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Pandemic Response: Succeeding with Agility

McKinsey recently published an article that differentiated between ‘agile’ organizations and less agile ones. They highlighted that there was a large self-reported difference between business units that used agile approaches compared to those that did not. In the article, they also noted characteristics at both the team level and enterprise level that helped agile organizations […]

By Paul Boos

November 05, 2020

McKinsey recently published an article that differentiated between ‘agile’ organizations and less agile ones. They highlighted that there was a large self-reported difference between business units that used agile approaches compared to those that did not. In the article, they also noted characteristics at both the team level and enterprise level that helped agile organizations outperform their less agile counterparts. They closed with three steps to consider for the new, post-pandemic normal. They left out common agile practices and how these relate to improved organizational effectiveness.

Before I dive into practices Excella has found to be helpful, ones we have used for our own pandemic response, please remind yourself of the Agile Manifesto’s values and principles. I’d like to also point out that there is a hidden 5th value in the preamble; “uncovering better ways” is very much a statement of continuous learning.

Team-Level Practices

McKinsey noted that team-level ceremonies and events allowed teams to focus or swarm on necessary work. They also noted that teams restructured their work; they used the word restructure, but suggested it was just reprioritization. They closed with a discussion of the vanishing need for co-location with the adoption of good collaboration tools. The Manifesto’s principle of face-to-face communication is what they were addressing in that section.

From my experience, events, ceremonies, cadences, and other practices that allow you to focus or swarm are created through working agreements that the team adopts through consensus. The article neglected to mention the importance of these working agreements at the team level. Good working agreements establish the cadences of ceremonies and feedback the team uses on a regular basis. Without them, team members may participate half-heartedly or pay lip service to focus.

High performing teams establish these working agreements as they launch and periodically revisit them to drive continual improvement. The team I was working with when we went remote held a workshop to determine how their agreements would change. We made some small changes to planned events to account for our new circumstances.

Beyond establishing events and cadences, good working agreements will determine patterns of behavior and define how team members will work with each other, including how they will use the collaboration tools at their disposal. The team with which I worked made significant changes in their approach to collaboration tools. Previously, we used them sporadically but knew we would rely on them much more once everyone was remote. In our workshop, we focused on what we would miss by having fewer face-to-face interactions and discussed the use of emojis to relay emotions. When were colocated, we could rely on body language to convey our emotions. Being conscious of our new limitations AND recognizing that most communication would simply take longer allowed for a smoother transition to remote working.

Interestingly enough, this team’s backlog of work didn’t shift due to the pandemic. Other teams at Excella did reprioritize their work. These shifts also relied on good working agreements that facilitated the inclusion of customers or business representatives so they understood how to work with the team and the team knew how to communicate their changing perspective.

As we discussed these patterns with colleagues in other companies and industries, we observed that teams with a proven track record of delivery had an easier time with these changes than those that had not been delivering consistently. This shines a light on the fact that technical practices allowing frequent delivery of working software are very important. Establishing a mindset of continuous delivery with sound testing practices appropriate for the system you’re building really is essential; it has impacts far beyond the software itself.

Enterprise-Level Practices

McKinsey highlights the ability to rapidly realign priorities and create transparent outcomes as the key elements in making organizations more agile. They also mention that having cross-functional teams will help.

The ability to realign priorities comes back to two main questions:

A clear, shared understanding of what the organization is trying to accomplish and why it’s important will help clarify how everyone can contribute. If executives and managers at all levels can articulate this purpose and vision, or, even better, co-create it with their staff, they will get more enthusiastic alignment and engagement. Periodic workshops that help team members envision what they can do to meaningfully align priorities around an organization’s purpose and vision enable this co-creation. These sessions also produce a feedback cycle that allows management to sense when these priorities may need to be updated. When priorities needed to shift because of the pandemic, the most successful organizations involved staff in the reprioritization. There are a wide variety of complementary visualization techniques that can be applied to this challenge.

This brings us to outcomes. Desired outcomes were more effectively reprioritized when staff were involved in the decision-making and knew how those outcomes would be measured. Outcome-based performance requires a two-way street. Management needs meaningful ways of understanding performance, while team members need transparency into ‘why’ an outcome is needed and how it will be measured. Staff and management regularly reflecting together on progress toward desired outcomes will gain insights into how to improve their performance more rapidly. Organizations that had established this mutual understanding adapted to the pandemic much faster and much more effectively.

Organizations that delegated decision-making downward also tended to work better together. When people went remote, they gained an increased sense of autonomy. For some organizations this was unintentional. Old-fashioned micromanagement became more difficult. Where enabling constraints were established through effective high-level direction and delegation, managers didn’t need to worry about their staff going off the rails. These organizations already had a track record of allowing decisions to occur at lower levels. One technique that can be used to foster clarity around this is Delegation Poker; it helps establish boundaries for specific types of decisions and improves shared understanding.

Reopening Post-Pandemic

McKinsey provides three general steps that should be followed to effectively reopen: Reflect (systemically), Decide and Commit, and then Embed and Scale. While generic, they roughly follow what good management-level retrospectives would do. To be really successful, organizations will need two key skills and an underlying practice.

To systemically reflect, we need data (preferably unbiased) on our system. Not only quantitative data on performance but qualitative data regarding interactions between people and their workflows. Observation skills are necessary to gather this data and report out factually on what happened. It is important not to judge whether what happened was good or bad, helpful or not helpful; quantitative data on performance will cover that. Organizations often bring in external or internal coaches to perform these observations and permit more open reflection on what has happened.

Gemba walks are another good way to make observations; in a virtual world, they become extremely difficult. If management doesn’t already have a regular habit of going to where the work is occurring, they need to realize that it will take some time before they can to begin to visualize what is truly happening because of the Hawthorne effect, the tendency of people to change behavior when they know they’re being observed.

Once data is ready to be evaluated, good facilitation skills are needed to uncover assumptions, check biases, develop alternatives, make decisions, and develop action plans. Again, coaches are often used in this role, though any facilitator that has the ability to stay true to the facilitation kernel can perform this work.

An underlying practice for encouraging effective learning and improvement in an organization is to define and refine a set of principles that staff and teams can use to absorb the lessons from these retrospectives and make decisions about how to move forward. These principles serve as enabling constraints for the delegation of decisions and overall organizational improvement. We saw this occur in the initial reaction to the pandemic and we’re seeing it now as organizations adapt to ongoing remote work.

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