Publish Date - December 3rd, 2021|
Last Modified - June 19th, 2022
One of the main characteristics of Agile is a functioning, close-knit team that has plenty of face-to-face interaction. This raises an important question: Can Agile survive in a post-pandemic world of remote work? Will the normal Agile ways of working endure in this new work from home world? Let’s dive in to find out!
The working world, post pandemic
COVID-19 has created the concept of a new normal, which has drastically changed the way we do things. For example, we now wear masks, practice social and physical distancing, and – for many of us – work from home. In fact, according to Forbes, over the past year the number of Americans working from home increased from 3.4%to 42%. This number is likely to grow, as 65% of Americans also indicate that they don’t want to go back to working like they did before.
The pandemic has also forced many companies and organizations to modernize and find other efficient ways to conduct business. For example, few people knew anything about video conferencing software before COVID-19. Now, most of us are using Zoom, Skype, Teams, or FaceTime video calls on a regular basis. Products like Google meetings and Zoom have come up with hundreds of new features to help accommodate and facilitate the influx of conversations needed over conference calls. Instead of having a whiteboarding session in a conference room, we now have Miro or Figma, which have exploded in popularity for their ability to offer virtual collaboration.
It looks like organizations are adapting and overcoming this “virtual hurdle” so-to-speak, but is it at the cost of the Agile doctrine?
The short answer is no. Agile has and will stay the same. Whether it’s Kanban, Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), SAFe®, or even Dynamic System Development Method (DSDM), the need to be adaptable, understand how to make changes, when to make them, and how to communicate them remains if not even more important in this new remote world.
Read below for ways that Agile can continue to thrive in a post-pandemic world.
What is Agile?
If you’re new to Agile, here’s a quick rundown of what it is and how it works:
- Agile is currently the go-to framework for helping development agencies and app startups focus on efficiency and quick delivery of high-quality products.
- The focus of Agile is to provide value throughout the entire development process, thereby minimizing the overall risk associated with any particular project, and maximizing incremental gains.
- It also focuses on having a heavy amount of interaction and collaboration between team members and stakeholders who are requesting products.
For example, Scrum (one of the most popular Agile methodologies) is all about breaking down a long project into smaller development cycles called sprints. From my experience, sprints last an average of one to four weeks, during which an agile development team completes small batches of work. This allows them to adjust to changing needs.
In other words, as opposed to a waterfall, where you may see all of your benefits at the end of a project, Agile provides incremental benefits by delivering value in chunks rather than all at once. This process is flexible and streamlined in a way that allows you to make necessary changes on an as-needed basis.
As mentioned earlier, a key aspect of Agile is face-to-face communication. This is where remote work can kill Agile, since teams are no longer doing their stand ups, retrospectives, planning meetings, or reviews in person – it’s all done on camera now.
Agile’s core principles
Agile’s values and principles have proven invaluable to driving high-performing and high-functioning teams. For those who don’t know, Agile Manifesto’s four core values are the following:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
These are accompanied by 12 guiding principles, which you can check out here: https://www.Agilealliance.org/Agile101/12-principles-behind-the-Agile-manifesto/).
My take on these principles are:
- Collaborate with team members and stakeholders throughout the project.
- Deliver code frequently and ensure it’s of good quality.
- Measure success by business satisfaction and quantifiable metrics.
- Value collaboration over plans and tools.
- Expect and embrace change.
As you can see, my understanding of Agile’s core principles don’t necessarily stray too far from the Manifesto, and yet it does stray somewhat because of the need to adapt and overcome new challenges in this remote world. That being said, it’s important to know that there are major Agile frameworks still at play at thousands of organizations across the world. Let’s take a look at how they may evolve over the coming years.
Top five predominant Agile mindsets
Agile mindset #1: Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®)
What is SAFe®?
SAFe® is an Agile framework with structured guidance on roles and responsibilities, how to plan and manage work, and values to uphold. It provides a systematic approach for scaling Agile across teams, business units, and even entire organizations.
At its core, SAFe® promotes alignment, collaboration, and delivery. It encompasses three main concepts: Agile software development, lean product development, and systems thinking.
This approach to managing large scale projects is becoming very popular, with software development teams being the primary users.
