LUCIUS BOBIKIEWICZ is a trainer for distributed agile teams at SpreadScrum.com in Berlin, Germany. He has managed globally dispersed teams – with members from Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom – using just online spreadsheets.
His tips for managing remote teams:
- Provide a working environment where people feel safe to ask questions and be themselves.
- Be supportive and help people to work together.
- Take the time to get to know your colleagues. Be interested in them.
- Don’t wait for the technology. Start today and experiment. Grow the tools into the team.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great! We’re live! Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today, I’m super excited because I have Lucius Bobikiewicz on the line. Woohoo! Lucius, you’re in Hala, Germany, and let me just say really quickly, for anybody that has questions throughout the interview, please tweet them to #remoteinterview, and we’ll get those questions answered.
So Lucius, let’s start! I’ve got one from your LinkedIn profile; it says that you were a trainer for Distributed Agile Teams at spreadscrum.com. So, we’re definitely get into that. That’s very interesting to me, of course. But, let’s start with what does your “anywhere” office look like? And what do you need to actually get your work done?
Lucius: When you refer to “anywhere office” I guess you mean what I put in the bag when I take the next plane, right?
Lisette: Sure! What I mean is most people that I speak to are remote and they can work from anywhere. And so, what is it that you need when you’re working from anywhere?
Lucius: Yeah! Okay! Actually, I have two “anywhere” offices. I have a stationary “anywhere” office, which is at my home, when I work with remote teams. And, I have quite a nice setup which consists mainly of three monitors. So, I have three screens, it depends. When I work with teams as a strongmaster for example, two is enough. But, when I do development, then I need three screens. But, that’s really a very comfortable solution. That’s it and the headset. But I’m also doing well with my notebook, as I am doing now; notebook and headset or even without headset. But yeah, usually I go with a headset and that’s all! More and more, I don’t need.
Lisette: Right! It seems like all the paper, the notes and everything; it’s all online now these days.
Lucius: Yeah! It’s completely online. Actually, I also use the cloud for my day-to-day work when I’m at home. This was part of this “anywhere” process; to move everything to the cloud – Evernote, Gmail.
Lisette: Right! So, let’s talk about how this Spreadscrum came about, because we talked earlier and I thought it was an interesting story about how this came about. Do you want to tell us how did you become a Distributed Agile teams’ trainer?
Lucius: Yeah! I became an agile distributed teams’ trainer by accident. I was running globally dispersed team for about 4 or 5 years. Developers are from Ukraine, Israel, UK, Russia, Indonesia. And, we are to develop tools for ourselves. I was responsible for the team; I setup the team, I had to run the team management. And, it was a pain in the hair. And we tested many tools and later, when I became an agile trainer, I didn’t think about distributed teams. I started to organize teams mainly in the financial industry. And, the teams ask me, you know, they called me as an “Agile” trainer. Then they said, “oh yeah, by the way, we have some more people sitting somewhere else.” And, I started to solve the problems there with the tools I buildup for my own team. And, I thought everyone’s doing it like I was doing it. And then I came to conferences and started to talk about distributed teams with others during a coffee, not as a speaker. You always think that your solutions are so obvious; everyone is doing this. We are in the middle of the world, and what we think everyone else must also think, or see, or whatever. And, it took 2 years or something, that they started to realize that my solutions are somewhat special. And, people start to recommend me to others. So, it was only then that I started to say, “Ok, let’s focus on this issue, on this topic.”
Lucius: So, this is how it started and, I don’t know if you want to talk now or later in your interview about Spreadscrum, the name is already a hint about what we’re doing.
Lisette: Alright! I say let’s talk about it now. I’m really curious! Maybe, tell us more about Spreadscrum and what it is and how you use it.
Lucius: Yeah! Okay! It’s Spreadscrum because I’m actually using the teams, I manage spreadsheets. I think, the simplest spreadsheets are the most important and the most underestimated tools we have. We went through all these fancy stuff, video tracks and GoToMeetings, and different project management systems, ticket systems, we tried everything in order to get our remote team together, to collaborate.
There was always something wrong, or it didn’t work or it didn’t help. And, we use Skype mainly, I chat without audio. The spreadsheets are always the “in-between” solution. Nothing else. And then, we became more and more professional in using the spreadsheets. Then, we actually ended up using the spreadsheets; they became our main tool. And, what was so surprising was that the spreadsheet is the perfect tool for collaboration, because what we get wrong, in my understanding, that was my experience; I’m able to run complex tasks completely remote. Many agile teams, they run the sprint-planning on the side.
