“As the water hole shrinks, the animals look at each other differently.”
– African proverb
As I listen to the daily deluge of discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, “unprecedented” is the one word I hear the most.
Most of us, if not all of us have never, ever experienced anything like this.
What started off as light-hearted barbs directed at toilet paper hoarding fear mongers has turned deadly serious.
The pandemic and our response to it has spread to every aspect of our lives.
- The way we think
- The way we behave
- The way we play
- The way we work
- The way we are
It’s forcing all of us to take stock and stock up for what some believe is a clear and present apocalypse.
The rainy day we’ve been saving up for has arrived. But, it’s turning into a monsoon of epic proportions. A global burning platform that’s bringing civilization to its knees. A loud and unmistakable punctuation point at the beginning of a new decade.
A Black Swan?
Risk and uncertainty sage Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term “Black Swan” to describe highly improbable events. Black Swans possess the following 3 attributes:
- Rarity? Unpredictably rare.
- Widespread Impact? Massive and extreme implications.
- 20/20 Hindsight? Predictable and explainable in retrospect.
Is COVID-19 a Black Swan?
- Attribute 1: Check ✔️
- Attribute 2: Check ✔️
- Attribute 3: Check ✔️
How Have We Responded?
Like businesses and countries activating their continuity plans, we’ve each had to activate our own personal continuity plans. It feels like we’re all acting in unison – unprecedented.
Core to those plans are “social distancing” and “self-isolation” which have become the catchphrases of the year.
For those of us espousing Agile ways of working, it may feel like an insurmountable blocker.
“How can we practice Agile ways when we’re all apart?”
No more face-to-face interactions. No more collocated teams. No more pat on the back appreciations.
“What are we to do?”
It feels like doom and gloom, but it doesn’t have to. During the first full week of social lock-down, I’ve noticed and observed many hopeful signs.
Here are 6 reasons why I’m optimistic about the future of Agile ways in the face of this black swan.
Responding with People
People are at the heart of Agile ways. And people will be the X factor during this pandemic. Their spirit, resourcefulness and resiliency will be the difference maker in whether or not Agile ways survive.
- Reason #1: Absence makes the heart grow fonder (Sextus Empiricus). The farther apart we get, the greater will be our urge to come back together. A team whose members were all working from home lamented on their new work arrangements:
“I miss being collocated and being able to look up and ask anyone, anything anytime.”
“I wish we could still play games together over lunch”
- Reason #2: That which does not kill us, makes us stronger (Friedrich Nietzsche). This pandemic has burst all our familiar bubbles and is exposing us to the raw complexity and chaos around us. I feel like we’ve entered “The Upside Down” world in the Netflix series, “Stranger Things”. The sweet spot of Agile is its ability to respond and adapt to change. I’ve observed people striving to find unconventional ways to carry on and overcome the challenges in this new normal. At one enterprise, teams and individuals working from home are having to manage their remote network bandwidth by restricting the hours that people can access the system.
“No problem, I’ll just adjust my work hours even if it means getting up at 4:30am”
- Reason #3: No place to hide. Agile ways value openness and transparency. People issues that existed before the introduction of Agile become glaringly visible under an Agile lens. The visibility magnifies when team members are remote and can accelerate the binding or busting of a team. One Scrum Master remarked last week,
“The team seems to be coping with this remote way of working. Everyone with the exception of one team member who is very negative and critical of the remote working arrangements. His attitude was problematic to begin with. Now it’s escalated to a point that I may need help from others to deal with it.”
Responding with Process
If I had to pick one Agile Manifesto principle to amplify during this crisis, it would be principle #5.
“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
This has always been a call to action for leadership. The remote teams and individuals that social distancing has created are relying on this leadership action more so now than ever before. Three words summarize the key leadership actions needed.
- Reason #4: There’s no going back. We haven’t come this far in our teams’ Tuckman journeys to come undone. Going back isn’t an option. The old world doesn’t exist anymore. Agile ways of working are in our DNA. What I see leadership providing is the support, process flexibility and resources necessary for teams to remote work effectively. Trust was already a hurdle with self-organizing teams. Add in the remote aspect and the hurdle has become a pole vault. If leadership makes the pole vault jump, trust will be stronger than ever.
- Reason #5: I once was lost, but now I am found (Luke 15:10). With the remote working arrangements, I’ve actually seen more attempts by teams and individuals to connect and collaborate with each other than ever before, albeit virtually. It’s as if we’re rediscovering our faith and super powers in the Agile values and principles. Kinda like renewing wedding vows. Remote working has given us an opportunity to go back and strengthen our understanding and appreciation for the basics of the Agile Manifesto.
Responding with Tools
When it comes to tooling to support Agile ways, I’ve always preferred low tech over high tech. Give me post-it stickies and a physical board over Jira any day. That’s all changed with this pandemic. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
- Reason #6: Time for tools to shine. Having contributed this past week to a team using remote work tools to help teams work remotely has changed my perspective. It was a blast and so much fun using a combination of Zoom, Mural and Google Docs to collaborate, interact and coordinate virtually. It was almost as good as physical interactions but good enough for our purpose. It was a great opportunity to learn and add to our Agile ways toolkit.
In the end, in the words of a Persian adage,
“this too shall pass”
and Agile ways will be stronger for it.
Perhaps even anti-fragile.