The new normal – agility in the face of adversity (Part 2)

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Date Published


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14 mins read


Mel Christopher

Part 2: Applying principles of agile

In Part 1 – Agility in context – we outlined why agile is a key construct for organisations operating in the current environment. In Part 2 we turn to an exploration of the applicability of the original 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto for how organisations operate during, and as they recover from the crisis.  

1. (Identify) and then satisfy the ‘customer’ through early and continuous delivery

Whether it’s the NHS, delivering critical care and saving lives, or manufacturers who have switched their production lines to hand sanitisers, masks or ventilators, the crisis has redefined what the needs of the ‘customer’, in the broadest sense, are.

Most organisations are operating at a speed they are not used to – first to identify and then to serve the needs of customers, citizens and employees. All whilst trying to mitigate severe interruption to the delivery of goods and services, new or old.

In some circumstances this may mean re-imagining what the need is in the first place. It could mean rethinking what ‘satisfactory’ looks like. For instance, with lockdown in full swing we are no longer eating out, but there is still demand for prepared food, so quick-thinking eateries have switched from providing meals in a restaurant to fulfilling customer needs via  take-away or delivery services.

Another example is the re-purposing of exhibition centres into field hospitals and retail car parks and theme parks into drive-through testing facilities to provide extra capacity for the NHS.  Few would have imagined that these facilities could spring up across the country and at the speed they have n order to serve the needs of patients. Similarly, in primary care, it’s taken a little over 6 weeks to move from a GP system centred on face-to-face consultations to a model where the majority of patient consultations are now being carried out remotely. The apparent success of this model may mean that as many as half of all GP consultations could continue to be done this way in the future.

In addition, when there is so much interruption to our daily lives, it might mean ensuring continuous delivery for end customers. Around 4% of the UK’s working population are employed in contact centres. By providing these key workers with the right remote infrastructure, technologies and tools, providers can ensure continuity of service to their own customers and the general public.

What new needs and wants could emerge as we move through the different phases of recovery? Organisations that can identify and find a way to fulfil these early will have a head start on the rest.

2. Welcome changing requirements

The new normal has challenged some fundamental assumptions about how we work, travel, learn and socialise. Remote working is one of the more obvious examples that many organisations have had to adapt to, but others, whilst no doubt challenging, have brought about unexpected positives.

Whether that’s seeing your colleagues as real people in their home environment, spending more time with family at home, finding new ways to attend a concert via online platforms, or benefiting from the reduction in air pollution brought about by changing travel patterns, changing requirements provide an opportunity to learn, innovate and experiment, which in turn could lead to unexcepted and welcome outcomes. Extending principle #1, we are likely to see shifts in patterns of behaviour as we recover, which could provide new opportunities for innovative solutions.

In a previous perspectives post, we discussed how organisations could benefit from evaluating different scenarios  No-one can predict what the world will look like in 12 months’ time with absolute certainty, so instead ‘what-if’ type scenario planning becomes a real asset for helping to explore potential new paradigms thmight emerge from the crisis.

Embrace changing needs because the reality is that, whatever industry you are operating in, it’s going to look different when we emerge from this pandemic.

3. Deliver frequently, with a preference to the shorter timescale

One thing we have learned is that in a crisis, time is an even more precious commodity than usual. Whether that’s the delivery of urgent critical care, researching potential vaccines, or making decisions to protect employees, a bias towards action has become more important than ever. You need a system that can make decisions in hours and days, rather than weeks or months.

Perhaps through re-pacing how we work we can achieve more. Organisations that are able to adopt a ‘sprint’ mentality look to break down complex problems and attack them as bite-sized chunks. This allows the team to deliver valuable outputs in more regular time-boxed intervals, versus storing up delivery risk as a result of working towards a distant milestone. Shorter timescales also provide more flexibility to pivot if requirements change, new information becomes available or unforeseen opportunities emerge (see principle #2).

One example of this culture of rapid response in action is the increasing use of low-code platforms that deliver applications to support the well-being of employees and customers during the COVID-19 crisis. These have shortened the time from idea to test to scaled roll-out to days versus weeks and months in some circumstances.

In an uncertain and volatile environment, responsiveness and speed of delivery will only become more important.

4. Work together daily

Establishing a daily rhythm or drumbeat is a key feature of many successful organisations – it provides the guardrails, structure and focus on objectives that decentralised teams need to deliver.

The crisis has forced many to switch to operating a highly distributed workforce. With a significant number of people now ‘home working’ daily checkpoints, whether formal meetings or informal check-ins, have become invaluable to maintain contact.

This is especially important when a situation might be changing daily, or even more rapidly. Business continuity planning can help to ensure maintenance of operations and capabilities as a situation evolves. Frequent clear and consistent communications are invaluable to help cut through noise and speculation. We’ve seen many organisations and governments put in place daily briefings, using both live broadcast and digital channels to disseminate information.

