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How companies can become truly Agile in the wake of COVID-19

How companies can become truly Agile in the wake of COVID-19

Agile is touted as one of the best, most important work methodologies. In what ways is it relevant (or not?) through a crisis like the one we’re facing brought on by COVID-19? 

We caught up with experienced Agile Coach and KnowledgeHut trainer, Kumaresh Krishnamoorthy, on why an agile mindset might be one of the most important skills for the emergent new normal.  

Kumaresh is a leading industry expert in Agile with experience in IBM, General Motors and Hewlett Packard. He specializes in Agile Transformation from Waterfall to Agile to Scaled Agile using (Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®), Disciplined Agile (DA®) and other Agile frameworks and processes. 

In this interview, Kumaresh talked to us about what it means for a company to be truly agile, the crucial role that leadership plays in agile transformation and the need for enterprises to upskill their workforce to face the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities in the post COVID-19 world. In this article, we share excerpts from the interview along with the video for you to follow along. 

Watch our interview with Kumaresh Krishnamoorthy, Agile Coach and KnowledgeHut Trainer

What I observe during this challenging time is that different companies seem to have different approaches towards dealing with the sudden and massive disruption. In smaller companies and start-ups, the focus is always customer centricity and they build in a design thinking framework around this. The company is this network of people and every single person in the network is focused on providing value to the customer, irrespective of how many changes come up from the customer’s side. This is how small companies start growing. But as companies grow, a hierarchical structure emerges with processes to be followed. There are policies and departments and as companies keep growing, the focus on customer centricity slowly starts diminishing and instead, they start focusing on the process itself. This is where the issue lies, and the company struggles to deliver true value to the customer. What happens is that the process has taken over, the hierarchy has taken over, the traditional way of thinking has taken over.  

Now, when the customer wants a change, the bigger companies will usually insist on a change management process. Every change will probably take around two months to be implemented.What agile brings about here is a change in mindset which helps every person in the network focus once again on customer centricity and design thinking enables this.  

It isn’t that hierarchy is bad. Structures, policies and procedures are very important for every company, but we also need to realize and learn from the things which worked well when the company was small. It is true that change is inevitable and is the only constant in life; the important thing for us to understand is how to adapt. The company that adapts fastest keeping the focus on the customer is the one that will be successful. The customer focus is what Agile brings about. 

If you notice some of the big companies like Blockbuster, the video rental company – they did not adapt and eventually fell apart. But look at Netflix, which started after blockbuster – they understood the reason for change; they understood the Agile way of thinking. They truly adopted Agile. They trained their employees to be truly agile and to be innovative. They trained their employees to take chances and this is how they grew to be so big today. 

Similarly, companies like BlackBerry and Nokia, all these companies fell apart while Apple, Samsung, and the like have thrived in adapting to change and been immensely successful. It is most important for companies to understand what the drive for them is to change. Don’t change just because others are changing. Understand the reason for you to change. If you don’t, someone else will overtake you. That’s the drive that every company needs to understand. And based on that understanding, they need to provide their workforce with autonomy and give them the chance to succeed. Train them, educate them and give them the leadership support, which is often missing.  

Don’t change just because others are changing. Understand the reason for you to change. 

There is a big difference between “doing agile” and “being agile”. Many companies feel they that they are agile because they have adopted some of the frameworks and methodologies in their working until it does not work or they find they are not able to deliver value to customers. If these companies do a deep dive, they will soon realize that they are just “doing Agile”, not “being Agile”. 

“Doing agile” boils down to external reasons – I’m doing it because my neighbour is doing it, my friend is doing it or my competitors are doing it – without an understanding of the reason behind the need to become agile. So,the first and foremost important thing is to recognize your need for change. Unless you are convinced, you will not be able to do justice.  

The second reason companies struggle is because they do not understand the true principles and values behind agile. When companies make decisions without understanding the principles behind them, they are not able to make right decisions. The thing I always tell companies is that if you want to be truly agile, you need to understand what the values and principles behind agility are all about. Once you understand these and start believing in them, the decisions you then make, based on these principles and value statements are what will make you truly agile.

The difference between “being agile” and “doing agile” is understanding the principles.

With companies that are struggling, you will notice that these companies are trying to be agile only at the team level. The management feels that they don’t have to be agile and that it’s only the IT team who actually has to be Agile – that’s a huge misconception. And that’s why companies are struggling quite a lot, because ofthis kind of hybrid model wherein on the top, you are traditional,but at the bottom, where the work is actually happening, you try to be Agile. This causes a huge disconnect between the thought process at the leadership and management level and the team that’s actually delivering value.

Agile is not process implementation. It is a shift in mindset.

Enterprises need to adopt the agile mindset because it’s not just the teams who are doing the work – the whole enterprise needs to be agile. This is where the Scaled Agile framework or SAFe® comes up. The reason Scaled Agile has made a lot of progress and has become really popular is because it’s a framework which caters to all levels of an enterprise, not just at the team level. Scaling is not an option nowadays; if you don’t scale, you’re dead. It’s important for leadership to understand what it is that they must do to be Agile; it’s not just about the teams.  

And what leaders must then do is to provide the right environment – an environment of trust, an environment of respect and an environment of support. This is what brings about the passion in the team to actually deliver true value to the customers. This is where the magic happens and transformation begins. It all begins with the mindset at the leadership level.  

Unfortunately, we are in the middle of an economic slowdown and companies are struggling. But this gives an opportunity for companies to make sure that their employees take the time to introspect in terms of how they have been doing the past – have they been delivering true value to their customers? Are there perhaps better ways to do it? 

Investing in training and education helps the company grow. This is very important and now is especially a very good time to focus on this. You must do it to prepare for what comes after the crisis.Companies will then have to ramp up and deliver things really fast, faster than ever before because they have to catch up with the economy that will look to rebound rapidly.  

When companies want to ramp up, especially in scaling Agile, it should not be just at the team level. It should not just be, for example, Scrum. While that’s one of the skills, there are several other frameworks – there’s Kanban, Lean thinking, Disciplined Agile and several others. So, there’s multiple areas they need to upskill themselves on. 

It’s also important for companies to learn how to choose the right agile solution for their situation. Not every project is “agileable”; the idea is that teams need to understand which projects Agile must be applied to and which projects they must continue in maybe a Waterfall fashion. Even in projects where Agile must be applied, you need to have different strategies as required – one project may require Kanban and the other Scrum, the third may require Lean or even SAFe®. There are different ways to apply your knowledge but the only way you can make this decision is to gain that knowledge.  

The way to gain that knowledge is by talking to professionals, enrolling for training, and learning about best practices through case studies.  

The next 6 months to a year is going to be really crucial in terms of how companies wrap themselves around the problem. To build character, adaptability, and flexibility and deliver true value to the customers, the work must happen now. When things come back to the new normal, things will need to really speed up. Enterprises will then need their work force equipped with the skills and the right frame of mind to really help the company grow at double the speed. That’s why this transition period during the lockdown is crucial for companies to prepare their employees for what’s coming up in the future. 

The best part is that all training which has traditionally been delivered as classroom training, whether CSM® or Leading SAFe® are all being delivered online now. People don’t have to get out of their homes anymore; they can get trained safely and from the comfort of their homes. So, as companies are trying to adapt, this is a great opportunity for people to make use of their time and upskill. 

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