Name: Colleen Johnson
Headquarters: Colorado, USA
Superpower: Setting clear team expectations
Colleen Johnson is the Co-Founder of ScatterSpoke, a tool for conducting remote team Agile retrospectives. We discuss how ScatterSpoke helps remote teams stay connected through giving feedback, why minimizing multi-tasking and setting clear expectations are important, and why the future of Agile is in staying collaborative no matter where your team members are.
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Lisette: Great! And we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Today on the line, very exciting, another tool that we’re going to be learning today, I have Colleen Johnson from Denver, my home. Actually, Colorado Springs is my home. But Colleen, you’re the cofounder of ScatterSpoke. It’s a remote Agile teams retrospectives tool so that’s exciting. We’ll talk about that. And then also an Agile coach at Ready Talk. So we’re going to talk a lot about remote agile today. But thanks for letting me interview you. I really appreciate it.
Colleen: Yeah, I’m happy to be here.
Lisette: So let’s start with the always present first question which is “What does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?”
Colleen: I think my virtual office looks a lot like most virtual offices, a lot of video chats, of Google Hangouts. We also use a tool called Foxton which is a Ready Talk tool. We use a lot of Google docs so sharing documents over whether it’s just docs or spreadsheets through a Google drive. We manage all of our work through Trello. We’re a Kanban shop so we like to use Trello to track where we are and how we’re making progress on our work, and then GitHub, and Slack. Slack is great because it’s kind of on your own time and whenever you’re in there and I actually is it for both volunteering opportunities, work, personal interest groups, and it’s just a great way to manage everything that you’re interested in collaborating on. But of course we use our own tool. We use ScatterSpoke to check in on a regular basis on how we’re doing with the work that we’re trying to implement.
Lisette: Exciting! And how many people, give a sense of what your team looks like, how many people are on the team? How many people work remotely?
Colleen: There are two of us on ScatterSpoke right now so it’s fairly easy to coordinate our collaboration at this point. And then we’re doing a lot of interviews with other remote teams to get feedback from them on how ScatterSpoke is working for them, what could we be doing differently, what’s it missing. So a lot of our reach out happens remotely. We’re talking to other remote teams.
Lisette: And how did this start? What was the story behind because there was a pain you were feeling, I can imagine?
Colleen: Absolutely. So I think one of the hardest parts for remote teams is collaborating and it’s not just over documents or with video. I think there’s a lot of tools available to fill that need. It’s that white boarding, right? And white boarding still seems to be one of the hardest things to replicate with our tool, and that was kind of the drive for creating ScatterSpoke for us. The other thing we started to notice was that in our day jobs and in our regular team interactions, we were seeing that the minute somebody wasn’t present in the room for retrospective, it would get canceled or reschedule just because we couldn’t figure out how to pull that whiteboard part of the retro into somebody’s tools. So we started thinking about ways to try to fill that gap so that you didn’t have to reschedule your retro if somebody wasn’t in the room, and then how could we expand this for teams where everyone was 100% remote to be able to inspect and then adapt on how the work is going on a regular basis?
Lisette: And are you seeing more and more teams going remote? I mean I know in some parts of the world, that’s just not popular or in some industries, it’s just not popular, but as an Agile coach and maybe in the Denver area, what’s the scene like?
Colleen: Yeah, in Denver in particular, the job market is very tight right now so I think we’re seeing a lot of companies starting to offer remote positions. I’m still seeing more of a one off from work for the tech industry here where it’s one or two people might work from home a couple days a week rather it being 100% remote teams.
Colleen: I think a lot of the tools that are finding a lot of success cater to both. And I think that 100% remote team piece is really important to consider because you have different factors like different time zones, different WiFi speed, different variables that you have to take into account that aren’t the same as just having somebody working from home in your area.
Lisette: Do you encounter—I mean I don’t know if with…
Colleen: I think I lost my sound.
Lisette: Oh I still hear you.
Colleen: Okay. There we go.
Lisette: Okay. Do you encounter resistance or people, companies that are resisting in terms of when you’re reaching out? I’m not sure how many other companies you talk to about these things.