So, once a month, everyone flies to Berlin, or to London, or to Paris. And there they meet; they do 2 days of planning. And then, they go remote again. But Indonesia, Russia, Israel, UK, there’s no chance of doing this. There are 2 common mistakes, from my point of view: the one is video and the other one is all these task management ticket system tools.
Lisette: Wow! Those are big words, especially the video one. We’ve got to dive in.
Lucius: I’m completely oppose video.
Lisette: I’ve heard a lot that it can get in the way in certain circumstances. So, I understand that completely. Let’s get into why you think its…
Lucius: The reason is, “what is the main bottleneck in remote teams?” And, the main bottleneck is collaboration. What I mean by this is when you solve a problem, or when you work on a problem, as long as you sit in a meeting and talk, you will not find the solution; it’s very hard.
So, everybody’s behind this table, just looking at the others and we have a conference for hours. We can talk and talk and talk and go in circles. What makes a real team meeting really collective? That’s the chart work bench. A meeting changes completely when you set up a flipchart, or a whiteboard, or something like that. They create a common product. They say, “let’s list all the ideas here. Let’s create a structure.” When you start to draw a sketch or let’s say an IT problem, complex process, or something like that, someone goes to the board and starts to draw. Then, someone chips in and says, “oh yeah! That’s right! The link is missing! Or here we can add something.”
This also only works when the team works on the same whiteboard. Imagine 10 people in the room and everyone is only making drawings on his sheet of paper, without showing it to the others. It wouldn’t work.
Lisette: Well, they get 10 different sheets.
Lucius: Yeah! Exactly! So, that’s the point. And, if you look at a flipchart in a real live meeting, a flipchart is the most basic tool; it’s pen and paper. But, it makes a huge difference. And, what the difference makes is not the pen and paper, because everyone knows technology pen and paper. They know how to use this technology. But, what makes the big difference in a real-life, on-site meeting, is that you have a facilitator, like a scrum-master or an experienced team leader, who knows how to lead a team through a structured problem, analysis, assessment and solution-finding process. That’s the key, like I said, it’s a facilitation technique.
And, in video, we just see each other, fine. But where’s the shared product, the common work? There the spreadsheet comes in. It’s so perfect; it’s so simple and that’s where you can run a brain-storming and ask people, “please type in your ideas.” Everyone can work in parallel, even better than on the flipchart in a real life meeting. You ask them to write down all the columns, and suddenly, you have 20 ideas. And, in the next column, you can use it for doing an assessment; let’s do a (00:11:25). And, all you need is to put up some formula, and 2 minutes later, you see the assessment of the team, which options are highly rated.
All these techniques: brainstorming, risk-assessment, scrum-broker, task management, estimation of hours, all these stuff can be done perfectly on a spreadsheet. And once you do it, you know how to facilitate it, that’s the point. The spreadsheet itself is not the solution. I am not going to say “oh no! Let’s all use spreadsheets!” That’s like going to a room with someone who doesn’t know how to facilitate, you give them a flipchart and say, “use this flipchart, and your meeting will be much better.” That’s not enough, I mean, communication tool or channel needs a special way how to use it in a productive way. That’s why, radio shows are completely different from a TV show. Different channels require different methods of structuring the communication. But, when you know how to do it, then that’s the most simple, always on, easy tool. Yeah! That is why it’s called “Spread-Scrum” there’s the spreadsheet and the, it’s about communication, because there is no barrier in-between. When you look at these (00:13:08) and GoToMeetings, they are complicated to use. And, the main problem is they are based on authority. They are based on someone is running the meeting. He is controlling the microphones. He’s controlling who is allowed to write on the white board or whatever. And that is not how it works.
When you work as a team in front of a whiteboard, the boss is not holding all these pens and telling people that anyone who wants to write on the whiteboard has to ask him for allowance to get one pen. But, it really works if you’re on the same level and everyone has access and you can spontaneously interact.
Lisette: Right! I really like what you said that different channels require different methods for structuring communication. I think that’s a crucial aspect. And, a lot of times, when people go remote, they use the same methods that they would use in the office and then it doesn’t work when you go remote. And I think that is a really great analogy to use.
So, what do you see? What are people really struggling with on remote teams? What are the challenges that you see for the distributed?