How does SAFe® work?
SAFe® builds on Agile’s principles (which I outlined earlier in this post) by providing specific guidance for scaling in large, complex, distributed, and high-compliance settings. This guidance appears in the form of the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap, which outlines the steps needed to successfully implement a SAFe® framework.
There are four stages of this roadmap:
- Building a guiding coalition.
- Designing the implementation.
- Implementing ARTs (Agile Release Trains), solution trains, and lean portfolio.
- Sustaining and improving.
Breaking it down further are 12 action steps used to successfully implement a SAFe® framework:
- Reaching the tipping point.
- Train lean-Agile change agents.
- Train executives, managers, and leaders.
- Create a lean-Agile center of excellence.
- Identify value streams and ARTs (Agile Release Trains).
- Create the implementation plan.
- Prepare for ART launch.
- Train teams and launch the ART.
- Coach the ART execution.
- Launch more ARTs and value streams.
- Extend to the portfolio.
- Sustain and improve.
How big should my team be to use it?
SAFe® works best for teams of five to 11 people. It’s most often used for big software development projects that require 50 to 100 or more developers.
What are the pros and cons of SAFe®?
- Faster time to market.
- Increased productivity and quality.
- Higher customer engagement.
- Greater visibility and alignment across the organization.
- May become overly complicated and difficult to keep up with.
- Creates a web of confusion in tracking and documenting.
- Planning the SAFe® setup can take several days and require a lot of time.
- Teams can get bogged down with excessive meetings.
- Counterintuitive (has the potential to make Agile process not Agile at all).
My experience with using sAFE:
While I don’t have a ton of experience using SAFe®, I have fellow product team members who’ve used it. The overwhelming response is: You need to have your whole organization adapted to the framework. If leadership or teams (like platform or marketing) aren’t using or are familiar with it, then it ends up being difficult for teams to function and communicate usingSAFe® . While this is true for any Agile framework, it’s especially true in this case.
When should I use it?
Use SAFe® to help your organization work better. Its roadmap for the what, why, who, when, and how offers helpful, structured guidance for addressing organizational challenges and improving overall performance. It also helps large product teams synergize their master roadmap view from multiple smaller roadmaps. Having scrums of scrums of scrums, and large VP retrospectives with dozens of people are a common occurrence with SAFe®.
How will remote work affect SAFe®?
In a remote world, SAFe® may actually see less usage overall because of the vast amount of meetings and overall coordination needed to make it succeed. Teams may start to become fragmented and begin to do their own thing (switching to other hybrid models). One way to prevent this is to ensure that you have a strong PMO or product leadership to ensure that teams stay on track.
Agile mindset #2: Scrum
What is Scrum?
Scrum is an Agile project management framework that helps teams improve, work together, learn through experiences, self-organize, and self-reflect. It’s the concept of this scientific method: Plan, act, do, and revise, and has proven to be extremely popular for not just development teams, but also human resources, accounting, and even sales.
How does Scrum work?
The Scrum framework is very hands-on. It’s based on continuous learning and adjustment, and, therefore, can help teams better adapt to changing conditions and user requirements. It empowers teams to think creatively as they adapt. It can also be tailored to each organization.
There are three artifacts or components to the Scrum methodology:
- Product backlog: The team’s to-do list or the main list of work that needs to get done. It often gets revisited and re-prioritized as the market ebbs and flows and ways of doing things evolve.
- Sprint backlog: Before each sprint, the team chooses which items it will work on. These include user stories and bug fixes. A sprint backlog may be flexible and can evolve.
- Increment (or sprint goal): The usable end-product from a sprint.
There are lots of variations with this methodology so it’s important to stay open as things change and evolve.
Scrum also drives feature prioritization by organizing features and goals into deliverables that the team works on in two-week sprints. This way, the most important work gets done first. A pretty effective way to do business!
How big should my team be to use it?
Scrum can be used by teams of any size. However, the ideal Scrum team size is seven to 12 people: A product owner, a Scrum master, and five developers. The higher the team size, the more developers it has.
What are the pros and cons of Scrum?
- Simple to understand and adopt.
- Ideal for difficult projects, because they can be divided into easily manageable sprints.
