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COVID-19 and Agile


A fresh perspective on uncertainty, complexity, empiricism, and flow and what to do about it.

The COVID-19 pandemic gives us plenty of opportunities to think about uncertainty, and complexity, and how to deal with those using Empiricism.

When it comes to our work in Agile teams and organizations, the first thing we need to acknowledge is that the first thing that happened to most of us is that we tumbled all the way down from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs top levels down to the bottom – to our physiological needs. At the time we’re hoarding Toilet paper is probably not the right time to talk about Self-actualization and esteem or Mastery and Purpose if you want to use Dan Pink’s intrinsic motivation model.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs - Wikipedia

In parallel to this tumble, many of us were still expected to continue with the business as usual of running Sprints and Program Increments. Some of us were even expected to adjust courses to help our organizations deal with the impact of COVID-19. After all – this is what business agility is about isn’t it?

When I ask my students, clients, and friends in the agile community, the majority say that the importance of agility has gone up significantly, while actually being agile has become harder due to the physical distancing we’re all facing combined with additional responsibilities at home we have to juggle.

I find that the first step towards dealing with this new reality is acknowledging it. A tool I like to use to acknowledge uncertainty and complexity around WHAT we should build and HOW to do it is the Stacey Matrix.

Current times bring to the front a somewhat neglected axis of the model – WHO are the people on our team/group and what kind of interactions are they having? If the WHAT/HOW dimensions range from simple/known all the way to uncertainty and lack of agreement, when we look at the WHO aspect it’s about how effective are the interactions between the people. You could look at it as how far along the Tuckman model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) they are. Drawing the three-axis it kind of looks like an uncertainty spider/radar.

Many of my clients are facing increased uncertainty around WHAT to build. All of them are facing teams, groups, and ARTs that are back to Storming or even Forming from a team/group dynamics perspective because so much has changed in how they collaborate.

Moving from in-person interactions when you can have a certain level of focus throughout the work day to the limited communication bandwidth we’re getting when physically distant from our teammates combined with some challenges focusing, mean our implicit/explicit rules of engagement/working agreements aren’t necessarily working well for us anymore.

So what can we do? You can start by making this reality transparent. Talk about the uncertainty spider and its dimensions with your team. Self-assess where you were before the pandemic and where you are right now. Start a discussion about what to do about the differences/changes you’re facing.

Some concrete steps I’m seeing teams take are to run a team health self-assessment, discuss adjusted working agreements for a work-from-home environment, re-evaluate forecasts/commitments – e.g. by taking another confidence vote with the entire team (or Agile Release Train) and replan as appropriate.

Generally, historical velocity is even less predictive during this significant shift in how we work. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) definitely applies. Some teams take on less work into their Sprint and pull in more work if they see they’re doing ok.

Some teams see so much volatility in their Product Backlog that they shorten their Sprint Length because planning too far in advance doesn’t make sense.

Other teams focus on Goals for their Sprint rather than a detailed Sprint Backlog. (Teams I’m working with that are leveraging Kanban/Flow practices are more likely to think this way by the way).

Teams aware of their WIP (Work in Process) are starting to see the bigger picture of everything that is in the process – not just the work on the team but also whatever’s going on at home and in life in general. When they do that they realize that it might make sense to reduce the WIP because we’re suddenly juggling more things while working.

The Daily Scrum becomes more important for many teams because they’re not sitting next to each other anymore and they lack the natural osmosis that happens in a team space. Some teams have multiple Scrums a day. Other teams set up an ongoing live video conference while they’re working individually which reduces the overhead of reaching out to team members and allows for a fun vibe of togetherness. Other teams use real-time chat rooms like Slack or MS Teams for this. Virtual Happy Hours. Watercooler Zooms.

Are all of these good ideas? Many of them will probably turn out to be good practices in the right context.

The important thing is that these agile practitioners acknowledge that things are different and that even during these stressful times and maybe especially during these times it is important to use an empiric process of seeing what works, and what doesn’t, inspecting and adapting while keeping the spirit of collaboration, transparency, empiricism, and flow in mind.

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