This report documents my efforts in assisting Accenture’s Learning and Leadership Development organization (L&LD) starting in August of 2018. The eight teams I coached are fully distributed (meaning working from home or individually in a local office across time zones) and are responsible for generating training assets for consultants. This engagement involved a mix of in-person and virtual training and remote coaching. This experience was a unique opportunity for me to learn what worked for distributed teams, including principles of what makes effective training. Several techniques were leveraged, such as case study narratives, newsletters, homework, curated artifacts, and quizzes. Four key takeaways are – 1) Remote coaching and training can measurably improve teams 2) Strong remote teams make strong Agile remote teams, 3) Training must be designed online delivery in mind, and 4) Patience is critical, as things take longer with teams that are globally distributed. Overall, the results have been encouraging. The teams that have been practicing Agile techniques for six months or more are reporting a higher level of satisfaction with their work and double-digit improvements in the areas of work visibility and execution.
A key element of the pursuit of Business Agility is to outlearn the competition, which leads to outperforming them . This, in part, describes the importance of the Accenture Learning and Leadership Development (L&LD) organization, which is chartered to create training assets for the entire 400,000 person organization. The more Agile the training teams are, the hope is that more training can be executed with higher quality.
In the pursuit of this goal, L&LD brought in a few SolutionsIQ coaches, a company that Accenture acquired in 2017, to assist in transforming their work. Many employees in this organization are fully virtual, meaning employees work from home, even those in the same geographic region, e.g., people in Bangalore work from home even though they’re all in the same city. I was engaged in August of 2018 to train and coach what became eight teams, numbering roughly sixty people.
The trend of remote teams and “virtual” work (defined as at least one day a week working from home) started in the late 1990s and has been growing nearly every year since . Remote work provides several advantages. For the employer, they enjoy broader access to a global, diverse talent pool, an over 70% greater productivity, and potentially less investment in facilities. Employees report cost savings, better health, and less stress in a remote work arrangement .
Many companies that realize the benefits of remote work are stuck when considering how to approach Agile transformation, and reach out to coaches to help with this transition. Agile coaches are hesitant to take on such challenges because so much of what Agilists talk about is in person communication. Thus it is instructive to understand my motivations for taking this assignment.
My primary joy in being a coach is to help people by liberating them from unnecessary and morale-killing structures in their life and work, e.g., complex processes, soul-killing death-march projects, unrealistic expectations, and command and control management. For over a decade, my mission of liberation has been successful and fulfilling.
During my journey from Scrum Master to Coach, I noticed that some folks I worked with didn’t feel liberated. Some claimed that Agile was making their lives worse. Most of those arguments were from people who were exposed to poor implementations of Agile concepts. However, in a few instances, the topic of co-location became a sticking point. While most organizations I’ve worked with retained a remote work policy, some organizations, to be “more Agile,” canceled existing virtual work arrangements, and sudden edicts emerged such as “anyone within fifty miles of an office” must go to one every day. During personal conversations, I heard the challenges that these draconian policies caused. The fact that people’s lives were being made worse by Agile was not in line with my values.
On the face of it, these proclamations are in-line with the Manifesto’s sixth principle: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation4. However, recall that the Manifesto  was written in 2001 when co-location meant moving people within a building together, not forcing people to engage in time-consuming commutes. Mary Sue from the product side of the house would be asked to relocate her desk, next to the developers so that they could work with her daily. Now, with the increase in remote work, Mary Sue was five hundred miles away and in a different time zone. What now?
Thus the opportunity to work on fully remote, non-software team appealed to me. What better place to learn about remote work and practice agility than with my own company, and with an organization that was composed of actual trainers that had been working remotely for years?
When I started, I leveraged a model I created called SPARC , which helps me stay focused and refreshed. Getting out one of my big sticky notes, I wrote down my thoughts:
Situation: I have a new client, and they’re distributed and non-software. This assignment represented a growth edge for myself and the Agile community at large.
Possibility: There is an opportunity to improve Accenture and learn new ways to help clients that leverage distributed teams with state-of-the-art training.
Actions: redesign training for virtual delivery, and implement 1:1 coaching techniques for remote people. The details and specific actions are covered in this document.
Results & Renewal: Results are in Section 5. However, when I filled out this SPARC at the outset of this assignment, I wondered what results I was looking for, now that I wouldn’t be sitting with my teams. What does success look like? Renewal, which is how to stay engaged and fresh for the work was unknown up front, but I hoped that the lack of commute would enable me to focus and spend time more effectively.