Colleen: Yeah. And I think inside of the Agile space, there’s still a lot of resistance to remote teams. I mean I think Agile in general, there’s very much a feeling of “You can’t collaborate unless you’re face to face” or “You can’t collaborate unless everybody’s in the same room.” So I think in the Agile community, there’s still a lot of resistance to having a distributed Scrum team or a distributed Kanban team so that’s definitely what ScatterSpoke is hoping to help with and making it so that that’s not such a far stretch for Agile teams.
Lisette: Yeah, I hear that a lot in the Agile world. And it’s so interesting because to me, Agile gives you the template for how to be successful remote. I mean with all the different communication points and things, it just seems like “Well geez, Agile paves the way for you to be remote in a lot of ways.”
Lisette: Yeah. I guess I started in with the challenges because that’s always the meaty bit or the challenges and the resistance but what are the benefits that you’re seeing from people using ScatterSpoke or doing retrospectives remotely like this?
Colleen: Well I think for any Agile team in-house where everybody’s together, it’s very typical to have a Scrum master or an Agile coach working with them to do all of these things to make sure that you’re still doing retros, to make sure that there’s time and space to stop, and inspect on how you’ve done for a sprint or how you’ve done for that month and reflect and improve. A lot of teams that are more remote where are 100% distributed don’t have a coach. It’s not something you really see role for a remote environment. So when we started looking at how to make ScatterSpoke work for everybody, we wanted to build a tool that was basically facilitator free so that it was set up so any team member could log in and host their own retrospective without having a lot of knowledge, or a lot of setup, or steps to walk through, and it was very simple and accessible to everyone. So I think that’s one part of it. And I think when you’re not face to face with your manager, you can’t walk over to your teammates and say, “This isn’t working for me,” you really have to make sure that there’s time and space for that in a distributed environment. We’re hoping that ScatterSpoke helps distributed teams make that space to improve and give each other feedback so that they’re staying connected.
Lisette: Yeah, definitely. So I’m interested in how often. I mean I know it probably varies team by team. Is there a general how often people do retrospectives?
Colleen: I think for a lot of teams, it’s every two weeks. And I think that that’s a very typical Scrum interval as well. Some teams do monthly. And I think it depends on the size of your work. So you want to make sure you have enough work to reflect on and you want to make sure you can remember that far back, right? If you start doing retro so far apart, you can’t remember what you worked on for the beginning of that time interval and it makes it hard to have a productive conversation about it. So I like to recommend no longer than a month between them but most of the teams I have worked with do two weeks whether they’re doing Scrum or Kanban.
Lisette: Okay. And I always recommend to people that they hire if they have the luxury hiring a remote office manager that helps to schedule the meetings that need to be scheduled and getting everybody the information they need to have. But if they don’t have the luxury, I mean who schedules the retrospectives usually especially if they don’t have somebody who’s facilitating that?
Colleen: A lot of that just happens through Slack or HipChat or whatever the team is using to stay connected and to communicate real time. The nice part about ScatterSpoke is you don’t really have to schedule it. Someone can just pop in, grab the link, and drop the link into their chat client or into their Slack channel, and share that with their team. So it doesn’t have to be something that’s necessarily schedule the event. It can be something that’s just on the fly or as needed.
Lisette: So do you want to walk us through a little bit what is the process like in ScatterSpoke when somebody comes online to do this retrospective? Just give us a visual.
Colleen: Yeah, I’d love to. So anybody can just pop into ScatterSpoke and hit Start, Start this Retro. They give it a name. And once they launch their retrospective page, they can get a link and they share that link through whatever they would like so it’s just copied to your clipboard. You can share it in Hipchat like I said, Slack, whatever you’re using to communicate, and others join anonymously so you can’t tell who else is in there but you do see a count of how many people are on your retro. And everything just happens real time. So as people are adding cards to their columns, we use “What went well,” “What didn’t go so well,” and “What needs to change or what needs improvement.” We stuck with that standard format which seems to be what most teams go back to. I think there’s opportunity for customizing some of those things but that seems to be what most teams really rely on to do their retros. So everyone can add their cards and they show up real time. You can’t tell who’s adding them but I can see what everybody else is adding on the screen. And you can drag them into different columns, you can delete a card if you changed your mind, and then you can also vote up or down as people are adding so if I see something that I agree with, I can upvote it or I can downvote something that I don’t agree with. And it’s definitely assumed that everybody’s on the phone or on Hangouts or has some way to communicate about the retro as they’re going through it.
