Agile project management has taken over the world and is widespread within most organizations. SCRUM, Kanban, and SAFe frameworks lead the way in making teams and companies add value quicker while reducing traditional risks. It may be in implementation as part of your software development teams, it could be getting adopted into a whole department or business unit in your company, or maybe it is already part of your normal workstyle in your organization. One thing is for sure: we can no longer say the principles of Agile are a foreign concept to most organizations.
Interestingly, in light of the current worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, we may be witnessing the adoption of some of the most common Agile principles in a world that is not often described as responsive: public policy and politics. All around the world, news channels and online platforms are used to communicate directly with citizens on the progress of the pandemic, the challenges at hand, and the steps government agencies are taking. The way organizations and task-forces are managing the crisis is closer to Agile principles than many may think at first.
The Magic of Daily Standups
When tuning into these press conferences, I saw the similarities with well-known Agile ceremonies. Any SCRUM Master or participant in an Agile team knows that the Daily Standup is the main way teams check in on progress and decide on action when the conditions in the project are uncertain and require constant monitoring or changes of direction. Any DSU (Daily Stand Up) participant is familiar with the meeting agenda: every member of the team answers three questions in a succinct and clear way so that all others can hear them:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- Are there any impediments in your way?
Do you see the similarity with what we see in daily press briefings from COVID response teams?
The seriousness of the situation has pushed governments to take swift action, make decisions quickly, adapt constantly to a changing condition, and constantly remove impediments to empower the heroic medical and civil servants. The Daily Standup format that they use during the press conferences shares with us all the work that is happening during each 24 hour period and what is coming next, just like in software projects using agile methodologies.
The similarities are not online in the agenda, but when running DSU meetings there is also another principle that we apply: the meeting’s purpose is not for an extended discussion on issues, solutions, or finding new problems (that may not exist). They are a quick look at what’s the task at hand and what will be done next. In this way, Agile disciplines keep its principle of adaptability real. Agile emphasizes these meetings as a frequent checkpoint on actions pending and completed. This gives teams a gut check on what is producing results and what isn’t. If not, teams then can pivot and adapt.
Agile Framework Principles Work when Dealing with a Public Health Crisis
The fact that task-forces have adopted a daily update to the public following many of the same principles as a daily stand up is quite telling. After all, crisis management frameworks share a lot of the iterative and highly communicative principles that Agile values so much. It is when criticality and sense of urgency matter the most that Agile comes to life, and that is why these task forces are working in a way so similar to our Daily Stand Up ceremonies.
Daily Stand Up meetings drive behaviors that ensure all members of a team adopt the behaviors necessary to drive to quick turn-around of valuable results. When teams talk to each other on a daily basis, just like when task-forces report progress daily, we make tacit (and sometimes direct) commitments to each other; we expose openly what work was done and what challenges we are facing. This inevitably forces participants to make progress, as we know tomorrow we will have to report what we achieved. Those every day actions drive constant progress: every 24 hours there is something new that has to be done, every day some progress is made and shown, and teams constantly review the overall condition, adapt their strategy, and pivot if necessary.
Most of the crisis management teams in charge of handling the pandemic do have internal meetings (not exposed to public and press) where the roadblocks and next steps are discussed more thoroughly, just like a development team would have Daily Standups without the Product Owner or other stakeholders. Using these internal DSUs, valuable decisions are accelerated and a culture of collaboration is amplified. The following are four areas where both Crisis Management daily meetings and the Agile Daily Stand Ups serve as an invaluable tool to help drive teams.:
- Visibility: Unmasking the current conditions and tasks at hand ensures that everyone is aware of the complexities, the amount of work getting done, and what items are pending to be done. This creates increased cohesion, more collaboration, and faster results. It also drives up the morale of the teams, as their efforts are properly displayed and explained to larger audiences, something that other Agile ceremonies (like Demos and Retrospectives) help reinforce beyond what a DSU can do. In government and task forces, being open and clear with the public also reflects in tacit commitments to the public that drive accountability and will demand action based on the previous day’s information.
- Adaptability: When projects (or crisis situations) have high levels of unpredictability, being able to constantly evaluate and adapt, to communicate changes in direction, and to ensure everyone shifts direction at unison is crucial to achieve the right results. DSUs can be a great tool to identify wrong assumptions or changing conditions so that decision makers and stakeholders can then take prompt action before the project is derailed or costly decisions are postponed.
- Value: When in a crisis management situation, there are no perfect products or perfect results. The most important thing is to drive to rapid action. DSUs (and other ceremonies) used in Agile project management give organizations the controls necessary to ensure that the products built are aligned to the business needs, reducing the risk of building the wrong feature or product. Understanding the changing needs of the customers/users of the product helps focus the features on what they need the most, just like the ultimate needs of patients and healthcare workers have been prioritized by most crisis response teams around the world.
- Risk reduction: Every risk management framework starts with first identifying the risks to be able to assess them. Risks are generally unearthed by those in the trenches, doing the actual work and validating the assumptions made earlier. Unless team members are given a forum where they can speak up, they cannot easily communicate the risks they encounter. So, DSUs again become instrumental at helping with risk management. Once risks are identified, the fact that these are also commented openly (as impediments in a DSU), everyone on the team can assess their impact with a broader point of view; allowing experts to collaborate and help identify strategies to reduce the risk’s impact.
There’s one last factor of Agile principles that is of the utmost importance in a global crisis like the one we are living through. The Agile Manifesto states that “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project”. That ability to have those business people working closely with the experts that do the work helps both sides understand what drives each other’s needs, what challenges are at hand, and therefore align decisions to ensure that actions create both valuable and viable outcomes. Similarly, with today’s COVID-19 task forces, the collaboration between experts and politicians focuses on alignment for the better results. That means: scientific communities, medical experts, and economists working together with public servants and elected officials to help make the best data-based decisions for those at risk. Just like our Agile team’s highest priority is satisfying customers, global task forces’ highest priority is helping citizens.
Why would Agile methods not be the normal modus-operandi for all sorts of organizations? We can clearly see it drives better and faster results. If your projects have a sense of urgency take a card from the crisis task-force deck and adopt DSUs to get awesome results.