There are also significant mental and physical wellbeing challenges to be acknowledged as a side-effect of the pandemic. Establishing a daily rhythm and structure can help employers identify who needs support, and help employees to manage uncertainty.

5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done

In Part 1 – Agility in context – we mentioned some of the world’s leading companies and how they have embraced many of the principles of agile organisations. Perhaps one of the most consistent features amongst these thriving businesses is the creation of teams of highly motivated people, focused on achieving a common goal, supported by the trust and resources they need to achieve that goal.

Successful sports teams, such as the New Zealand’s All Blacks, or England’s Commonwealth gold winning women’s netball team, created organisations based on the principles of taking responsibility, adapting to the changing environment and being motivated through purpose, autonomy and the drive for mastery.

Similarly, in the midst of the current crisis we’ve seen amazing examples of highly motivated people coming together to form teams to get the job done. Whether that’s the mass mobilisation of workforces across our public sector or the remarkable examples of collaboration as part of the global research effort in search of a vaccine.

It’s worth re-emphasising that the best skills for the job might not actually be within your organisation. Looking to the wider ecosystem and collaborating with partners to tap into the right talent and assets could deliver more value, more quickly, to customers and clients. Co-creation rather than origination will hopefully be a welcome legacy of the pandemic response.

6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information is ‘face-to-face’ conversation

There’s an obvious challenge here given current social distancing rules, but face-to-face communication has evolved significantly in the two decades since the Agile manifesto was written.

Face-to-face doesn’t have to mean physical proximity anymore. Platforms such as Teams, Hangouts or Zoom are now good enough to replace many physical meetings. Examples include the House of Commons making moves to keep the wheels of government turning through a hybrid model, firms of all sizes switching rapidly from office to home, and media organisations broadcasting high quality content from their front rooms and bedrooms.

However, that’s not to say there won’t be value in coming together in the same location. The new normal is more likely be one where we embrace more hybrid ways of working, using technology to improve how we communicate, removing unnecessary travel and facilitating better collaboration. Perhaps one area where we have been thrust far quicker into challenging the need for daily physical presence is in education and wider learning. Remote learning doesn’t have to be distant, and we are now starting to re-imagine what education looks like across all ages.

We should also recognise that, just as in face-to-face conversation, there will be differing levels of comfort with communicating via remote technologies such as video conferencing. This makes it all the more important to consider how remote meetings are facilitated to ensure all have an opportunity to participate. There is also something to be said for switching on the video feed when we communicate via remote platforms – whilst it might feel uncomfortable, it can also help to humanise the technology.

7. Working “<insert output>” is the primary measure of progress

That’s not a typo. Whilst working “software” is the primary measure of progress in agile software development, organisations that get hung up on trying to always achieve perfect will move slower than those that aim for ‘good enough’.

This isn’t an invitation to ship poor quality product or services or cut corners. It’s a principle around being able to make a judgement call on whether there truly is additional value in delaying sharing an output with a colleague, user or customer, versus releasing something that works in order to get the feedback you might need so you can make it even better. Indeed, the Standish Group Chaos Report has reported that agile Projects were on-time, on-budget, and satisfied customers 1.6 times as often as Traditional Projects (42% vs 26%). Part of the reason is early engagement by users with some form of working output to support early feedback and course correction.

This test and learn approach is the driving force behind many organisations that have built successful digital businesses (Netflix, Airbnb and Google have all had success on the basis of being willing to experiment).  At its heart it’s a scientific hypothesis driven approach to developing and testing ideas. If the idea doesn’t work then there are no sacred cows – the team is empowered to kill it, and at the same time take their learnings into another endeavour.

Iterating on a good enough version with a customer or client can to be more valuable than delaying – rather than fail fast, organisations can learn fast.

8. Sustainable development: You should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely

Burning yourself or the organisation out is not going to help in the long run. Whether it’s 14 days of self-isolation, 3 months of remote working or 2 years of operating in a recessionary environment, you can’t sprint forever. Individual and organisational fatigue is real, and rest and recuperation are important for individuals and organisations  alike in order to take stock, recharge batteries and think.

In a crisis allowing time for disconnecting becomes even more important, especially when the physical divide between home and work no longer exists for many. This might mean proactively building firebreaks into how we operate, such as dedicated time for thinking, or actively reducing the number of meetings.

But won’t that make us less productive? In fact, the opposite could be true. Amazingly there could be signs that in the midst of the crisis, productivity may well not  suffer as much as we might think. If we look back to when the three-day week was instigated in response to the recession of the mid-1974, analysis suggests that productivity actually improved. Whilst capacity was estimated to be down 40% as a result of a shorter working week, figures showed production only fell by 10-20%. Similar and more recent experiments have also challenged the idea that working more equates with higher levels of productivity. Last year an experiment by Microsoft at one of its Japanese subsidiaries found that reducing the workweek by one day led to a 40% increase in productivity compared to the same time period the year before. And there were additional benefits in terms of cost savings on utilities consumption and office costs.

