Agile is touted as one of the best, most important work methodologies, but how does it apply during the pandemic? In what ways is it relevant (or not?) through a crisis like the one we’re facing brought on by COVID-19?
Actually, the agile mindset and methodologies have a lot to teach us about how to work most effectively when we’re working differently.
Born out of software development in 2001 with the development of the Agile Manifesto, agile has become super popular now. Companies seeking speed, innovation and greater customer focus have prioritized agile work not just for IT departments, but for functions across the organization. In fact, companies that embrace agile most comprehensively throughout their organizations are the most successful.
The agile mindset has significant benefits at any time, but these are especially impactful during this period of uncertainty. There are a few reasons why:
- Agile provides rhythm and cadence for work. When things are ambiguous and nothing feels certain, agile provides for regular patterns to move work forward. Whether you’re doing a virtual daily stand up with your team or reviewing your work together each week, these rituals are positive for your state of mind and bring a sense of much-needed normalcy.
- Agile allows for quick shifts. When organizations need to make quick adjustments to priorities, approaches or the content of work, agile is especially well-suited. Use the agile method to “deconstruct” work—break it into small units—to accomplish it one piece at a time. Completing tasks bit by bit provides the opportunity for more in-course corrections. When situations change—as they do regularly through the coronavirus crisis—agile allows for easy shifts because work has been planned in smaller portions and over shorter time horizons.
- Agile is empowering. Another hallmark of agile is teams and team members who make decisions in the moment rather than asking for permission or waiting for managers to weigh in. Within agile, servant leaders provide a shared vision and support team members as they fulfill it. The ability for team members to make the necessary calls as they work through projects helps ensure speed and responsiveness to customer needs. With the COVID-created pressure on many systems to react even more quickly than usual, this kind of approach makes sense.
But how can agile be relevant in today’s largely work-from-home condition? A primary characteristic of agile is team members who are able to be in close proximity with tight connections and plenty of face-to-face interaction. While this may seem impossible with most people working from home, it can still be accomplished. Howard Sublett, Co-CEO and Chief Product Officer of the Scrum Alliance, an organization of 1.2 million members who create products using agile approaches, including Scrum, recommends teams keep their video and audio on as they’re working together. He says everyone needs to commit to focusing on the work of the team. With intentionality and commitment, virtual connections work just fine.
In addition, when all members of a team are remote, it can actually help the interactions. In situations where a majority of members are in a conference room and others are remote, presence disparity can get in the way, privileging those in the room. When all team members are calling in, it can facilitate the collaboration because it equalizes participants.
Time-box your work. Establish a fixed maximum time during which you’ll accomplish key tasks. You’ve heard it before, “Work expands to fit available time.” Time-boxing sets limits on timing for tasks and helps ensure nothing takes longer than it should and there’s a sense of urgency around the highest priority tasks.
Inspect and adapt. Constantly inspect your work for quality and adapt accordingly. Partner with a team member to monitor your work output and make course corrections as necessary. This kind of constant feedback and improvement ensure customers—both internal and external—get what they need even as conditions are constantly changing.
Pause and learn. Agile reinforces the need for reviews and retrospectives. Rather than checking a box and rushing to the next task, teams are encouraged to pause, reflect and ensure they are constantly learning and adjusting as necessary. This kind of level-headed evaluation and adaptation are especially vital during this crisis in which nothing seems predictable.
Take a simple, ordered approach. Agile empowers teams to make the next right decision again and again. Things can easily become overwhelming. One solution is to make a list of all that must be accomplished, prioritize it and take one thing at a time. While this may seem simplistic, it’s a smart response to our human need to feel in control. “A simple, ordered list can bring a sense of calm and clarity,” says Sublett.
Henry Ford is purported to have said, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Unfortunately, he viewed people as interchangeable and was focused more on efficiency and less on empowerment. Agile is the opposite. It is “supremely human,” according to Sublett, and creates the conditions for people to bring their greatest talents and thinking to complex problems.
Agile can help us succeed today, and in the new normal post-COVID. It is especially valid because the world is no longer based on individual work and the agile mindset embraces teams. Our current conditions require a calm response to complexity and agile empowers us to be our best in the face of uncertain times.