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‘Sorry, I Was on Mute’ - How COVID Made My Teams to Be More Agile!

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Sorry, I was speaking on mute’; ‘I think you are on mute’ – The two most used phrases of 2020 and possibly 2021 too.

Our lives were just as normal as it can be. March 2020, World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak, a global pandemic. This affected the world in many ways. PWC Global called it as COVID-19: Impacts to Business. As well as serious implications for people’s health. COVID-19 (coronavirus) is significantly impacting businesses and the economy.

Most of the IT Service Providers across the globe are finding their ways of working to keep the lights on during the testing times. Like any other organisation, we were sailing in the same boat. It was new, it was confusing, and it was never thought of.

Before I go into the details of how we embraced the new ways of working as an Agile team during these testing times, let me take you through a few key traits of a high-performing Agile team:

  1. Understand the Vision of the product and services while taking it from Ideation to Market

  2. Being small

  3. Team Self-managing

  4. Accept failures gracefully

  5. Continuously improve

  6. Be Cross-functional as much as possible

  7. Think as 'ONE' team and focus on delivering value, keeping individual achievements aside

  8. Stop, look back and learn

  9. Be collaborative/communicative

Now, coming to the way my teams inspected the situation and adapted to it. Initially, we had our hiccups around Infrastructure, logistics setup to enable teams to work without any impediments continuing to deliver business value every time. However, with each and everyone in the organisation, sharing the common purpose (Vision) to deliver value and the leadership backing you, and your teams, these hiccups looked miniscule.

The next step for the teams was to get accustomed to the environment and maintain the continuity of sustainable delivery.

Here is my attempt to draw parallel lines to those traits on how this situation made us go more Agile.

Understand the Vision of the product and services while taking it from Ideation to Market

As stated above, the organisation had a clear objective and motive to serve our customers, irrespective of Covid’s entry. That made it easy, as the same energy percolated down to the teams. Each person within the teams believed that they are responsible for the greater good of the organisation. Being in a service-based organisation, it is extremely imperative to deliver value, be it developing a product or delivering a service to your customers. With our folks working from home, it was crucial for team members to understand the big picture, and not just the component or task that they were working on.

Being Small

While the teams were trying to perform and be agile in terms of being in small teams, it was a challenge as they had dependencies within themselves, which made it difficult to split the teams.

However, during working from home scenario, the teams realised that being in those large groups was just increasing the dependency and delaying the decision making, in turn putting a dent on value delivery. So, the Scrum teams collaborated and came to an agreement to split the teams to enable effective communication and to bring the cohesiveness. This slight tweak in team construct worked positive to us to thrive better.

Team Self-managing

We have many Agile experts talking about self-managing teams as one of the parameters to call a successful Agile transformation. It is easier said than done.

Teams will have to go through the journey themselves, fail in between, learn from it, turn those into successes. Again, this is easier said than done.

This is a culture that needs time and a change in the mindset to accept failures.

Accept Failures Gracefully

As the great Mahatma Gandhi once quoted, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes”.

Agile is all about learning from your mistakes and adjusting your behaviours accordingly. Our teams did just that. They were often put in tough situations, sometimes tough timelines to go after. There were times they failed yet, were backed by their leaders with empathy due to the situation at hand. The way these situations were managed within the organisation, built a strong trust and belief between the teams and the leadership.

Accepting failures gracefully over a period of 15 months slowly turned into a habit, and eventually became a culture of the organisation.

Continuously improve

The word ‘Kaizen’ gains more power than ever; the word ‘Kaizen’ means Continuous Improvement in Japanese.

Agile means empowering teams. You move the command and control from the middle management to the teams, to make their own decisions, evolve their ideas, convert them to customer value. While this process is in progress, there are good chances that the teams may make mistakes.

In the effort of empowering your teams, you tend to miss the point of letting them fail or allow them to make mistakes as you will always have a double-edged sword of delivery.

This is where we build the safety net of continuous improvement. Encourage teams to experiment, and to learn from it, to adjust their behaviours.

During these 15 months, teams stumbled upon many bumps on their way, and found better ways of adaptation like:

Logistics - The importance of home internet, phone lines, enabling videos, muting and unmuting your calls is realised now. With folks moving to their native towns, villages, cities, teams had their own challenges to overcome before they got stabilised infra/logistics in place.

Teams have tried to keep their motivation levels high all the time, by changing the workplace at home often, a change in place is a change in perspective.

Time zone – With folks working in the office, aligning with the time zone difference is fairly easy. However, with the work from home setup, it becomes exceedingly difficult to cope up with the time zones.

Meetings – Meetings while at home can be incredibly stressful as you are not sitting with the person in the same room. So, it is always good to keep a constant check on the occurrences of meetings. Cut down unnecessary meetings if they are just there as a formality.

No meeting is fruitful if there is no trade-off from it.

Silent hours – During these testing times, it is so quite critical for all of us to remain fit physically and mentally. This in turn helps to increase your productivity, due to the continuous flow of dopamine into your brain. It is easier said than done.

We adopted the concept of silent hour, where no meetings to be scheduled during this time. You can utilise this time to go for a short walk, spend some time with your family, do some breathing exercises or even take your pet out for a quick stroll.

