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How Agile Principles Can Help Businesses Survive a Crisis

Howard Sublett
Howard Sublett

Businesses are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As large enterprises grapple with the new reality, now may be the best time to consider implementing an agile mindset.

Right now, companies across dozens of verticals – from retail to restaurants, technology to travel, and everything in between – are struggling to forecast how they'll get through the next few weeks – much less the next few months and years – amid an unprecedented amount of uncertainty.

I work with agile coaches all over the country who help corporate teams to work more efficiently. Our coaches have been hearing from business leaders from both large and small enterprises who are asking valid questions during this economic downturn: When will I be able to open my doors again? How will I safely serve my customers? How will I keep my employees safe? What will the new normal that is emerging look like in a post-COVID 19 world? What if there's a second wave or sudden surge in cases in my area? How do I know if I'm taking all the necessary precautions?

As businesses across the country and world grapple with these questions and the new reality we're currently living in, one thing I know is this: Companies firmly built on agile values are adapting more easily and with far fewer issues than those without them. Why? Because agility helps businesses adapt and thrive, even in the most challenging environments, which 2020 has certainly proved to be in spades.

Here are three key reasons that agile values help businesses survive a crisis and why leaders at organizations of every size and in every vertical should consider fostering an agile mindset now.

Agile helps businesses keep their rhythm

We – all of us – are creatures of habit to some extent. Just look at how much we've been disrupted as our routines were torn away from us and thrown out of whack earlier this year. When so much is up in the air, including things we once took for granted, agile frameworks such as scrum provide a template, a pattern to help move work forward amid the uncertainty. This structure can be incredibly beneficial to companies and teams because it not only creates a predictable rhythm of work, but it also allows teams to reach results at a faster pace.

Holding short, daily team meetings, for example, and having a regular cadence to review the work that has been completed can provide a sense of normalcy in a world that feels like anything but. These regular check points become positive rituals that not only mark the passage of time and progress towards objectives but also keep us mentally engaged on the task at hand.

Try to implement these daily team meetings at the start of each workday. These brief (no more than 15 minutes) meetings are designed to help the team focus on priority tasks and communicate progress or impediments with one another. To ensure these meetings are truly effective, I recommend focusing on three areas: what we completed yesterday, what we plan to work on today and what challenges we'll need to overcome to finish the project. 

By staying in a steady rhythm, businesses are able to move forward, making progress every day, week and month that passes, ultimately bringing them closer to fulfilling their goals while allowing them to adjust as needed on the way.

Agile allows businesses to pivot quickly

In the past, the word pivot was thought by some in the business and technology communities to be a euphemism. It was basically a nicer way for a company to say, "We thought we were going to do this, but we failed, got beat by a competitor, ran out of capital, etc., so now we're doing something else instead."

When I say pivot, however, I mean it in the most positive sense of the word. In business, you have to react to the world around you! Pivots are necessary! An agile mindset allows companies to make shifts quickly, adjusting current priorities, approaches or strategies based on the new circumstances we're waking up to almost daily during the coronavirus pandemic.

We've all had to adapt rapidly over the past few months, and an agile mindset helps companies to pivot and shift more effectively. How? Because agile teams are always completing small chunks of the highest priority work, every two to four weeks. So if something comes along and disrupts your priorities, you can rapidly reevaluate and reset so that you're ready to tackle what's necessary now, not what you thought you'd be working on a year ago. 

This can work for any aspect of your business, whether it's shifting a marketing campaign, product feature or even your entire business model. As a first step, I recommend revisiting the business plan regularly to determine where best to pivot the strategy based on current conditions and to meet the demands of the market. 

We did this recently ourselves at Scrum Alliance. Prior to COVID-19, all of our entry-level certification courses were conducted in person. The global shutdown completely changed that. In two weeks, our entire organization pivoted to enable live, online courses. In that same two-week period, many of the independent trainers associated with our certifications created engaging, interactive courses that they could do over the internet, and shared their new-found knowledge with each other to help everyone improve. That's a pivot. That's agility. And that's what companies need now and in the emerging new normal.

Of course, the need to approach work with continuous check-ins and reevaluations is not only necessary in times of trouble due to global pandemics. If crisis has taught us one thing, it is the importance of planning and executing in incremental phases versus the traditional annual plan or strategy framework that many businesses follow. Agile businesses plan and release work in short, two to four week increments for this exact reason. So no matter what changes in the world, these companies are designed to be able to reevaluate, replan and release new solutions in a short time frame. 

In a world where technology and consumer expectations evolve daily, businesses must be able to respond and change immediately; otherwise, they risk alienating their customers and even worse, becoming obsolete. 

Agile businesses empower teams

Finally, an agile mindset empowers teams to make decisions both large and small. Leaders trust their teams to have the best information about what customers need, because teams are closest to the customer. That gives teams the freedom to decide on a course of action quickly. They are not required to stop and ask for permission from superiors or wait for multiple other parties to weigh in, slowing things down and delaying action and implementation. 

I cannot stress enough how important it is for leaders both to admit that they don't have all of the answers and also equip their teams to move with purpose towards the areas of greatest uncertainty or greatest risk. Why? Those unknown, unexplored areas hold the most risk, yes; but they also present opportunities for innovation. If a team's experiment fails, or a solution is flawed, the cost is minimal, because the business has only invested two weeks (maybe a month) in a particular solution before receiving actual customer feedback. In those situations, the team inspects, adapts, and pivots in response to their customer's response.

The teams themselves are small and crossfunctional, meaning they have the skills to accomplish their business goals without relying on other teams. Work doesn’' pass, for example, from marketing to IT to testing to release. All of those skills exist inside each team, allowing them to move from idea to implementation quickly.

On a typical agile team, leaders describe a shared vision and ask their team members to experiment, to innovate, to discover ways to reach it. These teams are not left to go it alone – leaders do what is necessary to remove obstacles and support these teams throughout the process. The leader's most important role is ultimately not only determining what the vision is, but articulating it in such a way that every member of the team knows what the end goal is and understands how they can contribute to achieving it. This is where I recommend leaders start when they want to empower employees. Ask yourself, is the vision clear? Does everyone fully understand it and know how they can help make it a reality? If so, you should be able to trust employees to make the correct decisions and move forward.

Team members at agile organizations know they can make the necessary decisions as they work on a project and respond appropriately as new challenges or customer needs come up. This is crucial right now, and always, because limitations and resources are constantly changing.

The only constant we know for sure is change. That's never felt truer than today, as 2020 has taught all of us that we can no longer assume or take even the smallest things for granted. Agility allows for us to adapt in high-stress circumstances and plan for the uncertainties of the future. And this is why it has never been more important for businesses of all sizes to embrace an agile mindset if they are to survive and continue to thrive, no matter what the future holds.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Howard Sublett
Howard Sublett Member
Howard Sublett is the Co-CEO and chief product owner at Scrum Alliance. Howard brings a wealth of experience in a variety of agile practices to this role, including serving as an agile coach and leader at several agile consultancies. As chief product owner, his primary responsibilities are to forge coalitions, to decide which products and services best deliver value to and serve customers, and to promote agile and Scrum principles and values in the greater community. Before joining Scrum Alliance in 2018, Howard championed the SolutionsIQ culture as director of community development. As the face of SolutionsIQ, Howard could regularly be found building relationships at industry events and hosting the popular Agile Amped podcast series. Internally, Howard advocated for the individual and nurtured the company’s teams. Howard is focused on people, who they are and what they need, and lives according to the mantra that strangers are only friends he hasn’t met. He is passionate about making workplaces joyful, sustainable, and prosperous with agile principles, practices, and values—and about sharing this message with the world.