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Tips for thriving teams in our new normal​

The COVID-19 lock-down has forced many of us to leave our highly engaging and collaborative office environments and work from home.

This article will provide you with a glimpse into how Agile has helped us continue to be just as effective with our teams while working remotely.

In this article, I will cover the following topics.

  • 50,000-foot view of Agile
  • Ideas for collaboration — learning from Agile
  • Ideas for connections

The purpose of this article is to share a few things that are working well for our team. You certainly don’t need to know anything about Agile, Scrum or Kanban. I will provide references as needed. As hard as it is, I will try my best not to use the technical jargon, but instead to just keep it simple.

The photos are blurred to protect the privacy of our information.


At 50,000 feet, what is Agile?

There are hundreds of ways to get work done: Agile is one of them. Agile is a method that emerged in the 80s after it was adapted from manufacturing for software development. Its focus is to deliver value to the customer quickly, and then continually make improvements in increments — based on the business priorities.

Our implementation of Agile includes Scrum, Kanban and a few ideas from SAFe. These frameworks demand in-person interaction from the entire team. However, we’ve seen that some specific elements of the framework have enabled us to be just as effective while working remotely. We recently shared these learnings with our colleagues from other departments, and I hope you will find them helpful as well.


LEARNING FROM AGILE

#1: Shared understanding

Include the entire team when capturing, planning and tracking the work.

In Agile’s “Scrum” — a set of daily and weekly practices carried out by the team — the entire team participates in future work discussions. Teams are traditionally broken into 7–10 people where each role has and understands their specific function. The Product Owner brings the work to the team from the client or business unit and describes the items — including why this work is a priority and what it will accomplish for the customer. Such discussions create a shared understanding among the team members.

In our case, right before the lock-down, we completed a three-day working session to build a backlog and roadmap for seven teams. Our leaders, Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Tech Leads and engineering managers participated in these sessions. In one way or the other, each member of our department was involved in this activity. Most importantly, this activity helped in building a shared understanding of “why” we are doing and “what” we will be doing in the coming months.

This shared understanding of work has helped us in keeping everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction.

Photo by Author — a blurred screenshot of our JIRA portfolio/roadmap and a screenshot of a JIRA story that includes a) description, b) requirements, c) acceptance criteria and d) mockups.

Takeaway — How might you include team members in planning and strategy conversations so they understand why, what and how the work will be delivered?

#2: Deliver Value to Customer

Deliver the customer value and then continue to improve. Agile helps you to think of small chunks of work, that you can rapidly deliver to your customers.

The current situation demands a quick response to hastily changing circumstances. For example, many mom & pop stores scrambled to set up their online order system and curbside pick up. A local Indian grocery store set up its online order system in three incremental phases — they started with an order by email, then set up a squareup.com based store, and finally a fully working online store. All within four weeks.

There are hundreds of examples in which people pushed their imagination and started thinking in small increments so that they could quickly position themselves in the market, provide value to consumers, and continue to improve.

In our case, one such example is the chat feature on our consumer website and mobile app. We released these enhancements in three iterations — the first iteration was to add a basic Chatbot, we called, “Hope.” The later two iterations enhanced the Chatbot capabilities to ask questions to the patients intelligently and direct them to the appropriate COVID-19 response team.

Photo by Author

Takeaway — How might you break down the work in front of you to give your customers something they can use today, even if it’s not the whole thing?

#3: Continuous Conversation

Casual dialogue keeps the teams connected and engaged in the work.

In Scrum, the team is expected to collaborate and self-organize continuously. The team members sit close by and may have many ad-hoc conversations throughout the day. Use of collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, Hangout can help you in filling this gap. They cannot be a replacement for the in-person interaction but are proven to be more effective over email and phone conversations.