Virtual Social Gatherings – Mental agility is at paramount importance with you not stepping out, meeting your teammates, going to your office cafeterias. Instead, we replaced those with social gathering virtually once a month, talk about anything but work, with of course a pint of beer in your hand :)

Find ways to capture CSAT – Agile teams revolve around Customer Satisfaction and Business Value. With teams, business key stakeholders at office, it was easy to understand the pulse, the feedback from them and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

With the situation at hand, we found our own ways of capturing the feedback from our key stakeholders, in terms of holding integrated increments, sending frequent surveys to assess the quality of the product etc.

Be Cross-functional as much as possible

For me, cross-functional means keeping your communication between teams alive. With members working from home, it is so important to get the communication going, especially when you cannot see the person you are working with. The teams initially found it difficult with the challenges they faced around time-zones or channels to communicate. Over a span of weeks, they realised, agreed and continued to use their ways to keep the lights on all the time.

This helped the teams to work together. As a Scrum Master /Agile Coach, it is critical for us to build that environment for people to thrive in. The sense of one team, one approach, one goal can set things up.

Increased participation in all the Scrum events ensured the teams are not working in silos. The feedback received from the customer was translated in one voice down to teams, which means, there was one single source of feedback that went down to Testers, Solution Architects, Coders, and Ops Professionals. There was no scope for a siloed approach here, which helped a great deal to deliver customer value in a short period of time.

Think as 'ONE' team and focus on delivering value, keeping individual achievements aside

It took a long time for the teams to realise that we are working for ‘ONE’ common goal, despite sitting within different areas of the delivery.

We have had many ups and down initially to help members of the team understand that working from home has not changed anything in terms of working towards ONE common goal. They realised the importance of collaboration and communication in fostering the sense of ONENESS while delivering customer value.

When things were normal back then, the representatives from different teams would collaborate at meetings and outside of it walking up to each other’s desks. While that cannot be done now, your presence as a Facilitator, Coach or a Scrum Master is critically important to ensure the teams meet virtually the best way they can. The teams can initially discuss and agree on the ways of working. There is no pre-set rule in the book or written on the stone as a standard. It is up to your teams, the environment you are working in etc.

Stop, look back and learn

The leadership, the HR, and other departments within the organisation have been holding frequent fireside chats, Employee connects, breakfast series right from the start of 2020. This regime has made all the employees think on how serious the senior leadership and the organisation is towards retrospecting the current situation and tune the Ways of Working to suit the need of the hour.

In turn the teams, got into a habit of socialising frequently, having more retrospective sessions (not just for the sprints, but overall, as the way forward to understand their Ways of Working).

A couple of examples that I can give here is, the way they modified their working agreements within the team-level, Business Unit level and of course at the organisation level too. I have given a gist of those in the above section.

The need for cross-skilling came out very evidently during the pandemic times, as the teams did not want to create a culture of ‘Single Point of Failure’ with one person or a team dedicated to a particular task. So, they looked back on what best can be done in that situation, learned that they needed bitesize learning sessions to cross-skill each other.

Now, an Automation Tester is well equipped to write the code, and vice versa too

Be collaborative/Communicative

The need to collaborate and communicate has rapidly increased in the last year and half due to the change in the work pattern within the organisations.

Some feel there is an increased frequency of meetings that are happening now due to distributed working pattern.

However, drawing the balance between meetings, work, and your personal lives are a big challenge in each day in everyone’s lives. Like we used to chunk our day’s work while we were at office, teams do that now too.

They have discussed and agreed upon the times to connect in each day, which means they have a fine balance between work meetings and their personal lives.

Since the mindset towards being collaborative and communicative has flown down from top-down, all the product owners, key stakeholders were equally participative in the meetings, any opportunity to connect with the teams. This made it extremely easy for them to understand the progress, and in turn the teams were motivated to go that extra mile, as they understood their efforts would be acknowledged by the customer representatives.

I mentioned about socialising above. Teams have volunteered to have their social gathering (virtually of course) every fortnight once, just to ignite that spark within them to talk about anything other than work, which they used to as part of water-cooler, coffee, lunch conversations at office.

Conclusion, or should I call it a ‘BEginning’?

I believe Agile is not just about frameworks and methodologies, it is the way you think, the way you do things, the way you 'BE'.

We talk about Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation when we talk about pillars of Scrum. Our teams demonstrated that resiliency, perseverance, and grit are required to be high-performing ones. They embraced the new ways of working while continually delivering the value.

So, if the teams inspect and learn from it to sustainably deliver value to their customers, I think organisations can confidently say, COVID or any other eventualities, we continue to delight our customers.

............“….I can hear you now” :)

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Vidhya Arthanari
Vidhya Arthanari
Apr 25, 2021

Yet another great article from Sri. The title of the article will make everyone pause a moment with a smile on their face. You have very well knitted the points around the challenges the team had faced during the pandemic and how agility in them helped to continuously improve. Looking forward for many more nice article like this. Thanks Sri.


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Thank you, Vidhya. Appreciate you taking time to read the article and provide your feedback too.

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