It has been around a year since the Covid-19 pandemic, and its impact is still being felt across the globe, both in homes and in workplaces.
With no end seemingly in sight, there are still news about forced closures on business, big and small all the same – whether temporarily or permanently. To date, the pandemic has mutated and continues to ravage countries, some of which are either ill-prepared to deal with it or out of their depths.
And when countries struggle, what about businesses? The pandemic has shown how unprepared/non-adaptive organisations were – from something simple such as providing VPN access to work from home and finding new ways of working remotely to overall instituting a method to continue business as usual in a resilient manner. Things that, in hindsight should be simple enough to execute were apparently not.
Over the past year, business models were tested as shop fronts and traditional markets declined. While in the time since it first hit, businesses are a little better at adapting to the situation, this shift came with many challenges and obstacles. In some cases, it was stubbornness or a general apathy to adapt to a new culture, an Agile culture.
But over time, this pandemic has taught businesses that adapting to change, being agile and innovative is fundamental to economic survival, sustainability, and resilience.
Agility has arguably never been more important than it is now. It is also not a trend, to be used to weather an unpredictable situation and discarded when no longer needed. Agile is a permanent decision, a commitment not just to be more productive and efficient but to internalise positive mindset and culture in any organisation.
Companies are adapting to obstacles and gaining lost ground
COVID-19 may be the toughest challenge in a long time but in some aspects, it has forced necessary adaption and evolution. Brands need to survive and even big brands struggled at the beginning. The truly innovative however, saw potential in diversifying their product line-up without compromising on the business.
Luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Zegna and Prada are some
examples. Instead of focusing on manufacturing typical consumer products, these
luxury brands started to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The
French fashion house, Balmain, introduced a virtual showroom
where consumers can view the Cruise collection with an immersive experience.
Even beauty brand leaders such as L'Oreal and Shiseido have added hand sanitisers as extensions to their line-up. This was a smart move to produce on-brand products in response to the global situation.
The lockdown and restricted movement directive may have curtailed some social habits, but technology has come to the rescue of sorts. Retailers , including small businesses, are relying on technology for space on digital platforms. While the physical store may truly never disappear, what is likely is that the hybrid online/offline experience will become more crucial.
After all, buying an item is ultimately a tactile experience and for
many people, being able to try on a pair of shoes or article of clothing is not
just part of the experience, but a necessary step in the decision-making
process. However, a digital store or marketplace may in fact become the first
part of this process; allowing customers to view and select at their
convenience items they are interested in.
Some apps allow customers to upload a photo of themselves and
scroll through various attire imposed over their photo much like in a virtual
showroom. Technology has allowed organisations to adapt faster. Technology’s
role in our lives will only increase over time.
As a result of the pandemic, one other aspect that's influenced how technology is changing how we do things is that online gatherings have become part of our new social norm,
and so has the way people stay healthy. The explosion of online fitness
training is an example. Along with it, interests in cooking and other domestic
endeavours that we wouldn't have time for previously.
Medical teleconsultation is another example of how traditional business models have had to either pivot or add-on a new means to engage with their customers. Technology has been a part of our lives for a long time but if anything, this pandemic has shown that being a part of our life isn’t enough.
Especially for businesses, the need to think digital first is most assuredly a key factor.
Adapting to the new normal by being agile
Agile is not new. Many companies right up to the start of the pandemic may even declare that they’ve been ‘doing Agile’. Yet, there is a fundamental difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ Agile.
In this article, we mentioned the pandemic have tested how adaptive or Agile these organisations were. It was a pressure test at its most grueling. And for companies that were ‘doing’ instead of ‘being’ Agile, cracks were made more apparent as a result of COVID-19.
In the Agile Manifesto, it is made clear that to be Agile is to be adaptable to change and to value customer collaboration. An Agile organisation is focused on always delivering value to its customers first. This may or may not be an innovative new product. It’s entirely acceptable to focus on providing additional value from existing products and services so long as it is done in the interest of the customer.