- Quicker release of usable products.
- Lower costs.
- Greater adaptability and flexibility to incorporate changes as they occur.
- Works well for fast-moving development projects.
- Delivering value to stakeholders incrementally, which provides cash flow and benefits early on, as well as relationship building.
- Transparency throughout the development cycle due to clearly established roles and planned events.
- Takes time to fully understand and implement.
- Often leads to scope creep, due to a lack of an end-date.
- Less flexible in the beginning, which can cause friction for people who are new.
- Dependent on team members’ commitment, and can cause a huge negative impact on the success of a project if a team member decides to leave in the middle of it.
- Adopting Scrum in larger teams (over 12 people) is challenging.
- Takes time to synergize the team, and is prone to process-tailoring early on, which weakens the framework.
- Many rituals.
My experience with using Scrum:
I have over five years of experience running a Scrum team as a product owner, as well as being on a Scrum team as a developer/SEO analyst. While I’m by no means an expert, I’ve implemented Scrum on three separate development teams in three different organizations. I find that while it’s great in the first year of its use – it can become a taxing and heavy framework with needless meetings, especially for a team that is synergized and “performing.”
When should I use it?
Scrum is a great way to start “doing Agile” so that you can learn to “be Agile.”. This is due to the heaviness of the framework, but it’s overall simplicity as well.
The Scrum mindset is useful for organizing and managing the moving parts of a project. It’s methodology works well if your team is smaller and is tackling projects with changing deliverables, unknown solutions, and frequent interaction with clients or end-users.
How will remote work affect Scrum?
We could see a few changes to Scrum in the new normal:
- Shorter iterations: Due to the fact that teams will have less of a handle on their product increments as remote work is constantly in flux.
- A high fluctuation in velocity: I’ve seen this first hand. While you may use the last four sprints to gauge your velocity capacity, you may find yourself needing to use more sprints to calculate that capacity. With remote work causing more burnout, higher levels of distractions and more meetings – team members might find themselves not outputting anywhere close to their 100% potential.
- More adoption of a hybrid model and tailoring: Let’s face it: Scrum has a lot of rituals and if there are shorter iterations, this may mean more sprint reviews, retrospectives, and planning meetings. Some of these can run two to three hours and if you have shorter sprints, you might have eight of these meetings per month. That’s approximately two days of meetings – and that’s just for rituals. Therefore, you may see more tailoring with this framework in the new normal to circumvent meeting overload. One way I currently do this with my team is to use easyretro.io to record our retro pain points over a general period of time (not a sprint) and when the board has critical mass, we commence our retro.
- More team members working from different timezones: If teams are fully remote, what’s going to stop management from recruiting team members four hours behind or ahead, especially with how tech is booming? This means that you may not be able to have team members attend rituals, both physically and virtually.
We may actually see a lot of changes in traditional Scrum due to it’s rigidness not matching the fluid concept of remote work.
Agile mindset #3: Kanban
What is Kanban?
Kanban is a visual system for defining, managing, and improving services that deliver knowledge work. It visualizes both the process (the workflow) and the actual work passing through that process. It aims to help you see your work, maximize efficiency, and continuously improve.
The goal is to identify potential bottlenecks in your process and fix them so that your work can continue to flow and thrive.
Basically, it’s a process to gradually improve whatever you do.
How does Kanban work?
All Kanban teams revolve around the Kanban board, which allows teams to see the state of their work at any time. When properly created and managed, the Kanban board can serve as a real-time information repository, highlighting bottlenecks and any other interruptions to a smooth workflow. This can be super useful.
A basic Kanban board consists of three steps:
- To-do: The column of tasks that have not been started.
- In progress: Tasks that are in progress.
- Done: Completed tasks.
While this is the default Kanban board, most Kanban boards have more phases to accommodate different team members.
Overall, Kanban can help you accomplish many of your project management activities faster and more efficiently. The Kanban board constantly communicates work item status, team workload, workflow blockers, and risks. This constant stream of communication can help keep all teams aligned with company goals.
How big should my team be to use it?
