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Anxiety is spreading as headlines scream louder about the coronavirus’ effects on businesses: Workers and customers are locked down, costing billions that most insurance won’t cover, causing some to shut down completely. “The only thing we’ve ever had which was bigger than that was the  banking crisis,” said Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer at RMS, a “catastrophe risk modeling” company, in an interview with the New York Times. “This is likely a one-in-a-100-year event that we have to live through, and there’s still quite a lot ahead of us.”
Any company working within an Agile framework has an advantage during these uneasy times. Agility requires responding to change and supporting individuals and their interactions to deliver value, not following a set plan. Some businesses are adjusting their work styles to ensure social distancing, helping flatten the curve of new virus cases, and others are coming up with entirely new products to sell (anti-spitting hats, for one).
So if you’re “unexpectedly locked out of the office,” as we’re calling it, now is the time to adapt practices to manage stakeholders and customers effectively. No matter whether you’re remote or in the conference room, the goals remain the same: Keep everyone focused on what matters, keep moving on projects, and keep to financial and organizational milestones effectively (with only a few more gray hairs by the time the crisis is over).
First, the Agile principles apply to your stakeholders as much as your teams. Uncover impediments to reaching customers or stakeholders, review norms and make sure you communicate any changes in process or tools, and foster a sense of psychological safety. That last one is important, to make sure everyone can be honest with each other about their concerns and motivations.
Leaders are under immense pressure to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their teams. Bring that out in the open and encourage collaboration, so everyone can channel those worries in a positive direction. If you’re used to walking down a hallway to talk to someone about a project or getting feedback from customers on a new feature in person, take an inventory of everyone who is involved and consider whether they need to be looped in by different means.
Ask yourselves the following.
- Should we reidentify the stakeholders and customer groups? Who is going to be impacted by the project or decision? What are their interests in the project or decision? Who are the most important stakeholders from whom to get feedback or decisions?
- Do we need a new feedback system? Review communication tools and reconsider instructions on how to provide feedback. Consider creating videos to demo new functionality or the results of a sprint goal. Or set up environments with accounts to let people log in and explore on their own.
- How can we be more transparent? How can we report on decisions to stakeholders outside of the in-person norms?
Then review the Agile principles and keep them in mind while reorganizing around working remotely. Now is not the time to throw out the core values of Agile. In fact, this is when you need to return to them, so you can effectively manage stakeholders and continue delivering value.
Some elaboration on these principles is below, from a remote business leader or Product Owner’s point of view.
- Deliver value by continuing to satisfy your customer or organization’s needs. Find creative ways to reinvent your tactics to make sure you’re still reaching your goals while working remotely. If you have a vision, it should be broad and flexible enough to be made a successful reality via multiple pathways. Harness your teams’ creativity and intelligence to do so.
- Keep feedback cycles short to get continuous feedback. There’s no need to wait until “everyone is back in the office” to make a decision or show results of a sprint or recent milestone. Keep it visible and keep it moving.
- “Business people and developers must work together daily.” To achieve this Agile principle, teams must remain cross-functional, even if they are remote. Ensure stakeholders are heard, respected, and understood when they provide feedback or ask for a new consideration. You need their vital insights to ensure you’re working on the right problems to solve together.
- Welcome “changing requirements” by being willing to renegotiate deliverables and deadlines as well as products and features. What’s a must-have and what’s a nice-to-have? What are the real problems you’re trying to solve? Extra work may not be the answer to a problem. Perhaps a conversation, a workflow change, or honest feedback is a way to make a customer or stakeholder happy, rather than executing a new feature, bug fix, service, or document they believe will achieve the desired result.
- Trust people to get the job done. Your teams are full of smart and capable people. Anxiety about people working remotely does not give stakeholders or leaders permission to micromanage or send multiple emails asking “How are things going?” because they can’t see what’s happening as they walk around the office. Taking that path will significantly reduce productivity, creativity, and product quality, because the team will feel mistrusted and distracted. As we noted earlier, keep work and decisions transparent and there will be no need for helicopter managers.
- Speaking of hovering managers, no surprise bug-fixing fast lanes with stakeholders directly messaging or emailing team members to handle pet projects or fix “urgent bugs” just because they are working remotely. Make sure everyone understands that such distractions will take the team away from focusing on solving important business problems for your whole organization, not just the ones across that individual’s desk (or kitchen table) that day.
- Conversations with individuals are key. Face-to-face conversations may be best, according to Agile principles, but that doesn’t mean those conversations have to happen in person. Keep your same stakeholder or customer touch points, just reformatted into a video chat, a phone call, messaging via Slack, or another tool. They can be just as effective.
- If your end customers or clients aren’t happy with your product or service, nothing else matters. Measure success on the basis of what matters to them and your business, not just what seems more fun, flashy, or exciting. There is nothing worse than working hard on something that nobody wants, that isn’t useful, and that doesn’t meet important goals.
- Focus on what’s important. Keep making goals clear, and communicate them in a few different ways: in text, visually, in a recorded video, and/or on a video call. Ensure everyone understands what they don’t need to do as well as what they do need to do.
Your standards should remain as high as before everyone started working remotely, not just in terms of your product or service quality, but also when it comes to communication, processes, and collaboration. Sticking to your goals while iterating on your process for remote work allows your business and teams to keep innovating and delivering valuable work, even if it’s in the middle of a national crisis and they’re doing it in their PJ’s.
This is the last piece of a five-part series, Blocked from Home: Impediment Resolution for Distributed Scrum Teams, on taking an agile practice remote:
- Locked out of the Scrum Room, Monday, March 9th
- Blocked from Home: Impediment Resolution for Distributed Scrum Teams, Tuesday, March 10th
- Team Norms for Distributed Scrum Teams, Wednesday, March 11th
- Buckle Up! Psychological Safety for Distributed Scrum Teams, Thursday, March 12th
- Locked out of the Office, Locked in on Your Business, Friday, March 13th
Because we are a remote company and an agile organization that generally follows Scrum Inc’s Scrum at Scale program, we think we could be useful to other agile organizations that are finding themselves temporarily working from home during this challenging time. We’re happy to answer questions and provide guidance and assistance as we are able.