Agile is ultimately a sort of governing body to ensure that the company commits to being customer/human-centric in whatever it does.
So, while the new normal may be digital first, the best way to adapt to any given situation isn’t to re-learn how to do Agile but rather how to properly be Agile.
Culture is a big factor, but it is also a difficult thing to quantify. When someone says Agile culture, what do they mean?
Agile culture fosters an ecosystem whereby employees have a safe environment to fail and to learn from that failure to continuously improve. It’s about training people to accept that failure is a natural part of success and to give them the confidence they will need to go through this.
But as remote working has become the norm, then arguably the most important aspect of culture would be providing employees with autonomy to decide and own their work while empowering them to self-manage. In a remote-working situation, this can be the difference between staff working happily to deliver consistent results and growing stressed, frustrated, and uncommitted.
It has been documented in various articles and forums over
LinkedIn, Medium and other social platforms about how some CEOS dislike
remote working because they’re unable to keep an eye on their staff.
By definition, this is the antithesis of Agile.
In an Agile team, everyone is accountable for the overall work done. They contribute to the overall goal, own their slice of the work but succeed or fail as a team. Trust and collaboration is indispensable in being Agile.
While Agile also puts face-to-face interactions at the forefront, since remote working is the norm, it creates challenges but doesn't contradict Agile's values and principles. Simply said, we work around the impediment without comprising on the integrity of the Agile values.
Recognising effort and empowering team members goes a long way to instilling a sense of ownership in one's work. When one is invested in their work and can take pride in what they produce, the company benefits because employees are self-motivated and high performing.
This occurs regardless of working in a physical office or remotely. If you don't have this culture and mindset in place when you're working in a physical office, shifting to remote is only going to exacerbate the situation. The solution is to embody Agile, totally.
Transition is a routinely used term when "all things tech" is discussed. Embracing change is not an easy task. It takes effort and time, but it's a question of risk and reward, of time and investment. An organisation and business need to equip its people with the necessary tools and support to ensure that they can adapt and embrace change with as few roadblocks as possible. And if there are roadblocks that continuously affect the work being produced, a weekly or bi-weekly retrospective will help uncover these impediments.
Agile enables this by putting forward an iterative and incremental process over a traditional waterfall method. This prevents companies and teams from locking themselves into a deliverable, with little to no room to manoeuvre and empowers them with the courage to make necessary and, on occasion, sweeping changes to the product according to customer and market feedback.
More so, Agile encourages transparency in the organisation, free of scrutiny and judgement. It is meant to foster a positive working environment where employees are engaged and empowered.
This is a difficult change to inculcate but a rewarding one when done right.
A customer fit product/service
A product is only in demand if it satisfies the end-user's needs. Customers’ needs should be the focus and how this is communicated at the various levels within the business itself is important. User experience, therefore, is a high design priority.
The other priority is the customer’s feedback. Agile's collaborative
and self-organisation principles allows for continuous improvements, unencumbered by large documentation or a rigid development cycle. This enables allows
the team to make quick pivots upon consumers' feedback to create a
customer-first product or service.
According to Microsoft's 'State Of Global Customer Service Report', 77 percent of consumers view brands more favourably if they seek out and apply customer feedback. In July 2020, Microsoft launched
several products under the brand Dynamics 365, customer relationship management
and Enterprise resource planning applications. One of its notable products is
Dynamics 365 Customer Voice, a real-time customer feedback tool.
Microsoft General Manager, Brenda Bow, said that capturing
real-time feedback is more important now than ever as people are moving online
during the pandemic. "It is designed to empower businesses and
organisations to build better products, deliver better experiences to customers
and really build the relationships for the customers with that feedback
Rome may not have built-in a day, but with the right design thinking methodology, that process of creating easy-to-use tools can be accelerated. It reduces the guessing game of what the consumers may or may not like.
To test the prototypes and further refine the product
concept, consider organising online sessions with focus groups and using
interactive online tools such as Mentimeter to do a survey in real-time and present
results immediately to the participants or Miro which is an interactive whiteboard
type tool that allow collaborators to simultaneously work on the same project
on the same page using various in-built features such as graphs, post-it notes
and much more.