By definition, Kanban does not come with size limitations, so teams of any size can implement it. However, ideally, Kanban teams shouldn’t exceed 12 to 15 members. The reason being is that the Kanban board is the major artifact for Kanban. When the board becomes jam packed with too many tickets, it can become confusing and difficult to track what’s happening. Morning stand ups may turn into status updates, which would defeat their purpose.
What are the pros and cons of Kanban?
- Easy-to-learn methodology.
- Increased efficiency.
- Improved overall workflow and shortened time cycles.
- Fewer bottlenecks.
- Reduced wastes in the work process.
- Lack of structure.
- Repetitive nature of Kanban does not allow for flexibility or versatility in project size.
- The Kanban board can get super complicated, if the team grows too large or you have too many phases.
- Lack of timing because there are no time frames associated with each phase.
- Inability to forecast work being done (work is done as it passes through its phase), it’s “done when it’s done.”
- Only works when you have tasks that are similarly sized (so you can calculate Work in progress limit (WIP)).
When should I use it?
Kanban is great for teams that have lots of incoming requests that vary in priority and size. It should be used to help teams establish order in their day-to-day tasks, such as a helpdesk or social media team.
My experience with using Kanban:
I love Kanban. While most of the Scrum teams I’ve worked with have evolved into Scrumban hybrid models (see the last section), it’s simplicity, ease of use, and visualization make it extremely easy to build a team around.
The very first Agile team I ran was Kanban because we didn’t have enough understanding of products under our purview to be able to create a cohesive set of sprints.
When I join a new organization, build a new team or lose multiple team members – I usually revert back to Kanban as a default because of how lightweight and easy it is to implement.
How will remote work affect Kanban?
We may actually see more teams use Kanban as it’s easy to co-ordinate remotely, synergize a team to the board, and get new team members onboarded.
For a recent organization I joined in the beginning of 2021, it took me just one day to build a proper Kanban board in Jira and then subsequently onboard our two developers and QA. The next day, the team was working away at the backlog.
While you may have stand ups, the work in Kanban is never really done. In my eyes, this can be daunting. Therefore, there may also be a lot of teams that transition from Kanban to a more goal-orientated framework where they feel more accomplished.
Agile mindset #4: Extreme Programming (XP)
What is extreme programming (XP)?
Extreme programming (XP) helps your development team produce a working software model in very short iterations. It favours frequent releases in short development cycles to help improve productivity and introduce checkpoints at which new customer requirements can be adopted.
A standard XP sprint is only one to two weeks.
How does it work?
Here are the core phases of an XP sprint:
- Planning: The customer and manager writes all the user stories (software features). They also define the business value of each one and prioritizes them.
- Managing: The project manager sets up a system that includes the workspace, hosting daily stand ups, and assigning work to prevent bottlenecks.
- Designing: An XP team starts with an uncomplicated software design because it’s efficient and faster to implement.
- Programming: The design is set in place and code is implemented. Anyone within the team is free to write, review, fix bugs, and optimize the code.
- Testing: This is where the “extreme” portion of XP comes in. Teams create a unit test and then write the actual code – the opposite of how this is typically done.
How big should my team be to use it?
A successful XP team consists of just two to 12 members max.
What are the pros and cons of XP?
- Cost and time savings.
- Visibility and accountability.
- Constant feedback.
- Faster deliverables.
- High focus on code, which may impact design quality and final product.
- Lack of defect documentation.
- Does not measure code quality assurance and may cause defects in the initial code.
- Not the best option for programmers who are not in the same physical space.
When should I use it?
XP is not for everyone. Consider using it for:
- Smaller teams: Those of no more than 12 members.
- Risk reduction: When your team is working on a project with tight deadlines, and wants to mitigate risks.
- Close connections: When your client needs to work closely with your team.
- Distinguished developers: Teams with committed and highly experienced developers. Your developers need to be skilled as XP relies on clean code and concepts like test-driven development (writing codes for written tests to fail). If you have novice developers with poor coding hygiene, it may be difficult to succeed.
- Rapid requirements: Teams that are able to adapt quickly to fast-changing project requirements.
My experience with using XP:
My experience with using XP is limited; however, I’m very familiar with the principles of XP (collective code ownership, coding standards, simple design and sustainable pace, paired programming, Test-driven development, continuous integration and refactoring, and a few others). These are all amazing development practices to implement for your team as they will help create a healthier product.