Coaching: This refers to the resources that one would need to continue to advance on this SPARC. I have had a good deal of experience doing some remote support, in that team-mates were in other places, but never did I have a fully remote coaching gig. To prepare, I attended the Remote Forever conference, (see References), but beyond that, I was still looking for useful resources as I started this engagement.
The initial SPARC complete, I moved forward into the challenge in August of 2018.
2. ORGANIZATIONAL CHALLENGES
As with any large organization, L&LD has challenges that while not unique, can inhibit Agile transformation:
- Matrixed Structure – The teams in L&LD relied on others inside the organization to effectively deliver their training assets, including sponsors and the Subject Matter Experts, who are often necessary to vet or help create training events, was pulled to work with clients.
- Date Based Work – A significant portion of the training is either date or time driven based on the needs of the business units.
- Non-Software – Agile’s roots are in software development, and as such, the coach needs to be careful to bridge the gap between this and the domain.
3. TRAINING IN WAVES
My first action was to start training. Below is the timeline for the two waves of teams that I coached. Wave 1 training was in person and Bangalore, while Wave 2 was remote. All coaching was accomplished remotely.
Figure 1 – Training & Coaching Accenture L&LD Timeline – Overlapping Waves
3.1 Wave 1 Training
In September, teams and their leadership traveled to the Accenture India Learning Center into Bangalore. The class was broken into two, two-day segments: Value stream and Agile Foundations, a pattern that was successfully implemented by my predecessor for a different part of L&LD, as shown in Figure 1.
It is essential to understand the nature of the SolutionsIQ Agile Foundations class. The class has been taught countless times in the market and often precedes our coaching engagements with the design intent of providing teams with a common language and Agile experience as they begin their journey. This training is delivered in person and experiential, e.g., a collective creation of artifacts, group discussions, etc. The challenge of converting this fundamental class to a virtual format didn’t hit until Wave 2.
3.2 Wave 2 Training
After the Wave 1 Bangalore training was complete, the coaching began. Messaging came down from leadership that there was not enough budget to repeat in-person training for Wave 2, which encompassed another four teams. Since L&LD personnel are well-versed in both in-person and remote training, the leadership requested that we experiment with an all-virtual class design. I received valuable coaching in how to create training “that sticks” what Accenture Learning calls “Durable Learning”. Eight principles of durable learning are shown below:
- Relevant – Training is at the right time.
- Engaging – The experience gets and keeps the learner’s attention.
- Contextual – Instruction includes the big picture, connects to existing knowledge.
- Effortful – Challenging the learner demands emotional investment and thus makes it durable.
- Generative – Learner reflects and elaborates in their own words
- Social – Opportunity to engage at the group level solidifies learning.
- Practice – Learning is varied by interleaving activities and exercises, i.e., not death by slides.
- Spaced – Distributed over time, requires retrieval.
While driving into each of these principles is beyond the scope of this paper, below are some of the ways I addressed them in the design of the virtual class for Wave 2:
- (1) Relevance & (3) Contextual – Relevant training is training that happens at the right time, which means right before the knowledge is required. For context, I leveraged guest speakers in each session, members of Wave 1, who had been doing Agile for about five months at the time of this training, presented testimonials of their experience to Wave 2 teams and did a brief Q&A.
- (2) Engaging, (8) Spaced, (5) Generative – Engaging content done remotely is difficult. I created a fictional narrative8 based on a culmination of various Agile experiences. Wave 2 teams worked in different areas. The narrative was designed to be compelling and give us a common discussion point. I released an episode each week to emphasize that week’s teaching. This reading also became part of the homework. By spacing the work, I think the opportunity for review and understanding increased. As far as engaging content, I still feel that available tools are wanting. I was approved to co-lead a small team to create a virtual reality prototype for a Scrum simulation that I designed and hoped to leverage for Wave 2 training. Many Agile classes involve a simulation at the end, where the team co-creates an asset such as a brochure. While a proof of concept was completed, there was not enough time to complete the VR prototype for Wave 2. Work continues in several parts of Accenture to address this need and on my microblog .
- (4) Effortful, (6) Social, (7) Practice – Effort was required to do well on the quizzes, which in part relied on the homework. I leveraged both PowerPoint and Mentimeter (quiz design software) for quizzes . Mentimeter is an excellent tool that created a dynamic way to wrap up the course in a fun way. The social aspect was covered through the breakout sessions, where Scrum teams would go and work on their items, were done via separate skype rooms with five to seven people in each. Overall the breakouts were smoothly executed, which I attribute to the experienced teams I was coaching. They have been doing virtual work for years and were adept at setting up the Skype rooms and tolerant of inevitable technical glitches. Finally, for practice, I introduced real work into the course as soon as possible. The team was working on their agreements, role definitions, and backlog creation before the training was over. I built into each session a review of the homework, the case study, and the previous session. This repetition and practice assisted teams in establishing a solid understanding of Agile.