Lucius: It depends on what kind of distributed. The main challenges that I see on the human level is the technology problem, but that is a misunderstanding; the technology is there, people try here these tools, and that tools. But, the hardest problem is the cultural gap, and there are two problems: the first one is to understand how it feels to be at the receiving end of a remote team.
So, the team leader and the understanding of human stuff, how do you connect through the distance? That’s I think that’s the biggest barrier, or hindrance. And, it increases when you deal with people across different cultures. It’s the same problem, but just much bigger and more complicated.
Lisette: So an amplified problem when you go across cultures. I’ve really been trying to get into the cultural differences because I’m trying to understand it. And, where do you see the issues on, when you have these different cultures, what differences have you seen? I’m not sure which cultures you’ve worked with. But, I spoke to somebody in Vietnam today, and they have a completely different issue than what I was expecting.
Lucius: What I saw is…the most basic thing is when people dare to say something. Are you allowed to ask? Or is it expected to ask? Well, they won’t tell you because they are afraid, or because they are polite, what’s going on? To provide an environment where people feel safe, that’s in my experience, the key, because you need to establish a team culture. You cannot establish a German culture, go ahead with the German culture or Indonesian culture or any other mixed global team. You need to create a new, unique culture.
And, from my point of view, trust and the environment without fear is the most important thing, because when you’re great at that, then you can come across everything else. You will never understand the Indonesian culture if you haven’t lived there. But, not remotely, you know?
So, when you don’t get information, he must feel so safe that regardless if it is against their culture, or being afraid, or something negative, or being afraid of not being polite. Inside the team, they must feel safe enough to bring it forward. And, that’s the key in my opinion, in my understanding, to create this openness and safety.
Lisette: I love that! I love the idea of creating a team culture that sort of supersedes all the other culture that comes in. I mean really, when we solve that, then that is the million-dollar question.
Lucius: Yeah! But, that’s a human thing; it sounds easy, but I actually found it harder to deal with the machos, from my true country. They say “oh boys, let’s stop it now. We must go ahead.” And then you say “cool it down.” I find it harder to bring someone down with a macho attitude. When somebody’s not talking or reluctant, then you can just start listening. And, you can start asking questions and be careful and you can step-by-step build up trust. But when you have a macho culture and someone is starting to push and I find it harder.
Lisette: I agree!
Lucius: What I mean by openness is that it sounds so easy, but it needs some kind of authenticity; you need to have real interest in the other person. One thing I remember very well was when I have a team member in Israel and then some kind of bombing started. Rockets flying in from Lebanon. I don’t know when was it. Let me think. Was it 2008 or something like that? That was quite a big crisis in Israel. I mean, they always have little crises, but sometimes it’s bigger. And that time it became really big. How do you deal with that? I mean, this guy is sitting at home. He’s in Tel Aviv or wherever he was. The first rockets hit Tel Aviv yesterday. You saw it on TV. How do you start the morning? It’s not like you haven’t heard of that. Is that normal? You’re colleague is in a city where the bomb’s are flying in, and you just talk about IT. You start the morning with a joke.
And, I decided to talk about it because for me, it feels kind of strange not to address it. So I said, “how are you? Where are you? Are you safe? Are you going to join the forces within the next days? What’s the situation?” I just talked it through. I was really interested and it was important for me to know how he’s doing. The same is with other cultures. I think, you should know what are the festivals there. What is the religion? What is the nature of the person?
And, in my experience, it’s just enough to be interested. You don’t need to know anything about Islam. But when you type in “I’ve heard that Ramadan is so important and families have a party at the end of Ramadan. Is it true? Do you have a party also?” Then you can write “oh yeah, we have a big party.” Or you can say, “no! I’m an atheist! My father was a professor for Mathematics and…” Just be open. Listen to the people. And, that’s so easy but also so difficult sometimes.
Lisette: Yeah! I’ve come across people where they’re not genuinely not interested, even though they know they should be. And, that is when it doesn’t work because the authenticity has to be there. Like, you actually have to be interested. You can fake asking the questions. I say, “just fake asking the questions; just ask how your employees were on Monday.” And they say, “I don’t really care.” I mean, you couldn’t fake it! So, I think you’re right. Authenticity there is a big deal.
Interesting! So, we’ve talked a lot about the challenges, but what works really well for the distributed teams that you’ve worked with?