Lisette: Okay. But they could do it without being in any sort of communication like if for whatever reason I can’t think a reason off the top of my head, but you could just actually do it without hearing?
Colleen: You absolutely could, yeah, and it’s set up to work for mobile devices. So let’s say most of the team is remote in a Google Hangout and we’re talking about it, if somebody couldn’t make it or couldn’t join us for whatever reason, they could also just be on their phone and either be watching the cards get posted or upvoting on the cards from a mobile device or an iPad.
Lisette: Okay. Interesting. And why anonymous?
Colleen: I think it’s important to give everybody the opportunity to speak their mind without actually having their name attached to it. And that might be something that changes over time. But a big part of retros is being honest and I think that sometimes, that takes a lot of courage to be able to put something up that might not be as popular with your teammates’ so we chose to go anonymous with the posting of the cards. But the nice part about it is if you’re communicating with your team as you’re doing it, you can always say, “Hey, this is how I felt. This is the card I posted.”
Colleen: Let’s go ahead and talk through this more. At the end of the retro, you also have the option of emailing your results to your team or exporting them out so that you can pull them into whatever tool you use to track your action items or to track your work.
Lisette: Interesting. I like the idea of the anonymity because there are some things that are a little like “Oh I don’t know. I want to be able to say it but I don’t necessarily want to have to” but if you were doing this in a colocated environment, you wouldn’t have that anonymity, would you? I mean I guess you could try to cover up your handwriting or I’m not sure. I’m not sure.
Colleen: Covering up your handwriting might be tricky. There’s definitely different formats you can do to try to provide a little bit more anonymity though. In the past, I’ve run once where as a team, we’ve all taken ten minutes to put all of our stickies into a pile and sort them and then the facilitator will go through putting them up on the board and say, “Okay. Here’s how everybody felt about this part of the iteration or how everybody was feeling about how our release went,” and then you can kind of group them as the team. I think you generally know once you’ve worked with the group for a couple months where different things are coming from but I like giving everybody the opportunity to post up and decide if they want to attach their name to it.
Lisette: Right, right. And just for people who maybe don’t know so much about retrospectives, what’s so important about doing these retrospectives?
Colleen: Retrospectives are really a tool for all teams whether they’re Agile or not to reflect on how they’re working. And I think it’s always interesting to work with new teams doing retrospectives who haven’t quite built up that honesty yet or that trust to be very about the work. So “How much work did we get done?” and “Who picked up what story?” or “How did our deployment go?” Once you see a team that’s worked together for a while, they tend to be more about how the team works together, and I think it takes a while to get to that point. These retrospectives are really an opportunity for a team to look at how they’re working together, how their work is going, and identify opportunities to improve. So it’s really a critical part of that continuous improvement element of Agile.
Lisette: I can imagine and I can also imagine that over time when we do retrospectives over time that the trust builds on the team because of the types of conversation that it pulls out. I mean I can imagine this really helps. It’s the glue kind of that binds the team together it seems. I don’t work on Agile teams necessarily but I do do regular retrospectives with the Happy Melly team that I work on, and I must say that it definitely helps us, it really binds us these meetings.
Colleen: Yeah. And I think doing retros and being able to say, “I didn’t think this part went very well” or “I wasn’t very happy with my contribution to this iteration or to this release” is really a humbling experience and it’s a great way to connect with your teammates especially if you can’t see them face to face. So being to talk about how work is going and be really honest and give each other feedback I think helps build that working relationship no matter where you are.
Lisette: And do you ScatterSpoke on your team even if it’s just for two people?
Colleen: We do. We use it. We try to do it after every major release or major feature release that we put out so that we can stop and say, “How did we do? How did we hold ourselves to our key principles?” So like I mentioned, we use Kanban but we also are trying to use a lot of [inaudible—14:51] startup practices in terms of understanding what our customers are looking for, setting milestones, and trying to release enough to give feedback, and measure that feedback before we make another change. And we fall down just like every other team does so it’s nice for us to go back and say, “Why did we skip this part?” or “Why did we make a change without understanding what we were putting into place?” So we use the tool to take that time to reflect on our practices in our work as well.
