Agile is disciplined, not reckless
Entering the 4th quarter of 2020, we have been living in a remote coaching world for six months. After six months, we can see that both organizations and individuals are struggling to adjust to this monumental shift in the way we do our work. Make no mistake, it does represent a shift, and it’s not just business as usual. For 15 years, agilists have been saying that co-located teams and face to face communication are the most effective methods of communication and delivery, and now we’re living in a world where that’s just not possible.
Many organizations have started to consider the option of bringing their employees and consultants back on-site, despite the fact that it is still not safe to travel or be around large groups of people, and the reason they’re considering it is because a significant number of agile coaches and agile teams have not been as effective during this time. In addition, organizational expectations have not substantively changed. They have challenged their teams to maintain the same levels of productivity, the same throughput, and the same quality of delivery on the same schedule despite the reduced efficiency of communication and collaboration.
Now, it is possible to meet that challenge. Distributed teams aren’t new. We have been solving these problems for years. It’s just a matter of scale. And the organizational commitment to providing their teams the resources necessary to rise to that challenge effectively. It is tempting to expect your employees to make do with the tools and resources currently available to them, but that is a short term benefit that will lead to long-term consequences. Instead, we must recognize that the circumstances of delivery have changed and a small investment now will pay dividends in the future.
Make communication easy.
The first and most important thing you can do is make it as easy as possible for your employees to communicate with each other and anyone else they may need to collaborate with like your vendors, suppliers, and external partners. One thing you will need to be wary of is the trap of communicating by e-mail. Two of the Fortune 500 companies I have supported during the pandemic used e-mail as a primary form of communication. This allows individuals to send off an e-mail and then be content to know that they’ve done their part, and wait 1 to 2 to 3 days for a response before following up. This is an incredibly ineffective form of communication that primarily serves to allow us to pass the buck to other employees when things go wrong. “It’s not my fault. I e-mailed so and so 3 days ago,” should not be the battlecry of the pandemic.
Instead consider that there is a well established hierarchy of effective communication methods for coaching and training already:
Face to face communication is the most effective form of communication
If you cannot meet face to face, use a video call
If you cannot meet on video, use a phone call
If you cannot get on the phone, use an instant messenger
If you cannot reach someone via IM, use e-mail
And the secret sauce to that method is, if you have to use e-mail, use e-mail to schedule a conversation.
So let’s invest in the right set of collaboration tools that will simulate face to face communication and team environments as much as possible. There are organizational tools out there that allow teams to simulate office space with private rooms and open areas. You can engage with anyone in an open area, or “knock” on the door of anyone who’s in a private room. Additionally, you may want to consider that super large organizations tend to have multiple tools. That may seem like a good thing when you give every department or team freedom of tool choice, but what actually happens is you make it harder for your people to communicate because now you need to identify the appropriate communication channels. And it’s even worse if you have to download or install new tools just to speak to a specific person. Something you may not even have permission to do if you don’t have administrative rights on your work computer. So what’s the answer? Simplify. Simplify the choices, and enable everyone to use the organizational tool of choice effectively.
Once you have a simplified communication tool set, start to think about how you can encourage continuous collaboration between the people who need to work together regularly. The single most efficient team I’ve ever worked with had a team culture of dialing into the same video call every morning, and staying in the call all day. There was an agreement that you could keep your camera pointed at the top of your head so nobody could see you, but they could see that you were present. And then collaboration was easy. You could just unmute yourself and talk to anyone on your team. It’s not magic, it was just a team recognizing the situation and coming to an agreement on how to best stay effective at a distance. Whatever you decide to do, you need to enable your people to be able to reach each other quickly and get answers quickly. If you have another approach to achieve those outcomes, go for it!
One challenge you will face as you simplify your communication stack is that there are some organizations that you won’t be able to change their tool sets. Especially if they are external partners or vendors. You frequently won’t be able to dictate that they communicate with you in your preferred method, so you’re going to want to find a compromise on communication. There are integrations between different commercial tools that you could leverage, or you could agree to communicate via e-mail with phone follow-ups to get resolution quicker. But you will ultimately have to recognize and accept or mitigate the less effective communication that comes from not being on the same platforms.
Encourage continuous collaboration.
Once you’ve solved the communication problem, it’s time to start considering the collaboration problem. Especially if you’re in a non-software environment which is historically less collaborative. For software engineers, managing check-ins and change sets requires a base level of collaboration with the other engineers on their teams. But if you’re in Finance, or HR, or any of the other dozen major corporate functions, you may find virtual collaboration a lot harder. The single biggest challenge will always be version control of whatever documents you’re working on. Wouldn’t it be much easier if you invested in one of the tool suites that allows for multi-user editing and collaboration? Then version control is no longer an issue at all because everybody is working out of the same place, and the files will inherently track all changes for you. I’ve commonly heard from organizations that already have an instance of Sharepoint that their teams can just use it for this. To be clear, Sharepoint is not your solution to this problem. It is a great file management system with a lot of valuable applications, but increasing collaboration is not one of them.
Take advantage of remote work.
Once you’ve got teams working and communicating together effectively at a distance, it’s time to consider taking advantage of the unique opportunity that remote work offers your employees. In the last six months of remote learning, there has been an unprecedented increase in the demand for remote training. While this may require more preparation on the side of the instructors, and an investment in remote training tools, the flexibility this offers employees when they no longer have to travel or sacrifice entire work days or work weeks in order to get a professional certification outweighs the cost. Additionally, as a coach the more people you can get into your classes, the wider your voice will spread and the more influence you can create in the organizations that you’re working with.
The shift towards remote coaching and training has been a long time coming. We have the opportunity to ride the wave of the next generation of workers and their expectations around working in and around the office. If we set ourselves up for it, we will be able to meet the changing expectations without sacrificing quality, time to market, and most importantly employee engagement.
This article was co-written by Saahil Panikar and Saajan Panikar