The sentence “COVID-19 changes the whole world” isn’t some big discovery. We all know it very well – we see it and we experience it in our everyday lives. And this is no different in terms of our work and how we organize it. It has been challenging for every company, but the ones that use Agile frameworks and the concept of self-organizing teams seem to have dealt with the crisis better than others. Why is that?
The McKinsey company did research to see how businesses responded to the shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. During this research, 25 companies from seven different sectors and with different experience in the Agile approach were analyzed. Experts from McKinsey measured customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and operational performance. In all these elements, businesses that had fully adopted the Agile model before the COVID-19 crisis arose saw significantly better results than non-agile businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every company in the world, but what is so special about Agile that the companies that practice it have dealt with the crisis better than those with older management strategies? To understand this, it is necessary to remember, or to discover, just what an Agile approach actually is.
This text covers:
- What Agile is
- What scrum framework is
- What agile work is
- What self-organization is and how it works
- What a self-organized team is
What is Agile?
Agile is well-known as an approach to project development in the IT industry. It had to develop because the world had been changing, the work that people did was changing and new types of projects emerged. Agile itself was a form of adaptation. The characteristics of Agile are to develop projects iteratively based on collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Within this short description, we can see a few important words: “collaboration,” “self-organizing,” and “cross-functional.” These words show us that Agile is so much more than just a framework used by project managers in IT. Entire companies can work in Agile.
What is Scrum Project framework?
When it comes to an agile approach, Scrum is the most popular day-to-day framework of developing products and delivering results. The approach benefits from two iconic roles:
- The Scrum Master – the person who is responsible for following the scrum principles.
- The Product Owner – the role closest to clients and their needs in scrum framework, where a single person is considered an “owner” of the product – the person who is responsible for making decisions regarding the direction and priorities of the product development.
Scrum product management is based on clear roles and agile cooperation between the development team and product owner as facilitated by the scrum master.
McKinsey compares old hierarchical organizations to machines and Agile organizations to organisms. It’s a helpful comparison to try to imagine.
What is Agile Work?
It isn’t hard to imagine a factory, so let’s make it a factory like in 1930’s London. The structure is hierarchical – there is a boss, he wears a suit and has a gold pocket-watch, he has his own office with expensive pictures and a mahogany desk.
Below him, there are a few essential people wearing suits but without the gold pocket-watch, and below them are people still wearing suits, but these don’t even have their own offices. And on the bottom are the workers. In this structure, workers don’t have any impact on the company, they can’t share their ideas and the bosses are far removed from the daily workers’ problems.
Workers work in teams, but these teams don’t know how they impact other teams, they might not even talk to each other – every decision and every instruction comes from people who are not in the factory, but in the office on the second floor.
On the other hand, we have Agile organizations, which work much like organisms. Everything is connected and has an impact on other elements. Everything is a part of one flow. Teams don’t wait for instructions from the top – if there’s a problem inside the team, they try to solve it. They manage their tasks by themselves, and choose how to do their projects.
As humans, we don’t even have to think about how to take a step – which muscles and joints we need to move – we just say to ourselves: “ok, let’s go this direction.” This is the role of a leader in an Agile organization. He or she gives the direction, says what is the purpose and what is the priority of the whole organization, and the teams armed with this knowledge do their best to achieve these goals.
“There is one more thing in terms of organisms and Agile,” – says Ewelina Wyspiańska-Trojniarz, Agile Coach and Scrum Master at Tooploox – “In nature, organisms naturally adapt to changes in the environment. The Agile approach supports this kind of natural evolution in work or organizations.” As a people, we have a natural skill to adapt, and there is no point in damaging it with stiff documentation on how something should be done.
What is self-organization and how is it possible that it works?
We live in a hierarchical world, and we are taught to respect the hierarchy in every part of our lives, so the thought that some people don’t receive orders at work can make some feel lost. One also may think that self-organization is anarchy, but this is simply not true.
It’s good to think about a self-organizing team as an organism, as mentioned above. Every part of it, every single person, needs to cooperate. But it’s not about the command to cooperate, but the willingness. The base of every self-organizing team should be trust. Trust in colleagues’ knowledge and experience, trust that colleagues will help each other, and trust that all teams will do their best to reach the goal.
What is also important is the trust that teams can make their own decisions concerning their work, as they have much more context and understanding of their work than the managers from the top who have never done it.