In general, XP is advantageous for any product leader to ensure that their team has its concepts built into their framework.
Agile mindset #5: Hybrid
What is hybrid?
An Agile mindset takes some time to adopt, get comfortable with, and implement in practice. During this “in-between” phase, most teams will take a hybrid approach – combining Agile methods with other non-Agile techniques. This allows for flexibility and structure of some components of Agile frameworks, without the downsides of the others I mentioned in this article. Some specific examples of this model are Scrumban or ScrumXP (a variant of SAFe®).
Many companies I’ve worked in and currently work with prefer the hybrid model. It also seems to be highly prevalent across the internet. Over 20,000 enterprise companies currently use a hybrid model – a trend that seems to be growing overall.
One thing you may want to keep in mind is that while hybrid models are great, there’s still a lot of merit in the other more solid frameworks I already talked about (i.e., Scrum, XP, etc.). The concept of process-tailoring (changing a framework to suit your teams’ needs) is an extremely important practice in Agile, but should only be done when the team has a good grasp on how the original framework is run. Case and point, if you’re running a Scrum model for two sprints, don’t decide to change everything and switch to a new ScrumXP model. Allow your team and yourself time to acclimatize to one framework then process-tailor from there.
The best strategy is always to stop and think about what approach would be best for your team and organization, and tailor based off of that. You always want to make sure that your tailoring will do good for the team, and allows them to be more productive so they can produce better products.
How will Hybrid Agile affect the work?
Hybrid is already effecting work from home to a great degree. Most Agile practitioners have had to tailor their previous practices to accommodate for more virtual time and be innovative when it comes hosting meetings. With SAFe and other Hybrid strategies evolving quickly to suite practitioners needs, Hybrid will easily become the dominate practice over all other practices.
How to incorporate Agile into your daily routine
With many of us working from home and interacting with our colleagues and teams through video and audio conferencing, how can we maintain an Agile mindset?
Consider doing these four things to incorporate Agile ways of working into your everyday life in a remote world:
1. Take breaks
It’s a given that you’re going to have distractions at work. Therefore, take frequent breaks but make sure that they’re structured almost down to a timer. You can consider using apps like Forest or Focus to-do, which even has a Pomodoro Timer! This is similar to increments in Agile.
For example, you can consider taking a break every 15 minutes for every 45 minutes of deep work that you actually do. Or, consider doing a small physical routine like 20 push ups after every meeting. After one day of eight meetings, I was close to doing over 200 push ups 🙂
2. Break up your goals into SMART chunks
Consider breaking up your goals into not just smaller chunks, but using SMART goals to ensure that you actually meet them. If you’re studying or have a deliverable coming up, break it down into tasks and then record milestones for completed portions of it on a calendar.
Due to short iterations and having less of an ability to interact with your team in person, I encourage you to celebrate not just the big goals, but also the small ones. In other words, you don’t need to make SMART goals for only those big quarterly targets like “will have 65% adoption by the end of Q3 for our near future, which is up from 57%” You could think about having SMART goals for smaller goals like “making sure we have no meetings on Fridays”, or ensuring that “we never have a meeting over an hour.” These kinds of goals can really empower a team and also build esprit de corp, which is essential for team success.
3. Rethink the traditional meeting
Consider other ways of staying active in meetings you don’t need to facilitate or be 100% engaged in. While work is important, so is your mental and physical health. Not every meeting requires your undivided attention, so consider going for a walk during a town hall or all-team meeting or doing light stretching.
Squeezing in that quick walk or stretch during the day will leave you feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and allow you to do something else productive after work. With more personal time back, you’ll be more motivated to work and provide sustainable development, which is one of the tenets of XP and Agile.
4. Break the process
Break processes and procedures by considering adding icebreakers to your stand ups or playing a game during a retrospective (one of my favourite ones is GeoGuessr). While these are not necessarily traditional parts of Agile practices, they allow you to engage with your team and build a level of esprit de corp.
After all, besides driving value, the most important tenet in Agile is people and interactions over processes and tools. If we don’t humanize this remote world, how can we expect it to sustainably develop?