Almost 50 years after the mid 1970s recession, while the work we are doing is quite different, could the decisions we take about the way we decide to work now and in the future support improved productivity?

9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility

Don’t sacrifice design and quality for speed. This may sound like it contradicts principles #1, #3 and #7, but it doesn’t – going slow to go fast may be a far smarter thing to do, especially in an increasingly complex world. If you focus time up front on the details and mastering the skills required, then you’ll be more likely to go much quicker and make less mistakes once you start.

Novel prize-winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, famously wrote about the positives and negatives associated with thinking fast (also known as system 1 thinking – intuitive, unconscious, effort-free) and thinking slow (system 2 thinking – conscious, deductive and requiring significant effort). There are many benefits to system 1 thinking in certain situations, for example, being able to drive a car or walk to work seemingly without thinking. However, if we’re always sprinting, and relying on operating in system 1 mode, then we could be more prone to making system 1 errors, such as introducing unconscious bias into our decision-making. This may mean we miss system 2 driven opportunities, brought about by considering a wider array of options or scenarios.

Practical ways to subvert a reliance on intuition could manifest as taking the time to ensure alignment across a team before embarking on a new project or taking 5 minutes at the start of a meeting to provide clarity on the objectives, agenda and desired outcomes.

Amazon’s preference for detailed written memos read by teams at the start of a meeting in silence, versus jumping straight into bullet pointed presentations without first ensuring common understanding, is one example of overtly providing colleagues with the space and permission to think before speaking.

10. Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential

This principle is deceptive. Simplicity is tough and doing it well takes real effort (and a healthy dose of thinking slow / system 2 thinking as in principle #9).

At a time when there is so much noise in terms of endless data, potential misinformation, limitless scenarios and unknowns, how can organisations decipher signal from noise, and how can they remain authentic to their core purpose?

It does appear that the organisations who have a succinctly framing of their core purpose and values, and who have been laser focused on delivering against this purpose during the pandemic, have been able to make positive decisions at  pace. Examples include Best Western hotels repurposing hotel rooms to provide accommodation for medical key workers, low-risk patients and at-risk individuals, and in doing so living up to its values of service excellence and being a good member of the community, or Dyson inspiring a new generation of engineers as they design a new ventilator.

One potential outcome of living by this principle may be the ability to pivot or reinvent the organisation whilst staying true to the overarching purpose or mission. This may mean, for instance, dispensing with non-core assets or operations for the sake of focus, so that an organisation is leaner and able to run at the pace we’ve talked about in principle #3. It might also mean getting better at saying no. Apple is notorious for its focus on detail, famously reengineering intricate mechanisms and components in its mission to combine great design and seemingly simple capability as one of the world’s most successful technology companies. But it is also world class at saying no in order to achieve focus.

11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organising teams

At its core this principle stems from trusting those who are closest to the problem to figure out a solution. There is significant overlap here with the intent of principle #5 regarding trusting and empowering motivated individuals.

An example in the current crisis is how we’ve seen medical practitioners collaborate to design optimal patient flow in new hospital facilities, such as the NHS Nightingale facilities, or the amazing progress we’re witnessing in the vaccines space.

Coming out of the crisis many organisations will need to rethink their business models and change how their organisations operate. To do this effectively will require multi-disciplinary teams focused on evaluating different scenarios and building new products, services and structures. Top-down command and control style hierarchy is unlikely to deliver progress at the pace that is needed for survival. Trusting multi-disciplinary teams to deliver end-to-end solutions may be a better path to take.

12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly

This final principle speaks to the idea of building in time to reflect on what has worked, what hasn’t and then make adjustments.

As an organisational principle this is an activity that is often paid lip service or overlooked as a non-critical project wash-up activity. In reality there is much to be gleaned from retrospectives. This complements the ideas discussed in principle #9 regarding different modes of thinking and allowing the space and permission to reflect more deeply on decisions and their consequences in the hope that learnings will be valuable for the next endeavour.

In some ways this principle is useful for understanding how all organisations are coping with an unprecedented situation – whether that’s how our leaders might learn from reflecting on how other countries and cities are controlling the spread of Covid-19, or how our organisations can think through the different options for emerging from lockdown over the coming weeks.

For the most part we are in unknown territory so ensuring that there is a level of evaluation based on facts and previous experiences, could be critical for informing what comes next.

Moving beyond Principles

The 12 principles outlined in this paper have hopefully served to provide both useful examples and timely stimulus for how adopting a some of the principles of agile could support organisations as they move beyond reacting and responding to the crisis, towards reimaging what the post Covid-19 versions of themselves might be.

In our next and final part in this series –  'Part 3 - How to Start your Agile Journey' –  we turn to the practicalities of starting your journey towards becoming an agile organisation.