In our case, we had a highly engaging and collaborative office environment and we were also using Microsoft Teams for chat conversations and conference calls. In the absence of in-person collaboration, Microsoft Teams emerged as a powerful tool for continuous conversations. We are utilizing Teams Channels for group announcements, regular team updates, fun (birthday, anniversaries, etc.) and using Teams Chats for all-day conversations among team members.

During conference calls, we encourage everyone to turn on their video. Being able to see one another makes interaction much more lively. Sometimes it feels that you are sitting across from another person. Video conferences are much more engaging and productive.

However, tools cannot substitute the power of in-person interaction. It is the team’s desire to interact with one another and their collaborative culture is what makes these tools to work.

Takeaway: How might you create a desire to interact with one another and continuous collaboration?

#4: Deliver work in two-week cadence

To keep the focus on the highest priority work, collectively set short-term team goals using structured meetings.

In Scrum, the team collaborates and identifies items that can be done during the sprint. At the end of the sprint, the team and key stakeholders do a Sprint Review in which they inspect what was finished during the sprint. A sprint is two to four weeks duration. Some teams do this every two weeks while others every four weeks. Read this article for a quick and simple explanation of Scrum.

For us, the planning and reviewing every two weeks is not only allowing us to deliver value faster to our customers, but it also helps in keeping the focus on the highest priority items. This brings a lot of transparency and trust as everyone knows exactly what the team is focusing on and what will be done.

Photo from www.scrum.org

Takeaway — How might you set smaller goals for your team? Can you build in opportunities to plan and review frequently so the team knows exactly what is expected of them?

#5: Daily Check Point

Daily 15-minute meeting ensures everyone is on the same page. Encourage cameras ON for all team calls.

In Scrum, the development team meets daily for 15 minutes and plans their work for the next 24 hours. They inspect progress, trends, and discuss any impediments to achieving sprint goals and sprint backlog. These daily discussions are called Daily Scrum(some call it daily standing).

I think Daily Scrum is our most powerful collaboration activity and sets the tone for the day. Every morning our teams meet to sync up. This ensures that the team members are talking to one another and everyone is on the same page.

Photo by Author. Screenshots of our Daily Scrum meetings

Takeaway: How might you create a collaborative and interactive environment for your team members, in which they are encouraged to speak to each other daily?

#6: Visual Representation of Work

Illustration of the work being done

In Scrum, it is called Walking the Board. The team moves work items from the to-do queue to In-Progress and Done state. This provides an up to date representation of pending and completed work.

Our tools visually demonstrate the pending, in-progress and completed work. At any point, team members, stakeholders and leadership can get a glimpse of the work.

Photo by Author. Todo, In-progress and Done state

Takeaway: How might you visually represent the work and keep it fresh?

Bonus: Digital Whiteboarding Tool

We are using Miro’s whiteboarding tool during our conference calls to collaborate on an idea. A digital whiteboarding tool is filling the gap of a physical whiteboard.

Photo by Author

Have fun doing it!

While trying to adjust to our new normal, we are having fun activities too.

Monday morning movie (or photo)!

Team members share a photo or video of their weekend activities.

Star Wars Wednesdays!

Theme based days where team members either dress as a character or a using a background related to the theme.

For example, team members dress as a Star Wars character or have Star Wars in the background for a Star Wars theme day.

Every day is a Jeans day!

Welcome to Jeans day. I forgot to send the announcement! I love jeans and now I wear them every day.

Team Virtual Lunches!

Some of our teams are trying virtual lunches in which they turn on their webcam during the lunchtime. It gives a feeling of group lunch in which they have a casual talk.


Application

I hope that some of the ideas from this article will be useful to you. Please share — What is one idea or tool you’ve learned about today that you will be experimenting with your team in the coming week?

Special thanks to Tim Putt for his valuable contribution, feedback, and suggestions. Tim & I originally prepared and presented this in a leadership conference call.

Originally published at https://medium.com/authorvinod/what-remote-team-leaders-can-learn-from-agile-ae2e443a4689

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