“It’s not that when we see each other in person that you see a completely different person. You’re seeing the person which you’ve been interacting with already and who you’ve been working with and building a great product. Though I have to say, Luis was taller than I expected!”
In December 2013, Ben Linders and Luis Gonçalves, published a book together called Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives – A Toolbox of Retrospective exercises. They wrote the book together… remotely!
Ben Linders is a Lean/Agile Consultant based in Tilburg, Netherlands. Luis Gonçalves is an Agile coach, Portuguese, and currently living in Munich, Germany. Both are passionate about continuous organizational improvement, and adopting Agile and Lean to get more value out of it.
They discovered each other via their blogs BenLinders.com and lmsgoncalves.com. Luis was writing about exercises for Agile retrospectives, and Ben started commenting. Their mutual interest and extensive material sparked a conversation that resulted in the book. They collaborated with and were supported by InfoQ, who also published their book as a mini book.
Ben and Luis mainly used Leanpub to write their book, together with a little use of Google Docs. Leanpub uses Dropbox to store the manuscript, book preview, and publications.
Ben and Luis both work full-time, so it was difficult to synchronize schedules. One of the main benefits of this remote working situation was that each person could work independently and at their own pace and energy levels, using asynchronous communication (email and Trello) most of the time and then going to synchronous communication (Skype) as needed.
They would usually schedule the Skype call and make a list of issues in advance. Or, they would make a Google Doc prepared with issues needing to be resolved and then updated the Doc during the call.s.
This flexibility enabled them to write their book in under one year, something they can both be very proud of.
Ben and Luis didn’t just want to produce a book, they wanted to build a community of people who cared about the same issues they did. And of course, all of this community building is also done remotely.
When they first started, they weren’t sure how much of their ideas and text they should share with their audience. But as they went along, they learned that the more they shared, the more people got involved, and the more they learned.
They started by asking people in their networks to review the book and provide feedback. A lot of people shared their stories and experiences, often inspiring more content for the book.
As inspiring as a community can be, it’s important to acknowledge that sharing ideas can be a scary process, especially in the development phase. Ben and Luis had about 45 people reviewing early versions of the book and some of the feedback was very critical. But as vulnerable as it feels, their attitude was “If something is really wrong with an idea, they would like to know as early as possible”.
For the most part, communication between Ben and Luis was pretty smooth and easy. They attribute this smoothness to the fact that they are both aligned around the same values.
Because much of their communication was asynchronous, they made a rule for themselves that when there were too many outstanding topics going back and forth via email, or if something wasn’t working, they would schedule a Skype call and discuss things eface-to-eface.
One thing they learned was to trust and respect that the other person will do great things even if they are doing things differently than you would. Ben and Luis would first discuss who would do what work (one person would usually be more suited to something than the other), and over time, they figured out how to complement each other.
They first met in person a couple of months after the book was published. It didn’t change much between them. On the contrary. The in-person meeting was a reaffirmation that they indeed had a great connection, and they immediately started strategizing on what the next steps of the project would be.
Trust and discipline are key aspects with working remotely.
Building trust remotely is very difficult. It’s easier when people get to know each other in person first. But either way, that basic level of shared values and trust has to be there in order for remote working to work. Ben and Luis started by choosing to trust each other based on their mutual desire to publish a book about Agile retrospectives. They shared what they had, and something was unclear, the simply asked each other.
Discipline is also important because nobody is telling you what to do. You need to do the things that you’ve agreed upon and probably do some extra things that you haven’t agreed on. And sometimes, it takes discipline to say “No, I’m not going to do it.”
Another challenge of working remotely is that there’s so much that you can do. If you’re not careful, you can end up working all the time. Part of the discipline is recognizing the times when you need to stop, relax, and take time to do other things.
Ben and Luis have around 60 volunteers translating their book in 10 different languages. It provides a unique experience to work together on a distributed, self-organized agile team. One thing to note is that time zones are always an issue when you work with teams all over the world.
Surprises, tips and lessons learned
Start small and keep building on top of that. For Ben and Luis’s book, 90% of the content came from blog posts they had already written. They said that it was a powerful way to think about the content, find out what’s missing, and get feedback. The whole thing becomes one conversation that just keeps amplifying and iterating using different mediums and channels.
Watch the full interview