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The worldwide effects of COVID-19 have been unprecedented. In a short timeframe, life as we know it has been changed. Things that we took for granted are now a ‘distanced privilege’. Despite the challenges, many positives have emerged. We can certainly applaud all of the ways we have adapted in these challenging times, proving that human beings have abilities to be much more “agile” than we might otherwise acknowledge. 

A Fr'Agile' Mindset

Quite surprisingly, many organizations are still trying to deliver projects using a traditional, waterfall-like approach. The managers are planning and budgeting multi-year projects, executing lengthy analyses and design phases, and moving deliverables to production only at the end of the project.

In a time where the industry paradigm, customer needs, and financial markets are changing daily, this approach will end up making the organizations “fragile,” trying to catch up with the changing world, spending big money and still not providing real value to the customer. Every organization must adopt a lean-agile mindset to survive, revive, and thrive in this environment.

 

It is a truth in today’s world: You are either “agile” or “fragile.”

agile-or-fragile

As people practice being agile in their daily lives, it becomes easier to apply an agile-mindset to our businesses. We know the benefits of agile delivery and today more than ever, embedding agile into your organization will give you an advantage over those who do not.

We want to share four critical lean-agile principles that are increasingly relevant given today’s tumultuous business landscape:

1)    Decentralize decision making and promote collaboration

Problem: The current environment has created a surge in distributed teams with limited mechanisms for collaboration.  As teams adjust to working remotely, they are also having to adjust to delays in decision-making.  While management is dealing with priority responses to the pandemic or remote infrastructure upgrades, team members are finding it increasingly difficult to get a timely response on essential decisions or clarifications. This delay adversely impacts team productivity, which may not be immediately visible due to the traditional nature of the delivery.

Solution: First and foremost, empower the team. Provide them with the autonomy to make crucial decisions inside their areas of expertise. As their leader, define the goals, share the vision, and then let the team self-organize, plan the tasks and make the decisions required to reach the objectives. Make a servant leader available (such as a scrum master or a coach) who can facilitate the team execution and lead by example towards the desired behaviour.

Promote team collaboration and interaction through as many channels as possible. The team should get together using the communication tools available for exchanging ideas, sharing knowledge, and overcoming  physical separation to the extent possible. The principle here is to unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers through collaboration and decentralize decision-making.

2. Establish a rhythm and welcome changes

Problem: When market conditions change, like those that we are facing now, new risks emerge and reassessing expected outcomes from projects is a must. The project goals, timelines, and resource availability changes constantly, and organizations may struggle to adjust the course of their projects.

Cycles of continuous planning can impact the team morale adversely as new plans cause them to change direction, abandon work, or start new work mid-way between their already planned deliveries. They may feel that everything done up to that point was a waste. You may hear the phrase, “we are churning.” How do organizations reduce this havoc? Organizations require a systematic and disciplined approach to reap the full rewards of agile implementation.

Solution:  Agile mindset promotes teams to welcome changes rather than sticking to a plan. An important principle that encourages adaptability is to break down the work and execute it in small sets inside short time-boxes. By defining a short-term horizon, the managers can limit detailed project planning to these time-boxes, which is easier to control and manage. The team, along with the manager and other stakeholders can review priorities, scope, and deadlines after every time-box and decide new directions to move forward. The project becomes much more flexible to handle market changes.

Establishing a repetitive, rhythmic cycle also has an immense positive psychological effect on the team. It creates a definite sense of normality that helps the team to stay focused and develop confidence in quick wins.

3. Build incrementally and collect feedback frequently

Problem:  With limited collaboration comes the crucial challenge of task management. Since the day-to-day work of the team is nearly invisible to the manager, they are always worried if every member has enough work or if they are working on the right priority. It’s not uncommon to see managers address the “enough work” issue by assigning a large number of tasks to each member and then following up through long status update meetings. However, assigning many tasks implies anticipating long-term decisions that can restrict your solution set too early and create higher costs. It is also detrimental to the project’s success because it includes multiple assumptions.

Solution: The solution to this problem also lies in the agile principle mentioned above - breaking down the known work into smaller pieces and deliver them in fixed time-boxes or iterations. As part of each iteration, the team picks up a selected list of work that provides tangible value and completes these in the given time-box.

Here, an important aspect is to understand what “value” stands for. Value is not completing a piece of document, a code module, or the design of a user interface. Value implies something that gives the business a return on their investment, such as additional revenue, new market share or optimized internal operations. Lean-Agile frameworks promote the mindset of building value incrementally by delivering shippable pieces of the whole product, service, or solution. This model not only ensures that the team is working on the highest priority every time but also enables the project to “show & tell” results to stakeholders and collect their feedback through the product review ceremony. This early feedback is a vital step for enabling the continual improvement or “Act” portion of Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA cycle, which can reassure the team that the project is heading in the right direction. If not, then they can adjust quickly without losing too much time and effort. During the cycles, the Scrum Master will have the responsibility to keep the work flowing through quick follow-ups. By introducing have a 15-minute daily standup (or video chat) is an excellent way to capture progress and any blockers that they need to resolve, without sacrificing much worktime of the team.

4. Inspect, adapt and learn

Problem:  How does a change in your team environment impact productivity and efficiency?  Many things can cause a change to the team environment.  Consider a few examples:

  • When several team members need to take sick leave at the same time
  • Changes in product strategy require new skills
  • Scope has to be reduced because of a lack of funding.

How does your project or organization adapt?

According to PMI’s 2018 Pulse report – Success in Disruptive Times, fewer than one in ten organizations reported having high maturity capabilities for value delivery, which reinforces the need for having processes that enable your business to adapt to market dynamics and continue to be valuable.  

Solution:  Agile frameworks fervently promote continuous “inspect and adapt” principle. Teams are continuously encouraged to find better ways of working and delivering value. Agile frameworks promote multiple processes and metrics through which management, team and other stakeholders can assess results and provide feedback. One such method is the Product Review ceremony, where the team shows their working software to all stakeholders after each iteration and collects feedback from them. Another standard process is the retrospective ceremony, where the whole team gets together at the end of each iteration to reflect, think out of the box, and have an open discussion about doing things in a better way.  They use questions like the following to guide the retrospective meeting:

  • In the last iteration, what helped/blocked the team from reaching the iteration goals?
  • Did the team try anything different in the last iteration that they want to continue/stop doing?
  • Does the team need new skills for improving work efficiency?

These two events are key to enable the PDCA cycle over the entire delivery process and the artifacts it produces. It forces a mindset of relentless improvement that is integral to continuous learning, operational efficiency, quality, and innovation. Barry O’Reilly wrote in his book Lean Enterprise: How High-Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale that successful enterprises are “continually experimenting to learn what works and what doesn’t.”

 

In conclusion, by combining the agile mindsets and lean-agile principles described above, your team and subsequently your organization, will develop a pragmatic capability required to survive, revive, and thrive in this unsettling time where nothing seems predictable.

Not adopting this methodology should no longer be an option because if you are not agile; you are fragile.

Part II of this blog will provide a few pointers on the environmental changes that you may need to adopt these agile mindsets and philosophies.