Lisette: Interesting. And I want to ask about your background and how did you come into the Agile world? How did this all come to be?
Colleen: Yeah, I have a background in QA and I was doing QA consulting work. I actually managed a team in Sri Lanka so I had experience working with remote teams as well. And around that time, a lot of the work I was doing with other companies and other QA departments was trying to help the QA teams transition to an Agile environment. If you have any roots in systems thinking it’s not something you can do just from one department, right? You can’t just make your QA team Agile or just make your development team Agile. It’s an organizational change. So I would go in to start with how to help the QA department but would end up looking at the entire organization’s Agile transformation. So from that, I started doing a lot of Scrum Master training and Scrum consulting and helping companies transition from waterfall or more traditional methodologies into Scrum and Kanban.
Lisette: Interesting. So what were some of the biggest challenges that you had with the team in Sri Lanka because you were in Colorado?
Lisette: And what’s the time zone difference between Sri Lanka and Colorado?
Colleen: 12 hours. It was exactly 12 hours.
Lisette: That’s a lot! That’s a lot! I’m assuming that was one of the major challenges I assume.
Colleen: It was. And this was probably ten years ago that we were doing this.
Lisette: Oh wow!
Colleen: So it wasn’t exact too. I think one of the great parts about tools like Slacker that everyone can collaborate on their own time but I think one of the biggest challenges we had is on paper it seemed like we’re going to be a 24-hour development shop that’s going to be great. What we ran into was if we would send them some work to complete during our working hours and then they sent back a question while we were asleep, and then we would answer it the next day and then they got to it when we were asleep again, it was taking us three or four days to cycle through a very simple question and answer process. So that time change I think was probably one of the things that was the most difficult for us to work with.
Lisette: Were you ever able to solve that?
Colleen: We ended up having shifts which I think was also just a lack of tools to support it, and we had different people who would kind of take different hours to try to support the staff in Sri Lanka from Denver and vice versa so that people were available, and we’d manage a lot of it just using chat tools at that time.
Lisette: Right, yeah, ten years ago, it’s like what a luxury situation now with all the plethora of tools that are available. People don’t realize how lucky we are now.
Lisette: Interesting. Interesting. So let’s see, what about good virtual team management? I want to touch on that. I don’t know what your experience is with that or what makes a good virtual team leader characteristics?
Colleen: I think a lot of it is just setting very clear expectations for the work, how to keep your status up to date, using tools like Trello or JIRA or some kind of virtual board whether you’re doing Scrum or Kanban can be great for this. And I think then it becomes more about managing the work and not managing the people for everybody understands the expectations of what they’re responsible for becomes a lot easier for everyone to hold each other accountable, then it’s not just the manager with a stick type of mentality of trying to figure out where everybody’s at if all of that stuff is clear and really transparent.
Lisette: Right. So setting clear expectations for the [inaudible—18:59] so that people know what they need to be doing. I’ve heard that before. That seems like really good advice. And then let’s see, maybe I move on to the productivity tips. I don’t know if you have any for things that you’ve used or on your teams for yourself with others.
Colleen: Well I mentioned Kanban. I’m a big fan of Kanban and continues flow. I think it also works great for remote teams because it allows people to focus on the next highest priority and not have to wait for a planning meeting or a planning session to get the next chunk of work to pull in. So that continuous flow model can be really nice so that you’re not relying on somebody else or a large group to get together, do a planning session.
Lisette: Do you want to describe Kanban really quickly, I don’t know if there’s a short way to describe it?
Colleen: Yeah, I mean it is a system that’s built off of the tool of the production systems so it’s basing continuous flow, and it’s really minimizing multitasking which is another great part of working remotely. So you’re not getting constantly interrupted and you’re really just focusing on one item at a time and Kanban really enables that by eliminating the amount of things that any person has on their plate at any given time so you’re just trying to get one thing done, right? Something done is more valuable than doing more work so we’re really just trying to focus on getting one thing done at a time before we pull in more work, and that we call that our work in progress limit. We keep that limit really low so that we’re getting things through as quickly as possible in getting features delivered to the customers as quickly as we can.
Lisette: Interesting. I met Jim Benson this week, the author of Personal Kanban. He said that minimizing work in progress tends to be like the thing that everybody struggles with. He says it’s impossible, it seems impossible for people to do. I have the same. I look at my to-do list, it’s like “Yeah, right.”