Such tools have made online collaboration not just easier,
but fun. There is a learning curve of course, as with most things, but these
tools have a positive contribution to working from home within and across different teams.
A sustainable pace of delivery requires the teams to have sufficient autonomy and time to work on their projects. Using Sprint Goals to align members, a Product backlog to keep work transparent and tracked are good and necessary steps. Timeboxing is just as important. This governs the amount of time a team or individual will spend on any given task.
Timeboxing also implements fixed timing for activities such as meetings or presentations. As these work activities can often occur at the risk of that day's productivity, timeboxing and adhering to it will go a long way toward ensuring that the day is spent well, and the individual's time is respected.
Timeboxing is challenging but entirely necessary as it seeks to minimise situations where trivial meetings are conducted and hours wasted as a result. Traditionally run or non-Agile companies usually fall afoul of this practice as staff time are held ransom by meetings that can go on for hours. This limits the actual time employees have to work on projects. It is especially egregious if those meetings occur without an objective and are little more than extended discussions that end without anything resolved.
People have been using Zoom fatigue as an association between
the issues of working from home and working in the office but in reality,
whether on Zoom, Skype or in person, a trivial meeting that overruns is an
issue. We shouldn’t pretend that this situation is a recent occurrence and a
result of working from home. Yes, there are unique challenges for both but endless unproductive meetings whether remotely or in person is exhausting.
In an Agile organisation, meetings have a clear objective and the people involved are collaboratively participating. They are timeboxed as well and as long as people respect the timebox and more importantly, adhere to the objective resulting in actual action plans being produced, then time isn’t wasted, and meeting fatigue shouldn’t happen.
In addition, the transparency element of Agile encourages employees to share what they’re working on and any updates during daily stand-ups and weekly catchups.
This keeps everyone in the department or organisation abreast of what’s being worked on and more importantly, the help that is required. Long meetings as a result can become occasional and time spent on producing PowerPoint decks, equally minimal.
To be fair, it is entirely possible in an Agile company or department to fail to timebox. It is a human element that requires a disciplined, concentrated effort to respect the timebox.
Being able to adapt to suit needs requires a fair amount of flexibility. For example, there will be projects where the delivery time is set, but another feature of the product needs to be delivered simultaneously. As such, it's essential to know where one can be flexible and where the boundaries are.
In Agile development, usually the most important feature is released. This is called the MVP or Minimum Viable Product. For example, the MVP of the Grab app is to enable passengers to get a vehicle. In the future, this product once it has been tested in the market, added food delivery services. But at the start, it was a focused development to release the MVP.
Scaling back certain features of a product is reasonable if time and budget is a constraint. Having good foresight is also advantageous in anticipating potential issues. How does this fit into being flexible? If you're not locked into a tight development schedule, it's easier to pivot on customer feedback.
Being Agile and developing iteratively also frontloads the key features of a product. Meaning to say, if resources are limited and work on the project has to be minimised or stopped altogether, you'll still have a working product with its most important features already released.
Collaboration is the buzzword these days, but it is not a new thing. Collaboration has seen a sharp rise in adoption, arguably due to the advent of new technology and tools in communication that have capitalised on the shift to remote working. A cross-functional team can accelerate problem-solving, the materialisation of ideas and more.
A cross-functional team is also necessary when for example, embarking upon a Design Sprint.
Having a specialised skill set is a valuable asset, but you can learn, widen your perspectives, and understand the project's nuances from other specialists with different functional expertise in a cross-functional team. Collaboration is not about merely working together. It is about growing together and working towards the same goal, reaping the fruits of labour, and learning from mistakes as a team.
For collaboration to be effective and successful, there is no room for egos and individualism in an agile team – only trust, respect and transparency with one another. These three key factors can make or break the team's dynamics and, ultimately, the project's outcome.
