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AGILE IN A CRISIS: HOW AGILE PRINCIPLES CAN HELP YOU ADAPT

Covid-19 presents us with a unique crisis. Just like every other crisis. Agile techniques can help solve the unique problems we face. Where do you start to apply methods found in software development to these challenges?

On 11 September 2001, HMS KENT a Type 23 frigate in the Royal Navy was in Dubai preparing for exercises with friendly Navies and diplomatic visits to ports in the region. That evening, the Captain entertained the British Ambassador and selected regional dignitaries. Ten minutes after the guests left, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, in New York. The world changed and the crew of HMS Kent responded. Within an hour the ship was ready to defend itself from attack. The Commanding Office, Rear Admiral John Clink, CBE wrote: “The Ship’s Company of 200 men and women, with an average age of 23, slipped, without fuss or fanfare, into a watchkeeping routine of six hours on and six hours off”. The ship remained on operations for seven months and spent over 90% of her time at sea.

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For all organisations a crisis is an obstacle to doing what they've rather be doing. It's a problem to respond to so they can carry on”

The crew of HMS Kent relied on a strong sense of purpose, a set routine, their training friendships and camaraderie.

At Engine, we’ve learnt that the parallels with successful agile working are remarkable. For a couple of years, we’ve been using these far and beyond where we originally adopted them for building software and Digital Services.

In a crisis:  priorities set your direction

Deciding priorities is crucial – have a small number of clear objectives. 
Everyone needs to understand these. Repeat them often, following a set routine for communication. Agile teams use a “Stand-up” meeting every morning. Some Engine team members now stand in front of their laptops in the kitchen. It helps stick to a routine they know – setting up the day.

Decide on an action that you suspect and can reason (not promise) will contribute to the shared objective.   Agile prioritises the relevance of the objective rather than an emphasis on planning to achieve it in a set time. This is important when things around you are changing so much your objectives may need to change equally fast. The genius of agile is how it approaches actions and helps us adapt to the results we find.

Have a routine: Test and Learn, repeat and repeat

Even if your aims are ambitious and the demands on your team overwhelming, each person chooses actions small enough to achieve in a day or so until your next Stand-up. You may not get it all done, but you won’t have wasted so much effort on things that turn out to be irrelevant. Agile teams know this as “incremental” working and learn to not beat themselves up about whether we chose the perfect action. What we do is “Act, Test and Learn”. Adapting our objectives, actions and even our approach at every stage. This helps overcome any sense of being powerless when things don’t work, or you don’t know what move you need to make next.

This can really help in turbulent times. It’s a radical change in approach for those used to planned projects with an emphasis on improving the predictability of results. 
Just as every crisis is unique, the best response is tailored to track the turbulence.

Rewrite the rule book but take the team with you Over the last three years at Engine we’ve thought about where we’ve introduced agile to different organisations and how successful they have been able at adapting to new techniques or changing circumstances.

The findings were surprising. Agile techniques can attract a “rule book fraternity” that can fret over whether you are doing things right. It’s important to agree your routine and the “rules of the house”. Agile provides a great framework for organising getting things done. 

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What underpins agile are the behaviours of individuals in teams and their ability to adapt to circumstances”

We’ve learned from this and developed “Six Habits” to help teams decide on the right routine for them. It works through what really matters to address the challenges and opportunities you face.

I’ll be talking about those on May 7th at 11am – to find out more and register click here.

If you want to find out more about Agile methodologies even if you’re not a software developer, check out our 10 top tips, watch our webinar or contact Lawrence De’Ath.

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