Rethinking Agile in Times of Crises

The beginning of 2020, what seems to be so long ago now, was a time everything seemed so normal. Traveling for conferences or sales meetings was still a thing, the global markets we’re doing well, business development was increasing, overall, the year looked poised to succeed. 

Though as we began progressing into the year everything changed. Within months almost every organization around the world was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most organizations were forced to either layoff, furlough, or reduce hours for a record number of employees. And with the social distancing guidelines in place, many organizations had to move entire work-forces to working remotely seemingly overnight.

This new landscape has challenged leaders unlike anything they’ve experienced before. The multiple wide-ranging impacts business have endured coupled with the high levels of uncertainty they face, has been truly unprecedented. In these trying times, relentless demands are being placed and existing models are being questioned. For many Agility appears to be the answer, it permits them to cope with continuous change. The embrace of Agility enables organizations to better sense and seize the market amid the chaotic backdrop of a global pandemic, allowing them to ride out the storm.

Yet this greater demand for Agility shouldn’t be taken at face value. Now is not the time for complacency. Agility is like any other existing model and the adoption of Agility needs to be thought though. Maybe now’s the time to take stock and rethink what is Agile, and how it can be improved to foster an easier adoption for management.

To begin this introspection, we’ll look at two key shifts that are required if Agile is going to play an effective role in reshaping the world, preparing organizations to meet future crises.

Shift to Principles

Defining an Agile Mindset is certainly something doable. You might start by describing how value is steadily delivered to the customer through small self-organizing teams that collaborate together through teams of teams forming an organizational network. Then detail how this mindset leads to not only innovation but fosters the capabilities required to adapt to a rapidly shifting marketplace. But at the end of it you’re still lacking this je ne sais quoi element, and all this detailing begins to make Agile more into a process, which is the antithesis of the Agile Manifesto.

What it comes down to is that the ideas of what is an Agile Mindset is not easily communicable, which is why you often hear “you know it when you see it”. This makes it difficult for outsiders or even newbies to pierce through the abstractness and really understand what it is to have the Agile Mindset. Rather than attempting to define and detail all the different attributes of being Agile perhaps we should shift to the use of guiding principles to make Agile less abstract and more accessible for management. As Isaac Asimov coined the term “Three Laws of Robotics” here are Three Principles of Agile that capture what is an Agile Mindset.

  1. a customer-centric focus that delivers value and addresses the needs of the customer,
  2. small, self-organizing, cross-functional, teams that are utilized to carry out work in short iterative cycles with continuous feedback, and
  3. structuring the organization with high-preforming teams of teams, or networks, where the focus is goal-oriented outcomes.

Shift to Strategic Agility

The practice of Agile Management has been mostly centered around Operational Agility, where the focus is on using the Agile Mindset to enhance existing products for existing customers. While there is clearly a place for Operational Agility as it champions greater efficiency gains and faster quality improvements; it does little to develop the capabilities of an organization needed to create a sustainable competitive advantage. 

Rather than continue operating in a bubble of exploitation using Operational Agility, we can shift towards developing exploratory capabilities with the concept of Strategic Agility. Strategic Agility looks at the unmet needs of the customer and focuses on what value we can provide to address those needs.

Strategic Agility is based on uncovering those needs and delivering something new, something innovative, something the consumer may not necessarily expect but delighted to have. The Ford Model T, the Personal Computer, the iPhone are all examples of how Strategic Agility was used to create innovation. Strategic Agility brings about market-driven innovation that creates new business models which can lead to a Blue Ocean and secure the financial performance of an organization.

But uncovering those unmet needs is not an easy task, consumers are often unaware of what is possible. And organizational structures are too quick to fall back to Operational Agility relying more on predicable steady streams of development and revenue.  This embrace of Agility needs to be connected and rooted with the organizational culture if anything is going to change.

Though, in the end there’s no clear map for the journey we’re embarking on; the road is unpaved, and we face many obstacles. What’s certain is that the more proactive we become in facing these obstacles the better opportunities we have to not only succeed in the market but become more resilient in times of crises.

If  you are interested in learning about building insights to understand the future and how agility can play a role checkout our white paper on Driving Forces.

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About Shreyas Pandit

Insightful product manager with expertise in Agile methodology and a talent for balancing business acumen with technical expertise to interpret client needs, propose and develop fresh solutions, and deliver solid user experiences. Excels at identifying inefficiencies and developing process improvements that cut down processing time and operating costs. Thrives in an entrepreneurial environment and is respected for a calm demeanor and an ability to lead and motivate cross-functional teams.

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