Individual decisions made need to be in line with the common business goals. Transparency happens at every level, not just within the departments. When there's visibility, people are more inclined to take ownership of the work and organise themselves because they want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
To be clear, this isn't a method to publicly hold anyone accountable. Some organisations use this to hold tasks over the heads of the staff, but in the agile way of working, it is merely an update, so everyone is aware of concurrent projects and are aligned on the business objectives.
Does being agile start from the top?
A crack being exposed time and again during this pandemic is that of an organisation's weak foundations. Every aspect of a business is critical in ensuring the enterprise’s ability to ride out through the most challenging climate. Each needs to complement the other, and when tough times hit, everyone must be resilient together. That is the true hallmark of a solid foundation, and for this to happen, it begins with the leader.
The leader of an organisation or business should establish a common, practical direction, followed by everyone. The C-suite, or the executive managers, plays an integral role in propelling organisations towards their goals. Culture as such breeds success.
According to the findings of a Forbes Insight Survey, a study
partnered with The Scrum Alliance on 'Agile Leaders and Agile Transformation
success,' 87 percent of around 1,000 executives surveyed view the CEO as the
primary and foremost proponent of organisational agility. 35 percent point out
that the corresponding responsibility rests on the firm's top guy.
With 65 percent of survey respondents agreeing that culture will be an asset to a firm, and 66 percent considering that agility is a vital component of their company, the creation of a collaborative and agile C-suite will fulfil an organisation's bid to sustain its tech-driven and customer-focused outlook, especially in the new normal.
The top-to-bottom management approach is more than just a
traditional culture in most organisations. The CEO is the company's role model.
A good leader can nurture a working culture and environment where
collaboration, willingness to adopt new technology, constant product
improvement, and employee skills development can propel the organisation to
Agile does require that all segments of the company are
So, while it is important for the leaders of the organisation to spearhead and encourage Agile adoption, for it to be successful, it requires the support and willingness of the entire organisation (or department).
Change is what successful companies undergo
The primary key element to reiterate at this point is the need to embrace opportunities, even in adversities. To continue and pursue progression, management must institute a culture of encouragement.
Here are five takeaways to take note of:
- With challenges everywhere, going remote is an avenue that organisations worldwide can no longer ignore. This is the new norm. Teams inevitably need to integrate the approach into their process. To ensure that staff are aligned and able to work within what the company dictates requires some direction from Human Resource (HR). This is why HR plays a vital role in a company's journey toward agile transformation. Finding the right people, implementing the best practises, and providing well-rounded support to colleagues are just some of the ways HR drives and supports the organisational change. Without an Agile HR department in place, the company's journey toward agile can be difficult.
- Companies should nurture what they intend to practice. There is no magic formula to lift companies to new heights. The concept is to master things that matter so that projects are launched successfully. This means having to institute the necessary frameworks to create sustainability be it in product development, innovation or services. There needs to be flexibility in evaluating and improving products rather than huge documentation and a deployment pipeline that runs for years.
- Companies cannot rest on their laurels, and team members cannot be complacent when products are launched. The way to go is to improve and make adjustments to update the products to keep with the constant change of users' demands and needs. Products and services shouldn’t remain dormant. Always listen to customer feedback and act on it. Improve and innovate to stay up to date with industry trends.
- Collaborate often. A combination of talents and total support can get a good job done at the soonest possible time and work to be done becomes easier to accomplish. When members take on the roles responsibly, and with many hands on deck to help, project and product results can be met.
- Leaders should promote a sense of value. Embedding trust throughout an organisation encourages everybody to attain projected goals as a team. When management trusts their people, great things can happen. Likewise, a culture of transparency brings team members closer to each other. When individuals get respect and acceptance for what they bring to the table, it breeds a positive impact on project development.
With the world always in transition, so should the solutions and applications be in everyday life. We must always plan as if the next obstacle or challenge is right around the corner. Only then, can a company build the resilience and put in place the important processes and frameworks to deal with what comes. This is done with Agile.
For agile to be adopted successfully in an organisation, it may start with the leaders, but it certainly doesn’t end with them.