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Inter-team coordination mechanisms in large-scale agile

This week’s article describes how a Norwegian company coordinates its agile teams.

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If you want to coordinate multiple agile teams, light signals are a pretty bat way to do it

Agile methodologies are effective at reducing complexity within teams, but proper coordination between agile teams can still prove to be quite challenging.

Why it matters

Different agile teams are difficult to coordinate effectively in large-scale settings, because teams may be located on different sites, work using different methods, or .

Inter-team coordination is often achieved by having teams conduct daily stand-up meetings that are attended by representatives from other teams in so-called Scrum-of-Scrums. Others use “team-of-teams” as an organisational form, in which at least two teams work interdependently towards a shared goal.

Some of these coordination mechanisms work well, others not so much.

How the study was conducted

The study describes a case at a Norwegian pension, bank, and insurance company with more than 2,000 employees. The company has eight development teams, of which three were studied by the researchers for a brief period, by observing meetings and workshops, project members in their natural habitat, and interviews with a few team members.

What discoveries were made

The researchers found 11 different coordination mechanisms, which are listed in the table below.

Coordination mechanismsProgrammingFeedback
Impersonal modePersonal modeGroup mode
VerticalHorizontalScheduledUnscheduled
Agile processyes
JIRAyes
Rules for QAyes
Open work areayes
Instant messagingyes
Informal ad hoc conversationsyesyes
Stand-up meetingyes
Retrospectiveyes
Demoyes
Sprint planningyes
Backlog groomingyes

The coordination mechanisms are mapped according to a framework from classical organisational theory. The framework distinguishes between three main coordination categories.

Impersonal coordination

Impersonal mode represents all forms of coordination that are based on programming, e.g. formalised rules, plans, and standardised information and communication systems:

  • One team followed the Scrum methodology and worked using two-week “time-boxed” sprints to ensure predictability for other teams. This simplified planning between the teams. The other two teams used Scrumban however, which has “task-boxed” activities.

  • JIRA enabled coordination between teams. The tool was heavily used to discuss task statuses during daily stand-up meetings. It also facilitated communication between teams using JIRA’s commenting functionality.

  • Any products delivered by a team had to follow a set of guidelines to ensure that they meet certain quality requirements that make QA by another team possible.

  • All teams made use of an open work area, which enabled fast coordination across teams because team members could get hold of each other instantly.

  • Various communication tools were used to instantly message each other. These tools allowed coordination on a frequent basis.

Feedback coordination mechanisms

Personal mode is based on vertical feedback from managers or horizontal feedback from team members. Group mode is also feedback-based, but involves a group of individuals. It can be further subdivided into scheduled meetings (routine encounters) and unscheduled meetings (informal conversations). These feedback-based modes include six mechanisms:

  • Informal ad hoc conversations happen very frequently and are highly valued by team members, as they don’t need to be scheduled and thus allow for quick coordination and decision-making.

    A major downside is that the effectiveness of this coordination mechanism is highly dependent on each individual, e.g. introvert and new team members likely benefit more from scheduled meetings. Another downside is that not everyone is involved, so not everyone receives the same information.

  • Stand-up meetings are held every day, but feel more like status updates and lead to very little coordination between teams. This may explain why team members at this company rely more on ad hoc conversations to coordinate their activities.

    attended stand-up meetings at all teams to ensure consistency across teams and the technical platform, which was considered to be both valuable and important.
  • The retrospective improves the way teams work together and ensures continuous improvement of inter-team coordination mechanisms.

  • The demo meeting facilitates coordination because it provides an outlet for creating common expectations and understanding the finished product.

  • Sprint planning meetings are used to make clear to other teams which tasks a team will work on in the next sprint, and thus simplify coordination.

  • Finally, backlog grooming ensures that all teams have a thorough understanding of business requirements.

Summary

  1. Ad hoc conversations are the most important method for inter-team coordination

  2. Regularly scheduled meetings that are largely about reporting status are time-consuming and not very effective.

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