Lucius: You’re not talking about tools now?
Lisette: It could be tools. It could be the personality. Like, when you’re with the teams that you’ve worked with that worked really well, what are the benefits that they’re…
Lucius: Well, once we got it running, we had a fantastic work experience. So today, I would say that remote teams or distributed teams at least as capable as co-located teams. Just yesterday, we had a discussion at an event in Berlin about that 2 days ago. Because, what remote does, is that it removes any possibilities for shortcuts. What’s so hard with agile teams, in co-located teams, you have the advantage. Everyone is in the room, and on the same floor. But you need to enforce the practices. You need to insist that there is a daily stand-up. You have to run the user story board and all this stuff. And you need the scrum master who is keen on the process and always brings the team back to the process. The processes alone, they are not practiced just out of nothing. You need a driver, like you need a facilitator in a meeting, and that requires some kind of effort. While in a remote team, you can’t survive without that. You don’t meet at the coffee machine and say, “Oh John, have you seen this and that problem? Can’t you look into it in 5 minutes and give me a phone call?” There’s no coffee machine. So, what’s not in the system, what is not defined, a task you haven’t talked about, a task that you haven’t discussed in the team isn’t discussed. It creates an environment where you need your tools, where you need systematic work, where you know information has to be processed to the other person. There is no, “Oh, I thought you’ve been in the meeting yesterday.” If it’s not in the system, it’s not there. And, if it’s not on the team chat, take the team chat for example. Team chat is great and an important tool in my job. Everyone sees it; they can really see it. You know, the disadvantages can turn into advantages.
For example, in team chat, you ask something and they give you an answer, and maybe the answer is wrong. And it turns out, it is an opinion or something like that. You can very easily use team chat for blaming, because you have an archive. You can always look it up, like, last week Monday, 10:15 and 3 secs, you said, “…”
But the point is, when you address this, and you say, “listen, we have this archive, we can look up what everyone said whenever. I hope you agree that we never, ever do this. Because, when we start to dig into the archives, we’ll bring down the team in minutes.”
Lisette: Well, I can imagine that! And I know, I’ve listened to some of my earlier interviews that I did years ago. And, my opinion has changed on things overtime. As I’ve learned more about something, or I just changed my mind, or yeah!
Lucius: So, it’s actually, in a team setting, co-location, you could say, “yeah, but last week you said, why did you change your mind?” And you say, “no, I didn’t said that!” But here, it’s really written. You can prove it. And it’s extremely obvious even to the most non-sensitive communicators, that you can start like this. And, it’s interesting, because it makes people not careful in communication, but it makes people aware of how important it is to have respect for the other person in the moment of communication; the moment of communication takes place.
Lisette: True. There’s a deliberateness to it a little bit.
Lucius: Yeah, exactly! Because it’s like a nuclear bomb; because you have this weapon of the archive, you must deliberately decide not to use it, because it will destroy your team culture.
Lisette: Wow! I’m glad this is recorded. Haha! Words of brilliance from Lucius Bobiekiewicz.
Lucius: I can talk with you for hours! We’re running out of time. You submit 10 questions or something like that.
Lisette: I know! And, we’re not even half way through. But, there’s always room for more interviews and follow-up calls. You and I will be collaborating for sure, we already know that. But, in terms of your management techniques and your style, because it sounds like you have a good grasp on what makes a good virtual team leader, and maybe that’s because of your scrum master training! And how you’ve taken care of and taken care of by the teams. How does that translate virtually for you?
Lucius: I’m not sure, because first by training and organizational design and developer. So, I’m not just a scrum master, actually, I’m not a scrum master; I don’t have any certificate. I think “Scrum” is quite the simple framework; it’s just a high-performing team model. So, when you come from an organizational development background as I do, then it’s quite simple.
But I think, it’s just basically, when you start to understand and when I was young, the first time I had a boss, it was horrible! That was completely horrible, you know? It’s like Breaking Bad! That was me! One day, you start to understand that it’s not about you, but about the others. Then, everything else is just a question of observation; what works? What feels good? What produces good results? What creates a flow?