Always look to optimize your workflow (the Kaizen concept)
The Kaizen concept is also a great one to know and have when approaching any task or project more than once. I believe that the most productive people practice Kaizen on an everyday basis.
Kaizen is a Japanese term usually thrown around when discussions on improving production processes are ongoing. It translates into “change for the better”, or, more often, interpreted as “continuous improvement”, where you always look for ways to do internal practices and processes better and faster without sacrificing quality or value. It’s essentially a philosophy that focuses on constantly looking for ways to optimize or improve your workflow.
For example, when you’re cleaning your home and you realize that there are more efficient ways to do it like moving all the furniture into one spot before you clean, or cleaning top-down from all your appliances then vacuuming up after – all of these can save time and energy!
This is the purpose of Kaizen: To make small iterative improvements to your process that help save time and money. It’s a great concept that I encourage you to consider for yourself, your team, or organization.
Wrapping it all up: Which Agile mindset is right for you in the new normal?
Since 2001, Agile has been transforming the way organizations and companies do business. With a focus on innovation, speed, efficiency, and the end user, it’s revolutionized the ability of teams and organizations to be more nimble and responsive to changing business needs, allowing them to continue to thrive. In fact, I’ve found that companies that embrace Agile tend to be more efficient and successful.
However, one of the core components of Agile is being able to work face-to-face with your team members on a regular basis. With the onset of COVID-19 and shift to remote work, this significantly challenges Agile’s longevity – or so it seems.
On the contrary, not only has Agile stayed the same, it’s now even more important in the new normal of working from home. Whether it’s SAFe®, Scrum, Kanban, XP, or even a hybrid approach, the need to be adaptable and flexible is crucial while working remotely, which is exactly the kind of environment that Agile performs best in.
It’s that one concept that will give clarity and order to whether you’re doing a virtual stand up or going over an important strategy with your boss over Zoom or Teams (or any other video conferencing of your choice!). These new rituals can bring a state of normalcy and confidence to keep projects moving forward even when you’re working from your bed or couch, 40 minutes away from the physical office.
When things change, and often without warning during a pandemic, Agile also allows for easy shifts in focus because work has been planned in small deliverables as opposed to one giant chunk at the end. This is extremely helpful in our new world of unpredictability.
Finally, COVID-19 has introduced new pressures that people are not used to. A strong component of Agile is empowering individual team members to make decisions and keep projects moving full speed ahead. This is really helpful to ensure that things get done even under the constraints of COVID-19.
Here’s quick summary of the top Agile mindsets for you to consider post-pandemic and while working in a remote world:
- While SAFe® offers great structure and encourages productively, you need to have your whole organization adapted to the framework.or it may become difficult to keep up with.
- Both Scrum and Kanban use visual methods such as the Scrum board or Kanban board to keep track of progress, and emphasize efficiency by splitting complex tasks into smaller chunks of manageable work.
- While Scrum is simple to adopt and works well for large-scale projects, it can become a taxing and heavy framework with needless meetings after the first few years of use.
- Kanban outperforms Scrum with its it’s simplicity, ease of use and implementation, and visualization. However, it may work best for more repetitive tasks and it lacks structure.
- XP’s principles such as code ownership and paired programming are amazing development practices for your team and beneficial to any product leader. The downside of this methodology, however it has a heavy focus on code, which can sometimes compromise design.
If you’re just starting out in Agile, I would advise you to start out with something like Kanban, working your way up to Scrum or XP, and then synergizing with your team to create a beautiful hybrid framework of your own that works best for you.
Even in a post-pandemic world of remote work, Agile can help you succeed both personally and professionally. While it may not look like it, Agile is even more so valid and important today because the modern world requires us to be calm and collective during turbulent times, while still performing our best. It may look as if we’re independently working from home behind our laptops, but we’re not. We’re all in this together, and this is where Agile can step in and remind us of the concept of teamwork where it may have been forgotten, and empower us to continue chugging on.
Just remember: Whatever Agile mindset you choose, make sure it’s the right approach for your teams’ needs. If the right approach matches your teams’ capabilities, then the productivity will take care of itself.
Did I miss anything or do you have a thought on this topic? Feel free to leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you.