Agile In A Pandemic

(Reposted from the LinkedIn “The Future Is Agile” Newsletter)

On paper, Agile teams are best suited for what we all have to face now. If not already remote or distributed, then most prepared to become so without too much faff and fuss. Added to that, existing Agile ceremonies are oftentimes already online and every part of the work is digital. Better news still, no one is thinking it’s a fringe joke some teams insist on anymore or if they do, it isn’t evident as the nay-sayers have thankfully been removed from sight.

Except for two insidious facts. One practical and perhaps solvable – feedback and one theoretical and much harder to sort out – morale. These two have the potential of transforming teams that were truly Agile at heart and turn them into Agile-by-numbers. To roll back years of work on a new way of thinking and transform it into a mechanical way of working. Turn it from the spirit of building amazing things into mere process and what a tragedy that would be!

On the first topic, I often bemoan how easy it is for all of us to take shortcuts in lieu of being religious about tight loops of feedback that keep us firmly focused on what the customer resonates with even in “peace times”, but in his new reality of ours, the ability to be religious about it is even more reduced. With remote working, many teams find themselves further from their end consumer than usual, with little if any mechanism to sincerely and deeply poll them. Worst still, if they were relying on some kind of other internal mechanisms to collect that feedback for them, those teams are likely to have been considered non-essential and possible even let go by the business who sometimes regards asking the end client as a nice-to-have luxury not an imperative. 

There are Agile teams everywhere today who are plodding along with existent Backlog features with nay an inkling of what to do next or whether what they are making now is the right thing and no way to test and MVP much of anything. As a result, they are becoming less experimental and incremental by the day. 

The reason I said it was perhaps solvable is that I think it’s time for Agile teams to flex their autonomous muscle and truly take control of regaining or even designing their feedback channel. I’ve seen teams in the past two weeks, spending time on figuring out how to do that, what it would mean for their particular squad or chapter to go out and find out how their intended client feels about bits of what they are making right now. Not what they were supposed to feel before the pandemic and definitely not what the team thinks they think but real, valuable, honest reactions. Gold. 

So consider parking your normal release aspirations and going through the grind of the existent tickets and instead take a sprint to hack how to go back to the basics of questioning everything you can, with the humans you are making this for. 

The second one is far harder to solve for: Morale. Or really, the difficulty of tapping into the resources of passion we all have. It’s undoubtedly a horrible time for everyone in so many ways that it doesn’t bare re-listing them all. What that means though is that we are collectively more stressed, less open, weary, grieving, tired beyond belief and a little dumber. 

If your job is balancing numbers on a spreadsheet it probably doesn’t matter much if you’re run down and ran out of any reserve of enthusiasm for what you’re doing for the time being. There’s a temptation to think that writing code should be the same thing, people should just get on with it and they oughtn’t need to be powered by any fluffy constructs around motivation and so on. Obviously, anyone who has ever been around developers knows that’s false and what they do is oftentimes more art than science and requires them to be really creative, therefore be at their best to manage that. 

Same goes for anyone else required to apply themselves fully to the task – the writers, the strategists, the artists but the difference is that their jobs may be a lot less team dependent whereas developers need a solid foundation of Psychological Safety -and morale is one of the components of it- to achieve great things. 

This isn’t about fluffy employee engagement issues but about how paralysing and performance-killing a sudden drop in Psychological Safety can be in particular for Agile teams where the need for flexibility, resilience, courage and morale are at the basis of every interaction and reflect directly into the difference between average velocity and extraordinary results. 

People can’t be productive and they can’t be high performers if they will open up less, they’ll impression manage more, they’ll share less, they’ll fear more, they’ll learn less, they’ll cover up more. Ask less- care less. And on and on. Nothing good ever comes from such a downwards spiral and even teams that seem to be muddling along, for now, will start to stumble and eventually stop delivering altogether. 

So if you’re a team leader of an Agile team – no one envies you at this point!- don’t get distracted by the move to remote song-and-dance because there are two things you can’t afford to take your eye off: getting back to basics on getting real feedback and obsessing about whether your team manages to retain heart and keep their existent levels of Psychological Safety. 

We can help with the latter – either by our COVID response offer below or just by looking at our tips and videos on the Chasing Psychological Safety series– but the former will take hard introspection work and coming up with new ideas because in a world where value has to be extreme, not creating any by not asking the client just won’t do. 

Stay safe, stay sane, stay Agile!

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Don’t send your teams home with a laptop, a Jira and Slack account and a prayer!

As a tech company passionately working on ways to create psychologically safe teams whatever their location, we at PeopleNotTech have been considering the role we can play in supporting teams in light of COVID-19. We all have to keep thinking of the work-family aka the team and the ways to redefine work in the digital playing field with an emphasis on EQ and we rapidly have to find ways to turn that into a comfortable and efficient reality for all of us.

If you’re preparing a team for remote working and want to kit them with the right tools to manage this, we are offering:

1. An extended trial of the Psychological Safety software i.e. we have opened up accounts to your teams for a period for free so your people can express how they are feeling (in particular in these anxious times) and so that team leaders can quickly assess their team on topics such as Morale, Resilience, Courage, Flexibility, Learning, Openness, Empathy and more;

2. A “Stay Connected” questions pack designed specifically for teams who are transitioning to remote working; 

3. A free 1-on-1 online EQ crash course for your team leaders to help them support their now remote team confidently.

It is painless to get anyone up on the software – there is no implementation, set-up, extensive training or data needed, teams can be using the work tool within hours. Reach out to us at contact@peoplenottech.com and tell us more about your working-from-home efforts and readiness in light of COVID-19 and we’ll do our best to help.

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