And, I think that’s a bit of an art. If you’re color blind, you can’t train to see colors, you know? If you trust some aspects, a deep understanding of a remote team or a distributed team manager, what makes a good distributed team manager? And that’s the human aspect and that’s the aspect of ergonomics. How do tools work? Why is this spreadsheet better than [30:43]. As long as you go with the [30:46] because everyone is doing it, that’s not the reason. That means you haven’t developed your own understanding. And the main job in running a distributed team is to be supportive, to help people, to work together. To look for the processes, the communication, the tools, even monitors, you know? People who work remotely, they don’t want to get in your way. When you ask them, “how is your equipment? How is your monitor?” “Oh! Im fine!” But you have only one. “Yeah, that’s perfect.” No one in the Ukraine wants to risk his job because, you know, he doesn’t want to call you and say, “Boss, may I have 2 or 3 monitors?” Because, he doesn’t want to look demanding. He wants to be for you and for the team, you know? He says “oh, if I start to ask for 3 screens, maybe he’s going look for someone else who’s not asking such questions.” So, quite often, it doesn’t matter if it’s Ukraine or Germany, you have to insist. “Please, go to Amazon, look up which monitor you like, and I’ll send them next week.” “Ah, you don’t need them!” Okay, if it’s not necessary, just try it! If you don’t need them after the project, you can send them back to me. That is how you build up trust. Sometimes, you must really think about the situation they are in and walk into their shoes. That’s just practicing.
I don’t know if that’s the solution. I’m not sure. You can do facilitator trainings like I do. I made the experience in my trainings to only work for my interest; for people who have been in the leadership role before; who understands communication, the nuts and bolts of communication. And, that’s the same with distributed team. I think one important aspect might be the cultural background, might help, or an experience of having lived in other countries for a long time. In global teams, I think, that’s an absolutely must thing.
Lisette: Right! Because there is an awareness there on different levels that is not going to be there if you have never done it before.
Lucius: Exactly! And they are so small; you can’t think of them if you haven’t been in this situation. I remember how I couldn’t find a haircutter or hairdresser in the United States, because all your visual signals don’t work anymore. You don’t think about it, but I have a hairdresser in Europe, Germany or France. You see it from the top. You see, this is the bakery, the hairdresser, without thinking! They are very tiny visual signals. And suddenly, the signals are gone. You walk through the streets and you don’t recognize what type of top is this or that.
Lisette: Or, if they have different systems. Like, “what is this system that is happening here?”
Lucius: Yeah! So, that’s extremely helpful in my experience because you start to understand how insecure people feel and what kind of tiny signals this insecure feeling can come up.
Lisette: Right! So, what advice do you have for people who are just starting out?
Lucius: I think the main advice is don’t wait for technology. I see many teams who start to build up technological solutions. “Oh we need a communication systems, we need a ticket system, project managements system.” Then, they set up a project plan usually telling management you’re ready to set off in 3 months. Just start today. Start today and experiment. Try the tools with the teams. Every requirement you will write up from the green table will fail. There is no way to set up the technical requirements you need for your team and your situation upfront. And, there is also no way to test the solutions for example, by your own. Grow the tools into the team and you must tell the team beforehand, “okay, I guess we’ll go through 5 project management systems. I’m sorry, but let’s start with this one; it looks good at the moment.” And, you must work with the team on this project management system. And after 2 weeks, you will see it’s a complete mess.
So, learn something; you go to the next tool and all the data from the last 2 weeks are either lost or you will have to retype them. And, everyone has to learn new menus and new commands. But, that’s the only way. I don’t know any other solution because if you don’t do this, you will be stuck with weak solutions for years.
Lisette: Right! And the light at the end of the tunnel is when you get it right, it’s fantastic!
Lucius: Exactly! And you can only reach this when you go through this process. That is the point, yeah! And that’s what you want, a fantastic team.
Lisette: Right! So, if people want to learn about you, last question, if people want to learn more and get in touch with you and learn more, there’s SpreadScrum.com obviously. But what’s the best way to get in touch?
Lucius: Like here, SpreadScrum.com. Can you see it?
Lisette: I can’t see it!
Lucius: Do you have a pen for me? A bit in the archives, something like that, SpreadSrum.com
Lisette: I can do it really quickly on one of mine.
Lucius: Actually I’m training in many years to write your name. You know that one?
Lisette: I win! You’re bringing out my competitive streak. Everybody, go to spreadscrum.com if you want to learn more about Lucius and his training style. Clearly, you’re going to have a good time when you contact him.
Lucius: Okay! Thank you very much!
Lisette: Thank so much! Until next time everybody! Be powerful!
Lucius: Be powerful. Stay agile.