Back from the Outside: Agile in a COVID world

I took a long break there, not just from this blog but from being fully immersed in Agile teams and organizations. Life threw some curveballs that I couldn’t hit, and distractions began to pile up. In many ways though, time away gave me a fresh perspective. Being on the outside of the struggles of Agile adoption,– the chatter and hustle, the endless debates around scaled frameworks, the commodification of common sense–all came into sharper focus with a little objectivity. The positives too took on a deeper meaning. Elements of our Agile mindset have the potential to permeate just about everything we do when we have to accomplish something in a complex or even chaotic environment. While there are many examples (some of which I’ll write about in future blogs), there is one that is a bit timely.

This COVID-19 world we are living in has mobilized groups to try and solve all kinds of problems–how to keep employees safe, how to build a process to eventually return people to work, and how to keep businesses running. Those that acknowledged that they were starting from a point of chaos and needed to “stabilize” their efforts by turning the challenges into only a matter of high complexity have been much better able to respond to the twists and turns of COVID-19 evolution. Those who tried to use a rationally-based “checklist” approach suffered. A global pandemic was on no-one’s Business Resilience or Disaster recovery playbook.

As it turns out, borrowing some elements of an Agile mindset served people well:


  • Break the work into smaller deliverables so you can detect, early, if your attempted solution is working
  • Set expectations accordingly and be transparent at all times
  • identify your customer’s goals and either make you product help them, or help them understand how your product helps them
  • Leaders are product owners when a “project” is about the people they lead and the company they work for
  • be mindful of burning out your response team, work at a sustainable pace

I could go on, but you get my point, all of these things are wholly or in part, principles of Agile; however, they are also just good clear fundamentals of leadership and of business when time is short and complexity is long. They aren’t unique to Agile. Nor are they without worth if they are adopted in isolation of some of the other practices of the Agile framework.

I have been fortunate– (in that I have been able to remain gainfully employed while working from the safety and comfort of my own home)–enough to work with a large number of teams on their responses to this pandemic in the last few months as they sought to protect their company’s associates, and I can say, not once did we talk about Agile as our framework. I never gave them an “overview” or short training on the Agile manifesto. Instead, we responded.

We story-mapped our initial tasks at hand. Why? we needed a way to get our arms around all that needed to be done and have a clearer picture of cross-team dependencies.

We broke work into a type of kanban board to put some structure and flow to our early responses. Why? It was the fastest way to get work started.

As time progressed and the initial churn subsided, the effort morphed into short term deliverables. Why? Global pandemic response was not something anyone had any experience with. An empirical approach was our only option

Constantly on everyone’s mind were our customer’s goals for success. Why? Because our actual project was to ensure that our “customers”– i.e associates–were able to feel productive, creative, and autonomous. Easy-peazy, lemon squezy right? Well, it turns out that a global pandemic works almost exactly counter to that. People question their productivity and even the perception of their productivity. The steady input of negative news has a built-in detrimental impact on creativity, and finally “autonomy” jarringly gets switched from something a person builds towards through self-direction into a basic expectation.

It was a challenge. It had a short (writ immediate) timeline. It had a massive customer base.

But something reassuring happened. As leaders got better at prioritizing what needed to be done, the more the chaos and noise of meeting needs went down. How did they know to do that? They landed on that approach because of the heightened attention to what had to be done–  less chaos, thrash, and noise, the more efficient the teams became at delivering those solutions. They delivered, observed, and adjusted.

If, as an Agilist, you encountered a team or organization that was doing everything I just described, would you call them Agile? If not, what would you call them? Do we need to call them anything but excellent at their jobs?

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