Agile working in uncertain times

26.03.2020

Over the last 30 years agile working methods have been adopted by companies across many different countries and sectors. Credited with delivering project management benefits and adding client value; they are a natural go-to for any business looking to succeed. In the current crisis and in the wake of growing complexity and uncertainty, agility will be even more essential, as it encourages mindsets that anticipate and respond to unforeseen demands.

ORGANISED, ACCOUNTABLE TEAMS

Agile methods focus on building teams that can organise themselves without permanent contact with senior management. This view is based on the premise that the best solutions emerge from those who know - and can easily discuss - the subject matter. This empowerment of teams is also a source of motivation for everyone. Different methodologies help to structure and facilitate exchanges: leaders who find themselves physically removed from their teams can no longer practice direct management and are forced to rely on a team’s capacity to organise itself. The manager's role in this context becomes less about daily follow-up, but rather in setting the direction and facilitating the team's workload and output.

Agile methodologies offer two key features that can be used to accompany this transformation, while providing visibility on the tasks accomplished:

  • Stand-up meetings: regular team meetings aimed at sharing the previous day's achievements and agreeing on the tasks to be carried out during the day. These meetings also help to identify difficulties and solutions. The format is deliberately short (maximum 15 minutes - that's why they are often carried out standing, to ensure that they don't drag on) and everyone takes the floor to say three things: what I did yesterday, what I will do today, the difficulties I encountered. This format can be successfully adapted, with a frequency to be defined, to allow a team that is no longer in physical contact to exchange on its daily activities, whilst the short format and the fact that each team member speaks in turn works well for videoconference meetings.
  • Product backlog and visual management: the work carried out in agile teams is structured in the form of a product backlog that identifies all the tasks to be carried out over an iteration cycle (a sprint). The progress of the tasks is then monitored thanks to a visual management tool that allows you to move tasks from one column to another according to its status (to do, in progress, to validate, done). This visual management allows each stakeholder to follow the progress of a project at any time. Many tools exist: Planner, Iobeya, Jira, Trello and even Excel.

 WORK IN VALUABLE SPRINTS

One of the principles of the ‘Agile Manifesto’ is: "Developing solutions that deliver value quickly and consistently". To achieve this, all agile methodologies are centred around customer value. Priority is given to work that brings the most value to the customer; for two jobs of equivalent value, preference is given to the one that requires the least production effort. The main mechanisms of these methodologies can be easily adapted to the current context:

  • Work in sprints: a sprint (possibly two weeks) allows a team to concentrate on achieving a predefined target. When the sprint is completed and the objective attained, the output is reviewed and new requests and improvements are formulated; then a new sprint begins. In the current context, as the situation evolves every day, it is no longer relevant to set long-term objectives that are likely to be called into question in the hours or days that follow. It is more pertinent to favour short cycles, dividing activities into a set of small and achievable tasks. 
  • Prioritise according to value: different projects and tasks should be categorised into two categories, "customer value" (or strategic value to the organisation) and "effort value". The objective is not to identify a precise estimation of the value of each project, but rather to prioritise the different projects and task in relation to each other. This prioritisation exercise can be done collectively as a team, as it will also be a good opportunity to make sure all objectives are well understood. The methods used by agile teams are numerous (planning poker using the Fibonacci suite, KANO Matrix, Moscow, T-shirt size, etc.); there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

EMBRACE CHANGE

Finally, the agile manifesto encourages people to "warmly welcome change" and it emphasises the right to make mistakes. Agile teams are encouraged to think regularly about how to be more effective and change their behaviour accordingly. Managers need to encourage employees to make assumptions, accept that they can make mistakes and have them discuss what happened in a safe environment. Rapid experimentation and iteration allow different paths to be explored: for this reason, the "right to make mistakes" must be at least accepted and even better, encouraged.

More than anything else, we will need a change of mindset in the short term, but also in the months to come. Economic upheaval will certainly have long-term consequences and will lead us to question our convictions and ways of working. In this regard, the following agile practices could be straightforward to adopt:

  • Hindsight: at the end of each sprint, the team takes the time to reflect on how the sprint went and identifies potential improvements. This meeting can be organised in the following way: each team member indicates what has been done well during the sprint (we continue), what has not been beneficial (we stop) and proposes new actions (we try).
  • ROTI (Return On Time Invested): at the end of the meeting, allow each participant, using their five fingers, to give a mark from one to five on the personal benefit of the meeting. The lowest score being one: ‘I wasted my time’ and the highest five: ‘the gain is beyond the time I spent’. This is a good way to improve the effectiveness of meetings, especially after a packed week of remote working, which can often be more tiring than a classic week at the office.

The current situation is an opportunity to begin a profound culture change and to initiate the journey towards agility, if it has not already started.