6 process tips for virtual teams

Before Alex and I decided to start Quarter Spiral, we both spent a significant amount of time as Producers leading teams at BioWare. In the San Francisco studio, he led the platform technology team and I ran the game team. Although we both have creative backgrounds as designers (he graphics, me games) we both learned to love process. As a team leader, I put down the game design document and picked up the process as my tool of quality and control.

So the very first day Alex and I met to discuss our product vision, we opened up Pivotal Tracker and wrote stories in a backlog. The first full time day for Quarter Spiral, the three co-founders met on Skype for sprint planning. Before the second day was over, Alex and I had already held an ad hoc meeting to review the process we cobbled together; dissatisfied with some kludginess we began to make changes.

Quarter Spiral has been a virtual team from day one. Being virtual is key to keeping our burn rate low and working cohesively while spanning from the west coast of California to the northern tip of Germany. As such, a strong focus on process has been key to keeping our team humming as we build product. Along the way, we’ve picked up some tips and tricks that keep our virtual team strong.

Scrum for everyone
We love scrum. It is an effective way to ship product, keep software development agile and hold team members accountable. But it is largely used in the context of programming. On our team we capture everyone’s weekly goals in the framework of user stories that drive business value. Although much of the work I do could best be described as business development, strategy or customer development, all of it is captured as user stories. For instance, I am earning 1 point by writing this post.

By viewing all stories within the context of scrum, each member of the team is involved in work outside of his discipline and held accountable for delivery. I can’t just take long coffee meetings with possible leads without delivering value. I am involved daily in the software development process just as our Rails developer is involved in the business development process.

Love the hangout
Initially, we did our daily stand ups as pure audio calls using Skype. After attending an outstanding talk from ngmoco Sweden’s Senta Jakobsen at GDC Europe, we immediately switched to doing video calls using Google Hangouts.

Group audio feel like conference calls. It’s informal. It’s easy to check out. It’s easy to feel disconnected from your team. A small change, but using video chat was the difference between feeling like another software team at EA and feeling like a scrappy band of startup co-founders.

Conflict resolution
Conflicts will happen. It is inevitable. When they do, a danger in any office environment – particularly a virtual one – is to address them over im or email. Tone of voice and nuance are gone. Instead the reader interprets based on his current mental state and can easily misread statements dramatically.

The quickest, cleanest way to resolve a conflict is to speak with the other person, and ideally to see them. If you disagree with someone, dial them up on Hangouts instead of DMing them on Hipchat.

Focus on value
A core tenet of scrum is that your activities should be focused on proving business value. This is especially critical in an early stage startup with no paychecks and no revenue. Each team member should be focused on making the right decisions based on the business value he can prove to his team. Technical debt and refactors can wait if they are not truly critical. Design specs don’t have to be written up for services that can’t be worked on for weeks or months.

It is easy to cut out parts of the scrum process either on purpose or through laziness. The part that your team cannot afford to skip is the demonstration of value at the end of each sprint. Each team member needs to be held accountable for delivering tangible results each precious week of your virtual team’s life.

Review your process
It is easy to review a product, because a product is not a person. It is easy to look at a product each week and point out what is and is not good enough.

It is harder to review a process, because what you are truly reviewing are people and their behaviors. If you do not have a strong foundation of trust or are the type of person who shies away from conflict, it can be hard to tell your only other team member that they are falling short of your expectations or they are working on the wrong tasks.

In addition to a show of value each week, we do a sprint retrospective. Sometimes these are incredibly short “Anyone have any issues from last week? No? No? Good, let’s plan our next sprint.” But sometimes we bring up issues and modify our process accordingly.

One of the best things to do is call yourself out. If you know you didn’t quite deliver last sprint, it makes a strong statement to call yourself out in a review instead of hoping that no one noticed.

Know your burn
It can be hard to talk about money matters, especially on a small, virtual team. Issues around money are typically viewed as private, especially if there are domain splits between “business guy” and a “product guy” or similar. Keeping critical information around money hidden can be disastrous, especially if money matters only come up on the brink of bankruptcy.

Among a team of co-founders, you should meet monthly to discuss money. At minimum, each member should know your burn rate (money spent each month) and runway (months solvent at anticipated burn rate).

Being transparent about money matters can help prevent disaster. For instance, if it is clear to the team that you have 3 months of runway left, it is more natural to discuss cutting salary (if you are taking any) cutting contractors (if you are paying any) or taking individual freelance work (if it is an option). Team members may suggest personal sacrifices for the sake of the shared good.

Openness and honesty around a virtual team’s financial responsibilities is key. No team member should have to guess whether or not they will have a job next month.