideal method of communication. This can be a bit like a childhood game called "telephone," where one person tells a story to a second person, the second tells it to a third person, and so on. At the end of the chain, the story told is rarely the same as the story told by the original storyteller. The story told by the liaison will be similar, but not the same as the story told by the team member. To deal with this issue, some teams have each group record their Daily Scrum responses. The ScrumMaster can then play back the responses from one half of the team when meeting with the other half of the team.

The team can also splinter into two factions that would likely negatively impact the ability of the team to work together as a whole team.

Another consideration in taking this approach is that, unless there is a rotation in the role, there can be an impact to the work-life balance of the liaison.

Table 6.6 summarizes the pros and cons of the Liaison approach.

Table 6.6. Summary of Pros and Cons for the Liaison Approach

Pros

Cons

  • Better for sustainable pace.
  • Some degree of visibility into each of the tasks of each team member.
  • Richer communication medium than through documentation. Allows for questions.
  • Liaison might present the wrong information.
  • Possible splintering of team into factions.
  • Negative impact on work-life balance of the liaison.
  • Negative impact on "whole team" view.

Some teams improve the Liaison approach by having the whole team meet for the Daily Scrum at least occasionally. Gregg Gibson, of IBM System and Technology Group's Management Module Firmware organization, reports many teams within his organization tried both the Liaison approach and the Sharing the Pain approach described later in this chapter:

  • We are finding that even with the Liaison approach, it is helpful to get the entire team in a meeting at least occasionally. Otherwise, the team devolves into multiple teams that don't always work together effectively.

Alternating Meeting Times

A third approach to scheduling Daily Scrums where members of the team have no overlap in work hours is to alternate meeting times. With this approach, the team holds one Daily Scrum during the normal workday for part of the Scrum Team and holds the other Daily Scrum during the normal work hours of the other part of the Scrum Team.

Ling, a Scrum Team member in Beijing, worked on a Scrum Team with members in Austin, TX and Raleigh, NC:

  • Our team was meeting daily at 12:00 PM Eastern Time. For me, in Beijing, it was after midnight. I often could not attend the Daily Scrums. The team later decided to switch to alternating meeting teams so I could attend at least part of the time in person.

Figure 6.4 shows a team that alternates their meetings between two different times. One meeting is most convenient for team members in Toronto, Sao Paulo, and Hursley. The other is more convenient for team members in Hursley, Zurich, Bangalore, and Beijing.

Figure 6.4

Figure 6.4 Alternating Meeting Times approach

The advantage of this approach is everyone has an opportunity to attend during their normal working hours at least every other day. Unlike the approach of having a fixed time always outside working hours for some team members, every team member has an opportunity to attend at least part of the time.

Figure 6.4 shows the given schedule of alternating meeting times that would possibly allow team members in Toronto, Zurich, and Hursley to meet daily comfortably, while other members may only join in every other day. Ideally, team members will be comfortable meeting outside traditional working hours. That can allow the whole team to meet daily, rather than every other day.

When the whole team does not meet daily, the team may not get the full benefit of the Daily Scrum.

When using the Alternating Meeting Times approach, the team should check with everyone to make sure that they have the ability to call into the meeting outside their working hours.

Elizabeth Kumau, a test expert with IBM Test Services, gives this experience:

  • Some of my team members in India have to stay in the office or go to the office at night to attend meetings scheduled outside their normal working hours. Out of four team members, only one has home connection access.

In this example, some team members would not be able to attend some meetings when using the Alternating Meeting Times approach.

Table 6.7 summarizes the pros and cons of the Alternating Meeting Times approach.

Table 6.7. Summary of Pros and Cons for the Alternating Meeting Times Approach

Pros

Cons

  • Everyone has a chance to attend the meeting.
  • Shares the pain across team members.
  • Loss of information from team members who do not show up because the time is not good for them.

Sharing the Pain

A fourth approach—the one that most closely aligns with the spirit of co-located Scrum—is to have the team members share the pain. With this approach, the team works together to share the pain associated with being part of a distributed team. They select a time to meet that is best for the team as a whole.

Although sharing the pain may not sound like a great solution for the team, flexible work hours can be a benefit both to the employer and to the Scrum Team members. Matt, a ScrumMaster with IBM Sales and Distribution, describes the advantage of working flexible hours:

  • I had to be on a 15-minute Daily Scrum at 7:00 PM, after my normal workday. However, I also had the flexibility to attend my daughter's father-and-daughter lunch at school, which was on the other side of town. Working with a global team isn't always the most convenient, but I appreciate getting to be there for my kids' special events.

The best way to carry out this approach is to ask each member of the team the following questions:

  • What times are best for you to meet?
  • What times are you willing to meet?
  • What times are off-limits?

Everyone considers the possibility of working outside their traditional work hours. The resulting Daily Scrum time is the time that works best for the entire team as a whole.

Elizabeth, a ScrumMaster with IBM Quality Software Engineering, talks about a case where asking the three questions would have been helpful:

  • I have learned to always ask the team what will work for them. Some of us are morning people, so a 5:00 AM meeting may not be a problem. Others are not available until 10:00 AM, but 9:00 PM is not a problem for them. I was working with a team that had members in Hyderabad, India and Saint John, Canada. I assumed—always a bad idea—the team I was working with in India was working on their local time. At the end of a 3:00 AM meeting to show my support for global teaming, they politely asked why I had called the meeting so early. Oops! They were working on Eastern Time! Now, I always ask the three questions: when is the best time, when are you available, and when is off-limits?

The advantage to the approach of sharing the pain is the whole team is taking part in the Daily Scrum each day, and the time selected for the meeting has the whole team sharing the pain. Everyone hears directly from the other team members, so there is less of a chance of confusion than the team might have with other methods.

However, not everyone may like working outside their normal working hours. When using this approach, the team should have the flexibility to take some time off from their normal working hours to compensate.

Table 6.8 summarizes the pros and cons of the Sharing the Pain approach.

Table 6.8. Summary of Pros and Cons for the Sharing the Pain Approach

Pros

Cons

  • Aligns best with the interactive spirit of Scrum and Agile.
  • Whole team takes part in each day.
  • Everyone hears directly from team.
  • Team can discuss blockers and remove them immediately.
  • Team is better able to hold one another accountable.
  • Flexibility in work schedule.
  • Some may not like working outside normal work hours.
  • Can be challenging for sustainable pace.
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