Scrum Agile Project Management

COVID Changed Agile, and Agile Changed Us

“Responding to change over following a plan” is one of the value of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a disruptive event that caused a lot of changes in the way organisations work. In this article, Hannah Price shares her view on how many employees embraced the concept of agile without even realising it.

Author: Hannah Price, TOPdesk UK,

In essence, to be agile means to be able to move quickly and easily, adapting to the specific circumstances you face. In a year defined by change (2020), many of us embraced the concept of agile without even realising it.

And I don’t mean dodging virus particles while you walked down the street. I’m talking about agility in the way we work.

The notion of agile working was introduced to us around ten years ago now. It adopts core principles that are designed to optimise the way we work, help us to deliver value to our customers and ourselves (through personal and professional development), and encourage us to collaborate. Examples of these principles are ‘delivering value frequently’, ‘face-to-face collaboration’, and ‘reflect and adjust’.

While the core values of agility stand the testament of time, the way it’s used and understood must be adapted. So, yes, agile must be agile. And this was demonstrated throughout 2020 – it’s fair to say that COVID did change agile.

We are going to use the SWOT analysis technique, discussing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to examine how one specific core principle of agile changed in 2020 -face-to-face – after all, collaboration is at the heart of agile and how we communicate drives this.

COVID Changed Agile, and Agile Changed Us

Strength: Providing a platform to pivot swiftly

There are many strengths to agile working, the main strength being: agility. And this particularly benefitted the core principle of ‘face-to-face’ when the world became remote in 2020.

It was both inevitable and a surprise when governments across the globe relayed their ‘stay at home’ message. Those embracing the agile mindset already had a platform of which enabled them to pivot swiftly to the incoming change, despite the shock that came with it. They may have been used to the daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, and retrospectives in-person but being open to new ideas meant that agile teams found new ways to communicate.

The calendar invites to daily stand-ups changed to include a Microsoft Teams or Zoom link. Instead of a Kanban board on the office whiteboard, teams moved their operations online – which turned out to be a fantastic opportunity (we’ll get onto this later).

Face-to-face has always provided agile teams with an efficient and effective way of communication. It allows for back-and-forth conversations and, perhaps most importantly, is focused on people. Therefore, finding a way to keep face-to-face in a remote world was essential for agile teams.

Weakness: Remote just isn’t the same

The ability to quickly adapt to these changes is admirable, but there are weaknesses to our new situation too. For example, does the core principle of face-to-face mean always having to have your webcam on when remote?

Various challenges come with this: Wi-Fi bandwidth issues, sharing a working space with children being home-schooled or other professionals, and simply people not being comfortable always having their camera on.

Face-to-face is truly weakened by our remote world and poses a serious barrier to agile working. So, how can we dampen this weakness? Through going further with our agile mindset and adapting to the circumstances of each team member. This means being open and understanding to the challenges and concerns of everybody and ensuring that even when a webcam isn’t on that face-to-face feeling continues through good, honest communication.

Opportunity: A level playing field

A remote team opens the door to a flurry of possibilities. Collaboration is no longer confined to a space it can truly be done from anywhere. In many ways’ visibility is improved – we can work on documents together, in real-time, thanks to collaboration software. And, ultimately, a level playing field is truly achieved.

How often have you been involved in a meeting where 80% of people are in the room and 20% dial in from elsewhere? Have you noticed it’s harder for those dialling in to have their voice heard and be a part of the conversation? Me too.

Our agile mindset has helped us to embrace being face-to-face remotely and this, in turn, has enhanced the way we work. Now, everybody dials in so we’re all equal in our ability to be an influence on the meeting. There’s no longer a disadvantage to being at home to let the boiler engineer in, or living too far away to commute to the office, or having to travel elsewhere for a business meeting.

And we must continue this in the future, remote has helped us to level the playing field. When hybrid schedules of office and home become the norm, agile teams should continue to dial into meetings when not everybody can be in the room.

Threat: Fatigue and de-motivation

Typically, agile teams have a lot of meetings to align, set goals, review progress, and analyse results. This is key for being able to adjust to circumstances and continue success together. In-person, these meetings take us away from our screens and give us that human contact that we use to energise ourselves.

But for remote teams, this abundance of meetings just means more time at the screen. Therefore, the true threat to agile working, in particular the core principle of face-to-face, is meeting fatigue, de-motivation, and fragmented communication.

Our stand-ups, sprint reviews, and retrospectives are key aspects of agile working and without them, we wouldn’t be truly working in an agile manner. But, we must be agile towards these meetings. For example, perhaps we suggest dialling into the daily stand-up while on a walk. This takes us away from our screens, gives us energising fresh air, but means we’re still able to communicate valuably with each other.

There are always new and creative ways to tackle the threats that we face, and agile teams are best placed to be able to find success in adversity.

Agile methodology and remote teams

Agile working has changed thanks to the challenges brought on by COVID-19, we have recognised and faced new weaknesses and threats, but also seen encouragement with strengths and opportunities.

Stepping away from the specific core principles of agile, one of the main changes for this methodology in 2020 has been the brand-new audience exposed to it. Those previously described as ‘stuck in their ways’ were forced to become unstuck. They had to adapt the way they work to simply keep working.

And perhaps without them even noticing, they became agile. Breweries moved from beer to hand-sanitiser, noticing a demand that was failing to be met. Factories transformed their operations to making facemasks. Small, independent shops took their business online. Bars started offering takeaway drinks and food.

These organisations may not be doing stand-ups and sprints, but they are doing the basics of agile working, simply by reviewing and adapting. The ‘Transforming the Norm’ survey in 2020 revealed that 43% of businesses review the way they work quarterly and 21% half-yearly – allowing them to quickly pivot to situational changes. Just 13% said that they only review annually and 2% never review.

Regularly reviewing how we operate is key to noticing where we need to embody agility. And I predict that this had a huge impact on the ‘unconscious agility’ in the above examples.

COVID changed agile, and agile changed us.

The ability of agile to be agile has meant that despite facing unprecedented challenges, this way of working still proves to be of great benefit to those who embrace it. Especially in the remote and ever-changing world that we find ourselves in today.

Yes, COVID changed agile. But agile changed us and a brand-new audience is now exposed to this flexible way of working.

About the Author

Hannah Price started her career as a service management consultant and has followed her passion to become a thought leader specialising in agile methodologies and knowledge management. At present, she works for TOPdesk UK as an agile coach, driving organisational change on both a process and cultural level.