What does it look like on a real workday? The team knows what the company’s purpose is and plans their tasks by themselves to work in this direction – they take into consideration the skills of all the people in the team, what their capacity is, and what they are best at. They don’t wait for any orders. They simply act.
If there is a problem – like sick leave or a lack of knowledge – the team decides on how best to solve it. Coworkers never think: “it’s not my problem, it’s because of him or her” – they share the responsibility of getting the task done and they know they’re all working towards one goal. Thanks to this, the process is much more flexible and the team can change it and iterate it as needed, and the decision of change doesn’t need to be from the top, the team can decide on what they think is best for the project.
Why do Agile companies deal so well with crises?
As was mentioned above, one of the features of an Agile company is flexibility – and this is most important in times of crisis. It is possible to somehow prepare for a crisis, but this is never 100% – there is always some unknown, some new circumstance, something unexpected. So even with top of the line crisis procedures, dealing with a challenging situation is impossible without the ability to be flexible. And Agile companies have flexibility written into their DNA.
In a crisis, time is even more precious than usual. Often it is impossible to wait, and decisions need to be made quickly. Self-organizing teams don’t wait for orders; they can decide for themselves. They do it nearly every day, so they know exactly how to do it, what they need to make the decision, and they can be bold in the action.
What is a self organized team?
Agile’s self-organizing teams are based on trust – which is crucial in a crisis. And it’s not only that coworkers trust in one another’s expertise and decisions. In COVID-19, when we are all locked in our houses, we need to believe our coworkers are doing their jobs.
Companies with a hierarchical structure, where managers had the power to control employees, suddenly faced a challenge: “if we can’t see employees, how can we be sure they are really working?” For Agile companies, the answer is simple: “We know they’re working, and they’re doing it in the best way they can, because we all care about the project.”
Self-organizing teams are built of self-organizing employees who can manage themselves and take care of tasks, priorities, and deadlines. For many employees during Covid, driving their own time turned out to be hard – they needed to take care of their children, cook dinner during work hours, or deal with many daily things, which, in normal circumstances, would wait for them to come back home from work. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed this. The situation is hard for everybody, but employees who work for Agile companies had it a little easier at the start because they already knew how to self-organize and arrange their daily responsibilities.
But how can a company trust employees to organize themselves? The point is that in self-organizing teams, employees understand the importance of their work – they don’t think of tasks as orders, but as something they choose to do in order to reach their goals. They understand their work and know how it impacts their coworkers. In self-organizing teams, colleagues don’t say: “paint this wall red because I said so,” they say: “could you please paint this wall red? I’m asking because…” and here is the explanation. Thanks to this, an organization builds a culture of respect for and between its employees.
Holacracy at Tooploox
All of the above are well-known things at Tooploox, for they were put into use when the pandemic began. To be honest, I write this all from my own experience: self-organization, collaboration, flexibility, trusting one another – we do this every day. At Tooploox, for more than two years, we have worked with a Holacratic structure, which provides a framework for agility.
The core of holacracy’s definition is self-organization. Holacratic structures look like a circle with smaller circles contained inside; it shows there is no old hierarchy and everyone is equal. It doesn’t mean we don’t have leaders – as in the legend about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the knights knew that Arthur was their King, the one who shows the direction, who provides the cause. But at the round table, they are all equal. They have different ideas, different skill sets, different experiences, and all of them matter.
In holacracy, every person and every circle (team) has the power to make decisions and choose how and with which tools they want to work. That’s why when the pandemic began we didn’t need to wait for orders from the top. We knew exactly what we needed to continue our work uninterrupted and how to change our priorities. And because we made the decisions ourselves, we perfectly understood them, and by this, we felt more secure throughout the crisis situation.
When the whole world changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our manner of work stayed the same. Because we truly believe the only constant is change – we work with it, we understand it, and we are bold in facing the challenges it brings. And this is good not only for Tooploox employees but also for Tooploox’s clients, who could be sure that the work on their projects wouldn’t stop, even when the whole world is holding its breath. Literally.
When the world changes, you need to be Agile
“We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different,” says Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO and co-founder. And this is the point. We know the world is changing, but we don’t understand how, and we can’t predict everything.
To be prepared doesn’t mean millions of stiff procedures, but a readiness to be agile, to see what change brings, to notice what is positive in it and take advantage of it, and to face that which is most challenging. To prepare the company for changes means to be Agile and to trust your people.