Five key agile learnings for businesses during Covid-19

Assaf Tayar, managing director and WESA Regional Lead at BCG Platinion

25 February 2021

The last 11 months have passed at a crawl, and yet it is hard to believe that for nearly a year – a whole year – the world has been in the grip of Covid-19, the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 flu.

You do not need me to point out that our lives, in all aspects, have been irreparably changed. And even when the events of 2020 (and, most likely, of 2021) have been forgotten, the impact will still be felt.

The working world has perhaps changed most significantly. Teams that were previously working face-to-face were suddenly forced to work apart; the traditional lines of communication and collaboration rendered asunder. We have all been forced to find new ways of working, new processes to rebuild old efficiencies, and new methods to stay productive.

And while the business world has long been focused on digital transformation, our own research of financial institutions found that 83 percent of companies show no sign of slowing down, and in fact plan to accelerate digital transformations.

I speak from experience: we are currently working on a project for a large European utility company that is transforming its financial core systems (bringing in SAP S/4HANA). Luckily, the project was set up before the first round of lockdowns, giving us time to bed in operational processes and build a solid foundation which could ensure that the pandemic, while certainly impacting the timeframe, did not derail our work.

It was, however, still a challenge. And based on our experience over the past year I would like to share some insights into how we overcame the difficulties associated with the world’s abrupt shift to remote working.

Empowerment of teams

We have worked hard to ensure that all our teams feel empowered to take most decisions themselves, with minimal need for time-consuming alignments outside of the team – something which, even with in-person collaboration can be a lengthy process. And we found that when working remotely, it became nearly impossible to organise effectively.

Of course, this isn’t always possible. And for long-term principle decisions that require alignment with other functions, we have put in place systems that allow these decisions to be taken and ratified in a timely manner, with a decision board coming together on a bi-weekly basis in which teams get senior leadership backing for their proposed solutions. Though this is needed only if a significant development expense is necessary for implementation.

Empowerment in our case directly translates into the delivery speed of the individual teams. However, be aware that with the empowerment also comes additional responsibility for leaders of virtual agile teams: they need to ensure that the goals of the teams remain realistic and that the teams do not overstrain themselves.

(Painful) transparency

While teams are empowered to set priorities and make decisions themselves, program management requires the teams to keep their backlog and plans updated in a central system.

In a traditional workplace, where issues can be flagged up (and often fixed) without any need for a long-term record, complete transparency is easier to achieve – working alongside one another, we are aware of all the hiccups, disruptions, or sticking points. When we are separated, this becomes more challenging and team members can fall in silos, unaware that they may be duplicating work, as they produce solo solutions to the same bugs.

Applying agile KPIs, such as monitoring the teams’ velocity with the help of burnup charts, makes issues visible immediately, and enables program management to support those areas of need promptly. While this administrative burden is often called out by the teams as cumbersome and annoying, it helps the overall program to resolve issues early, balance resources more efficiently, and secure long-term success.

Cross-functional teams
 
Most of the skills required to deliver value are present within our cross-functional teams, which makes them self-reliant and autonomous. There are few external dependencies, saving the time otherwise required for alignments, which will certainly take longer when working remotely.

On the other side, topics which by nature require stronger central coordination and are therefore not fully anchored in the agile teams, such as migration and testing, started struggling when we moved to remote working. More formal communication as well as longer-term planning were required to get those topics outside of the cross-functional teams back on track.

Iterative approach with predefined ceremonies
 
One thing that the pandemic has stripped from us is our usual routines. We found that once we were able to develop new routines, we instantly added a sense of structure back into a project that was, amidst the wider world’s uncertainty, at risk of becoming unmoored.

Agile ceremonies with a predefined schedule have provided a strong anchor point against which we can centre our work, giving us a known and familiar foundation in a world where so many things are new. The ceremonies reflect the need for increased communication of virtual teams: frequent, short alignments to ensure that everyone within the team is up to date with the latest developments. This priority calibration is done in every sprint planning and the progress is inspected in the demo meeting.

What’s more, the use of digital tools such as digital scrum boards, online retro boards, or virtual scrum poker supports those formats well. Paired with video conferencing tools, teams are now nearly as efficient as they were in person, with reactions to what is being able to be shared instantly.

Inspect and adapt
 
Finally, if the pandemic has taught one lesson it this: be ready to change!

We found the best way to do this was through conducting retrospectives both on a team and on a program-level, looking to ensure that any shortcomings in the way of working are identified frequently and addressed immediately.

Other tools – such as pulse checks, telephone interviews and anonymous FAQ sessions – complete the picture. This enabled us to quickly counter challenges that came up concerning remote work (e.g., scheduling key meetings, addressing personal concerns, such as receiving special access to get into the office buildings throughout the lockdown).

Happily, for our team, the pandemic has not ruined our hard work and effort: we are right on track to deliver and have reached nearly all of our targets despite the disruption.

At its heart, our solution has centred on proactive planning, constant communication, and pre-emptive crisis management. We have survived – and perhaps even thrived – in a less than ideal situation. Crucially, the application and implementation of agile principles within both our working practices and overarching project structure has given us the support and freedom needed to follow our original plan with a comprehensive contingency plan for anything this surprising, unprecedented, and challenging year can throw at us.
 

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