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The 80/20 Async Split for Agile-From-Anywhere Teams

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 3, 2021

Whether they’re in person, virtual, or a mix of the two, meetings can be a real drag. And employees are starting to shout that fact from the rooftops. As offices reopen, it seems like everyone is talking about the things they’re dreading the most about going back. At the top of the list, right up there with putting real pants on, are endless, pointless meetings.

Look, we get it. We’ve sat through some pretty dull meetings ourselves and asked ourselves the eternal question, “Couldn’t this have been an email?” But in some cases, meetings are a necessary evil. Well, not even an evil, because when done right, these conversations can be really valuable and — dare we say it — even fun.

This is especially true for Agile teams. Part of the Agile ethos is face-to-face interaction and the success of ceremonies like sprint planning, sprint review, and retrospectives does depend on being in the same room (virtual or otherwise) with your colleagues. That’s not to say that Agile is incompatible with asynchronous work. On the contrary, many aspects of Agile, such as voting on backlog items, reviewing the roadmap, and even daily stand-ups, translate well to async. 

The question is, then, how to balance async with sync when it comes to Agile teamwork.

The 80/20 async rule for Agile teams

For most Agile teams, trying to make everything 50-50 between asynchronous communications and actual meetings is likely not the most efficient option. That’s why we recommend going heavier on the async — more like an 80-20, to be more specific (although your mileage may vary). 

There are a few reasons for this. For one, after a year full of virtual everything, from formal conference calls to 1:1s to happy hours, your team is probably a little sync’d out. In the longer term, async is well-suited to a hybrid or work-from-anywhere environment. And as we’ve said before, hybrid work is the future. Post-pandemic, employers are looking to embrace the WFA and hybrid mentality. With work already happening across locations and time zones, asynchronous communication just makes sense. 

In addition, async offers a lot of benefits for Agile-from-anywhere teams. It’s conducive to a variety of work styles, allows time for reflection and random moments of inspiration, and can be more equitable in many cases. 

Nevertheless, async is not the answer to everything. Some things do, in fact, require a meeting. 

Here, there’s the good news: when you save your synchronous communications for when they’re truly necessary, your meetings — and your team — will be much more productive. Working this way, async can help you get the most out of the time you spend working together in real-time with your team. In this way, less can definitely be more.

To determine what to make asynchronous, figure out what work must be done synchronous.

To sync or not to sync

So, what parts of your Agile processes and ceremonies should have a synchronous component? Generally, any aspect of your work that could be described by one of these criteria could benefit from face-to-face time:

  1. Are expectations clear? If there’s a lot of ambiguity in what you’re working on, it’s time to schedule up a meeting and establish clarity. 
  2. Do you need to be creative and collaborative? Anything that requires innovation and real-time inspiration means setting aside time to come together and put your team’s imagination to work.
  3. Is the subject matter complex? Effective Agile teams, whether hybrid or in-person, make sure everyone is on the same page. If a project is especially complicated or requires specialized knowledge, it’s worth going through the details as a team.

Agile ceremonies involve a range of tasks and activities, some of which are better suited to asynchronous work and some that are better done in real time. Let’s go through four categories of activities that are more successful when synchronous. 

4 Agile activities to work on synchronously with your team

1. Defining goals and capacity

The very word “define” indicates that there’s some ambiguity that needs to be addressed. The key here is to identify what needs definition beforehand so that your sync time can be spent actually doing the defining (ok, we’ll stop saying “define”). 

Generally, you’ll come across this situation most frequently during sprint and PI planning, as well as the initial stages of  backlog refinement. For these ceremonies, set pre-work around dot-voting the items to be discussed.  While it may turn out that you need to delve into the full backlog, knowing where the team stands in terms of prioritization can help you spend your time more efficiently. 

For example, take sprint planning. Prior to the meeting, ask your team members to review the roadmap and the list of high-priority backlog items and vote for items to be included in the next sprint. Those items that reach a certain vote threshold can then be given additional space in the agenda. Prior to the meeting, team members can also add notes around specific concerns, dependencies, etc. related to these items. We recommend this sprint planning template to help organize and digitally capture both the pre-work and the in-person planning session.

2. Giving feedback

This one is a little bit tricky, because feedback can really be given at any time. Even something like a demo can be recorded, then shared for feedback with the relevant stakeholders. And Agile teams should definitely allow for asynchronous feedback. After all, not everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts in the moment. 

However, completely ignoring synchronous feedback might mean missing out on those “aha moments” and that excited back-and-forth that comes with in-person interaction. So why not get the best of both worlds? Offer the option to give feedback any time, and schedule a formal meeting for face-to-face feedback. This is especially important during something like a sprint review that may involve a larger group of stakeholders, including external customers. Giving these groups the chance to have their voices heard in real-time shows how much you value their input. Just make sure you’re capturing the live feedback via recording or another digital channel (remember: if it’s not digital, it didn’t happen. Think digital first)!

3. Final prioritization decisions

Async is great for identifying and then ranking items for the team to work on, whether over a sprint or just for that day. But making the final call on what will absolutely make it into a sprint or what will be removed from the backlog should involve at least a little bit of back-and-back. Yes, that decision can come down from on high, with no opportunity for discussion, but we think it’s better if your whole team feels like they were part of the process. Getting everyone involved (or at least present) increases trust, transparency, and buy-in that can last throughout the sprint or PI.  

A note on digital-first thinking: No matter what the final decision is, be sure it’s captured where everyone can align around it! For a hybrid of work-from-anywhere team, a digital workspace goes a long way to getting everyone on the same “virtual page.” 

(We’re biased, but MURAL really shines for this.) 

4. Celebrating wins

While Slack kudos and emailed compliments are awesome, there’s nothing quite like receiving praise in-person — especially if the accomplishment in question was a team effort. So, set aside some sync time in your daily scrum, sprint retro, etc. to give those well-deserved shoutouts. This is especially important on hybrid or Agile-from-anywhere teams because it offers a chance for connection and camaraderie across locations.

Using async to make the most of sync 

If you’re only spending around a fifth of your time on synchronous communications, you want to make sure it counts. Luckily, getting some tasks completed asynchronously can help you maximize together time. Here are a few general tips for using async to drive sync success that we’ve discovered over a decade or so of working with hybrid teams, Agile and otherwise:

Plan, plan, and plan some more

Not only does this mean having a detailed agenda, it means thinking through every aspect of the time spent in-person, including different experiences for in-person and remote attendees. Facilitation skills are key here, both for the “official” facilitator and for participants. 

Assign prework (and deadlines for it)

No one should come into a meeting unprepared. Whenever possible, assign pre-work that can be completed, anywhere, anytime before the specified deadline. Bear in mind the time needed (and consider how you’re creating asynchronous debt). 

Having prework done beforehand will let you focus on what truly requires real-time discussion. 

Provide updates

Have you ever been to a stand-up that just turned into a list of updates? Us, too. To avoid that situation, do this part asynchronously. Prior to standup, have participants add updates to a shared doc or template. Or, to make it even more personal (and fun), take a page out of our own playbook and create video updates using Loom.

Quality over quantity

When it comes to meetings, good things come in shorter (and more focused) packages. By making the most of meetings and only holding them when they’re actually necessary, you might find that they’re not so bad after all. Your team might even start looking forward to the time spent together.  

🚀  Looking for more resources on Agile teamwork and/or some nifty templates? Take a trip to Agile Space.

About the author

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.