4. COACHING ACTIONS FOR WAVE 1 AND WAVE 2
Daily Contact & Weekly Newsletters – Extra effort needs to be taken to ensure that at least each teammate heard from me weekly, ranging from a simple email to direct coaching. I was mainly focused, due to the raw number of people, on Product Owners and Scrum Masters, and set up recurring calendar invites with each. By leveraging a weekly newsletter, I called “Agile Musings,” I was able to address issues that emerged and provoke conversation for change. In subsequent surveys, team members reported that this newsletter emerged as one of the best resources to “keep the Agile Learning going.” In addition to the newsletter, I would track my interactions on a spreadsheet and reach out via instant message or email. Often from these casual, virtual “shoulder taps” resulted in more in-depth follow-up conversations.
Events – Ask Me Anything meetings are when you set up a time that you will be there and invite people to show up and ask any question they might have. This is a widespread technique on the Internet and was well received when I tried it, but the time zone challenges proved to be a limiting factor. I eventually abandoned this, choosing instead to focus on one team at a time. My peer internal Accenture coach, Caro, organized Communities of Practices (CoPs) for Scrum Masters and Product Owners for interested people across L&LD.
Personal Workspace and Schedule Adjustments – I have a family, and one thing that we had to get used to was my being on conference calls at all times of day and night. These included video calls, and more than once an errant family member got caught in frame with my workmates. Now in a group that has 100% distribution for years, the Accenture teams had seen it all and were unaffected, but my family was adamant we did something. Thus, I decided to have a little fun and get an “On Air” sign from Amazon and mount it over my desk, shown in figure 2.
Secondly, I was surprised at how easy it was to work overtime inadvertently, which was likely due to the lack of a commute and the fact that meetings occur throughout the 24-hour day. Additionally, it was challenging to remember what I was doing for which of the eight teams. What did I do with that twelve-hour day? To avoid burnout and family tensions, and to understand how I was spending my time, I found a timekeeping device called Timeular , shown in Figure 3. This device is simple and elegant. You tilt it on whatever face you are working on, completely customizable, and it’ll sync with your computer.
In the SPARC model, the R is for Results and Renewal, can be both qualitative and quantitative:
Qualitative: The coaching experience is dependent on the team dynamic, corporate culture, and the type of work. What works for one team might not for the other, a defining characteristic of complex systems. By observation, however, other coaches and I have seen that certain activities take longer due to the lack of overlap hours with remote teams, e.g., building the initial product backlog, team agreements, and sprint reviews. However, I was able to partially counteract the delay by integrating real work into the training, starting with the second week. By spreading this training over eight weeks, the Wave 2 teams were able to move more gradually and effectively into Agility, which fit well with a culture that exists in L&LD.
Quantitative: I baselined the Wave 1 participants with a survey and repeated that survey at the six-month mark. I created fifteen statements and leveraged the standard Likert scale . I summed the votes that received a greater-than neutral score, took the average, and then compared it to the baseline survey. Below are the largest (double-digit) findings:
Table 1. Wave 1 Survey Results – Initial and after Six Month Period
(Original sample = 23, Six Month Sample = 17. Overall response rate = 73%)
Though difficult to say that these numbers “prove” anything, these strong results indicate a positive experience by Wave 1 teams with moving to Agility, which was confirmed the qualitative feedback leadership and team members had given me. I plan on repeating these same numbers for Wave 2.
The Timeular device has only been in my possession since late March, but the feedback and data it has provided is useful. When removing personal items from the reports, I found my work distribution to be as follows:
Figure 4. Time Coaching Categories (March-May, 2019)
I look forward to using this on future engagements to see if this ratio is consistent. I believe that the feedback of seeing the device on my desk and the small counter it puts on the toolbar has encouraged me to be more aware of work time. A recent update has also put in 40-minute break reminders, which I have found useful. Referring to the R (Renewal) portion of the SPARC model, I feel that by having this feedback, I was encouraged to move and seek better life-work integration, and thus remained refreshed and engaged.