Colleen: And a lot of people I think choose to work remotely just for that reason. Being at your desk can be, people come in with a bunch of requests and it’s very hard to manage all these different things that are coming at you and you end up doing a lot of context switching which basically slows down everything you have on your plate. So I think the combination of using Kanban and having the ability to work remotely really allows us to focus on one thing at a time.
Lisette: Do you work remotely most of the time?
Colleen: About half and half. So I like to work at home. I definitely think having that routine when you’re at home is very important. I have kids so it depends on where my kids are at how successful I can be in working from home. And I think that’s a very important piece of working from home is setting that expectation with your family that I’m not at home. It’s not Saturday.
Colleen: I still have to have a space where I can close the door and get my work done, and then like I said, having a routine is key to that too. I really find it valuable to get outside at lunch and go do something even if it’s running to the grocery store, walking around the block just to break my day up so I don’t feel like I have been locked in all day long.
Colleen: And I think once you kind of get that routine down, it makes it a lot easier to manage your day.
Lisette: What’s something that you really struggle with working at home?
Colleen: I definitely struggle on focus here. I find I do a lot better if my chores, my household chores are kind of complete. I think if you can see a pile of laundry or a sink full of dishes, it’s very easy to get distracted and try to knock off these little tasks throughout your day. But I think if you feel like you’ve got all that accomplished and can go somewhere else to focus, it makes it a lot easier to separate those activities.
Lisette: Right. My pile’s just off to the right. It’s true. It’s true. I think I cut you off under the productivity tip. So we were talking about Kanban and the continuous flow as productivity; sounds like a great productivity tip doing one thing at a time, minimizing the multitasking. Was there anything else that you wanted to add to the list?
Colleen: Yeah. I would say the other piece of both Kanban and the startup practices is really breaking your work out into small measurable milestones. So we really try to find one thing to focus on and it’s just that micro piece of multitask of not multitasking. So we’re trying to figure out what’s the smallest set of features we can deliver, work against those incrementally, and then have a way to measure our success before we pick what the next thing is that we’re going to work on. So I think that that combination of breaking your work up into small milestones, really focusing on one thing at a time, and trying not to multitask or have a lot of context switching is really what’s helped us be successful.
Lisette: Yeah. I mean I struggle with it myself especially with all the notifications going off and emails coming in, and Slack, and Skype, and everything’s on at the same time, it can be really overwhelming for sure. I mean I almost forget how the office with all the interruptions at the office. And what about personality traits on the teams? I don’t know if you’ve come across any types of personalities. There’s always the debate like introverts versus extroverts, people like, but I’ve actually seen that there isn’t, well I’ll let you answer first.
Colleen: I think I would agree with what you were about to say. I don’t think there is a right or wrong personality type for remote working. I am very, very extroverted so I think I find ways to connect remotely like I mentioned I use Slack a lot, not just for work but for special interest groups and volunteer groups I’m a part of, and I make sure I keep that network very open. So I feel like I’m filling that extroverted need even if I’m not around a lot of people. I think the key isn’t so much the personalities of the people you have on your team. It’s more about have a system to manage the work so that you’re not managing the people, and then any people can participate in contributing.
Lisette: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too. I’m kind of I’m in the ambivert so I can go either way, introvert or extrovert. But I have to say that I’ve been video meetings hours and hours every day and by the end of the day, I think, “I need some alone time even though it’s just me alone in my room. Yeah. And the only issue I would see is for people who are, I don’t know, could be introvert or extrovert. I guess it doesn’t matter but it’s people who don’t reach out if they need, if they have trouble reaching out. That seems to be the only issue that I find.
Colleen: Yeah. I can definitely see how that would be a difficult to be in. Like I said, I think I created a network for myself to fill that gap for me so that I don’t feel alone or closed in but I think you have to figure out a, how to do it and b, where to look. So meet up is a great place. There are a lot of public Slack channels around special interest groups so even if you’re not a member of a certain group, or a member of a volunteer organization. You can find a lot of Slack groups that are just focused on a very specific topic like Agile development, or remote working, and be able to connect with people who want to talk about the same things you want to talk about.
Lisette: Yeah, and that’s probably a good lead way into the next question which is for advice for teams who are just starting out, what advice would you give them?
