Staying Agile in Times of Uncertainty

April 21, 2020

By Emma Hanafin & Erdem Gezer

The Heartbeat of Agility - what Agile can teach us about uncertainty and our new normal

When the dust settles and the global economy begins to heal from this unprecedented COVID-19 shock, the world’s nations, firms and individuals will look to navigate and adapt to this new normal. Many working individuals and families are confronting the challenges of working full time from home while often also caring for children, elderly parents or other family members. This is no easy feat.

We have been forced to reset and as the global pace of progress slows for a period, we have been given the space to reflect on how we live and work. I constantly need to remind myself that this crisis will only be temporary. As we all attempt to reconcile reality from the conflicting and ever-changing stories online, a word that will resonate with many of you is uncertainty. Moving forward through these uncertain times a project management concept that may provide guidance and comfort is Agile.

The core principles of Agile focus on speed and flexibility through iterative incremental work. Small wins are still wins. It also stresses the importance of connectivity within the team and maintaining continuity through open exchange and multi-functional learning. Open communication and feedback are paramount. Any firm, project (or even friendship) that will succeed in a COVID-19 era must adopt these principles.

As we at FD, along with our clients, try and navigate this new normal, the Agile manifesto [1] and mindset really strikes home. The Agile movement was formulated on the publication of the below manifesto and we can certainly use this as a guiding force to how we will work and live going forward.

Through their continued focus on better ways of developing software, thought leaders in the software development industry have come to value;

  1. Individuals and Interactions over process and tools
  2. Customer Collaboration over contract negotiations
  3. Responding to change over following a plan
  4. Working Software over comprehensive documentation

This is not to say the items on the right are not valuable, just we should choose to value the items on the left more. How we mobilize ourselves in this time of change will define how successful we are when we come out the other side.

With these Agile practices in mind, below we outline a suggested framework for project managers and owners, which may help guide them through uncertainty within the project environment.

The Heartbeat of Agility - what Agile can teach us about uncertainty and our new normal

 

Step 1: Define common delivery principles

One of the main disadvantages of working remotely is that teams can lose touch with each other and this often leads to ambiguity and misunderstandings. Remote teams will benefit from working on commonly understood delivery principles. It is important for each team member to have clear principles, objectives and a set of frameworks to operate under. This enables delivery managers to have clearer oversight in ensuring that tasks are delivered towards the common goal. Select the framework most relevant for your project and organization and ensure this is communicated through the teams.

Once defined within the delivery teams, it is important to ensure that small scale testing is carried out to validate deliverables meet high quality standards.

 

Steps 2 – Communicate, Train and Scale your delivery model

Delivering technology or regulatory change often equates to a large volume of individual change tasks. This usually implies a compromise on quality. But adopting fast pace change does not necessarily mean you have to give up on the quality of delivery.

Remote working teams need to adopt speedy decision-making and agree on quality principles to deliver at scale. By starting small you are effectively warming up your team to adjust the new way of working.

Prototyping at this stage and testing work items in the new working environment will provide insights on how individuals interact. This will help you to adjust your thought process and approach and will enable you to plug in missing items/skillsets. This will in turn provide further insights on where quality outcomes can be improved upon.

For streamlined operation and consistency, focusing teams on a common understanding of the problem is key. During team meetings, having consistent vocabulary on issues, risks, deliverables and the plan is paramount to a successful outcome. This will resolve any wastage derived from misunderstandings.

Establishing an environment where knowledge and information moves fluidly through the team will encourage a snowball effect of fast change in the organization. Starting from your team members, explain and train your new norm and delivery principles. Everyone will need to know the role they will be playing, and your expectations from them. Training your team in this new norm is an important factor in scaling and maintaining quality of delivery. This will ensure continued momentum and attract/encourage others to follow.

 

Step 3 – Iteration, Increments & learning from failed attempts

Early feedback, not only from your team but broader audiences as well, and acceptance of changing requirements will help you to ensure the business outcomes are aligned with what the client expects.

Don’t be afraid to fail. The Fail fast and learn fast technique will ensure you’re not continuing work on the wrong path. In fact, give your team room to fail and discover mistakes, which can allow them to grow and improve. This will highlight what you can improve in the team structure too and give you the opportunity to fix the process.

 

Step 4 – Monitor, Observe and Direct

Like Rome was not built in a day obtaining successful high-quality delivery will take time, planning and significant effort. By starting small, finding a common understanding of your delivery objectives, training and communicating with your team and learning from your mistakes, you will be in a much better position to navigate these uncertain times.

Establishing performance indicators aligned with your delivery objective will help you to guide your team to success. Although it is often difficult to identify and formalize meaningful leading indicators when there are uncertain project parameters, a delivery manager should focus on indicators which will best describe the value proposition of the delivery objective. This in turn, will keep your team focused on the end objective. Using lag indicators can be useful too, by providing some certainty based on historical trends. However leading indicators can provide confidence to your delivery model by focusing more on the future state rather than what has already happened.

Remote teams have fast become very familiar to all of us in almost every industry worldwide. This type of work structure is something we’re used to handling at FD. We can resource, scale and execute very quickly in a remote setting and have vast experience in delivering projects under these conditions. We have teams working together from every corner of the globe to ensure fast, high-quality delivery for our clients around the clock.

Saddened by the continued cancellation of sporting events globally, I like to use the rugby approach2 when reminding myself of how valuable the agile approach can be. A rugby team moves down the pitch as a unit as opposed to in a relay. Progress is overlapping and there is a shared division of labor across the team. Uncertainty is minimized by addressing change as it comes or in a pulse. Embrace the change that’s coming and there will be great opportunities for everyone.

Sources:

[1] agilemanifesto.org
[2] hbr.org/1986/01/the-new-new-product-development-game