6. FINDINGS AND CONCLUSION
Finding One: Strong remote teams make strong, Agile remote teams. I am aware that my brief time coaching these teams did not make them what they are. The teams I’ve met were functioning before my time and were adept at navigating the challenges of distribution. While I believe I’ve helped guide them, these teams have made agility their own.
Finding Two: Remote Training and Coaching Works. The Agile ‘magic’ works, even remotely. More than I could reflect in this report, I have heard many stories about how much better the current way of working, and there is excitement for more teams moving into Agility and even Agile Portfolio man.
Finding Three: Tailor your Approach. Coaches would do well to tailor their training and coaching materials for virtual delivery and heed the durable learning principles referenced in this document. During coaching, greater reliance on tools such as LeanKit should be expected. Regarding training, consider designing interactive techniques to increase engagement, such as interactive quizzes, polls, and rapidly improving augmented and virtual reality experiences.
Finding Four: Patience is Critical. Feedback loops are longer with remote teams. The turnaround time is slower, and you have less interaction in general. Expect shorter frequent bursts of meetings, rather than all day events. The interaction is intense and intentional, and you will eventually see the results.
Upsides of Remote Agile
- Agile practices can be taught remotely in a durable fashion
- Measurable improvements can be realized across teams
- Teams generally prefer the new mode of working
Downsides of Remote Agile
- Technology has not matured yet to make training as compelling as in-person experiences
- Improvements take longer to realize
- Mapping Agile techniques to a non-Software, remote implementation is still a challenge
The Bottom Line. Overall, I feel satisfied with the work and the results. I’m still in this engagement and hope to bring agility to more of the organization. Recall that the P in SPARC stood for Possibility. Mine read as such: To not only improve my organization but to learn new ways of helping clients that leverage distributed teams with state-of-the-art training.
Did I make it? Did I realize the Possibility hidden in the Situation? I believe I’ve achieved most of that possibility. While the work continues to create state-of-the-art experiences using Virtual and Augmented Reality, I’m encouraged that L&LD leadership is planning on expanding the deployment of Agile. The power of Agile, with its compelling ecosystem of values, principles, and practices, are effectively transmittable across great distances.
The SolutionsIQ Coaches – Jeff Steinberg, my Engagement Lead, who brought me in on this opportunity, Brent Barton, my Career Advisor, and sounding board, and the wise and kind David Hammerslag, Senior Agile Coach. These gentlemen gave me the space to make this my own and provided valuable advice when I need it. Thinking back to the C (Coach) in the SPARC model, these folks fulfilled that role completely.
Caro Paduch – the Learning Agile Engagement lead is an excellent internal coach and blesses me with her continual enthusiasm and capability.
Jen Toguri and Julie Reed – Jen has always been the first to volunteer for anything, including reviewing my rambling writing, and Julie who has shown forward thinking in how training and agility could improve and supported my crazy experiments.
Deidra Busbee, Steve Williams, Kristen Fry, and Carey Paquette – These four excellent leaders are the sponsors for this move to agility, and an Agile coach couldn’t ask for more engaged, enthusiastic, and empowering people.
The teams in L&LD – to all the new Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and teammates that changed everything about the way they work, I’m inspired by your dedication and international awesomeness.
Of course, I would like to thank my shepherd, David Kane, who provided targeted and insightful feedback very early in the process and throughout the many edits of this document.
The page limitations of this work prevent me from listing all of my influences, but I would be remiss in not mentioning these few, resources that were key Coaches in my journey:
- Rothman and Kilby’s book  came out in March but has been a great resource.
- Remote Forever Summit , which told me I wasn’t crazy or alone in doing remote Agile and possessed great content from many Agile luminaries.
- Finally, the Agile Fluency model  is such a refreshing model in that it’s so positive, a fresh take from so many other maturity models in the marketplace. I continue to rely on its guidance.
 https://www.solutionsiq.com/capabilities/unlock-business-agility/ – contains a great description and video for what constitutes business agility.
 https://www.LifeSparcs.com – this includes the model and some resources explaining in detail how SPARC works.
 My microblog on the topic – http://VirtualAgileCoaching.com
 Mentimeter.com – this tool drives interactive quizzes during a presentation using web or mobile.
 The Timekeeping Octahedron – https://timeular.com/
 Likert Scale – https://www.simplypsychology.org/likert-scale.htmlKirby, Rothman (March 13, 2019, 2003). From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver. Simon and Schuster. ASIN: B07PRYM1TF
 Rothman J. and Kirby M. From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver, Practical Ink, March 2019.
 Agile Fluency – https://www.Agilefluency.org/