Colleen: I would say start small, right? Find your root team and set your daily routine around what time do you need to take a break. I think it’s a great idea to build your own daily calendar if you’re working from home or working remotely so that you have your routine down just like you would in the office even though you’re not commuting somewhere else. So build out your schedule, build out your routine, and then start slow. Start incrementally and try to identify a good system for working. If you’re going to do some kind of daily standup or video check-in, figure out the same time every day to do a lot of those things so that your day is really structured a lot like it would be in the office, and that you have that routine kind of built in.
Lisette: Yeah, I can imagine. And also do retrospectives, right?
Colleen: Do retrospectives, yeah. I think.
Lisette: Oh go ahead.
Colleen: I think that one of the greatest parts about doing retrospectives remotely is it does give everybody that you don’t get to walk by somebody’s desk and say, “I don’t really think this worked” or “You broke the build.” So having the opportunity to connect and do that is even more valuable when you’re not getting that face to face time.
Lisette: Do you ever get people who resist doing the retrospectives? I mean it just seems like such a good thing, I just can’t imagine somebody saying like “Nah, I don’t know if we need them.”
Colleen: Absolutely. And I think that for a lot of Agile teams who are very used to having a Scrum master or an Agile coach do this for them, that’s an easy default to say, “I don’t know how to facilitate it. I don’t know how to run one.” And that was why we really wanted ScatterSpoke to be such a simple tool so that anybody could log in, and kick their retro off with very minimal steps, and feel like they’re empowered, any person on the team is empowered to say, “Let’s take a minute and see how we’re doing.” That way, no one owns it, the team owns it together.
Lisette: Ah, there’s more of a team ownership. And I can imagine that that’s hard to move to on many teams.
Lisette: And this is a little bit off the topic but I’m curious. In terms of getting Agile to go broader into an organization, I mean I assume you come in for like one team like the software team calls you in or some team calls you in and then eventually people realize like “No. Just this one team.” It has to spread. How do you plant that seed? I know that’s a big question but…
Colleen: That’s a great question. And I always bring up systems thinking here too. You can’t optimize one part of your organization without it having a ripple effect elsewhere, and I think that’s what happens for a lot of companies. I think almost every time, Agile starts in engineering, and what happened here at Ready Talk is that we started working really tightly with our Kanban system inside of our development teams, and then that expanded, and we started working quicker than the marketing team could keep up or the product organization could keep up. And then other teams started saying, “What are you guys doing over there that everything’s going so fast and none of the other departments can keep up?” and that’s where the entire enterprise started to adopt a Kanban system that allowed us to look at the inputs and outputs from every department and where those hand offs where in making that super visible and having really clear expectations about when things were coming and going from department to department so that we could see that entire system working together.
Lisette: That’s the best way for it to happen, right? Everybody is like “What’s going on with you guys? You’re so super productive.”
Colleen: Right. It’s a good problem to have.
Lisette: It’s a great problem to have indeed, yeah, yeah, I can imagine. So then last question, unless there’s something else that you wanted to say that I haven’t brought up. So I always leave that open for people like if sometimes I forget to ask something important. But the last question then is “What is the best way for people to get in touch with you and to learn more about ScatterSpoke? What’s the best avenue to take?”
Colleen: Yeah, you can find ScatterSpoke at ScatterSpoke.com. There’s a contact info on there for myself and my cofounder, John Samuelson, and then we’re very active on Twitter. You can find us on LinkedIn, you can find me personally on Twitter under ScrumHive, and you can contact me at Colleen@ScatterSpoke.com for email.
Lisette: Great, great. And I’ll put those all in the show notes as well for people. And I hope that there are people that go and try ScatterSpoke and report back on their experiences. So if anybody’s out there listening to the interview, if you try ScatterSpoke, let me know. I’d love to do an interview about your experience with it. That would be really fun to do I think.
Colleen: Yeah, I would love to hear their feedback as well.
Lisette: Right, of course, and of course bring the feedback back to ScatterSpoke. Well thank you so much. I really appreciate taking the time. I hope this is fruitful. And it was great to talk with you.
Colleen: Yeah, you too, Lisette. Thank you!
Lisette: Alright. Until next time, everybody. Be powerful!