Change at Work

The Truth about Agile and Remote Working (It Can Work!)

While agile was founded on the premise of bringing people together, by implementing some simple meeting processes—and building trust—it’s easy to translate to a virtual environment

Agile was created in an era when the idea of how you developed digital products was that everything had to be written down. But how is agile being adapted to a remote working environment? Collin Lyons, Delivery and Transformation Director of UsTwo, breaks down some best meeting practices:

  • Online or offline, the most important thing is trust. Make sure that you’re constantly sharing work in progress rather than waiting for a “big reveal.”
  • Facilitation matters. Since it’s easy to miss non-verbal cues in virtual meetings, it’s critical to designate one person as a facilitator to track whose turn it is to speak.
  • Leave space between meetings. All too often, meetings are scheduled back to back, to back. Designate the first five to 10 minutes of the meeting as casual chit-chat or bio-breaks so as to give yourself some breathing room.
  • Be self-aware. Keep track of how much you’re participating in the meeting—and if you find yourself dominating, take a pause so that others can participate.

Read the Transcript

Bud Caddell:

Thank you so much for joining. I am so proud to be able to introduce Collin. I want to say a couple of things. Just one about Collin, he’s delivering and transformation director at ustwo. If you don’t know ustwo, they’re a brilliant development shop, design development. They do kind of everything and everything they touch looks gorgeous. If you’ve ever played the game Monument Valley, that was part of their work too. When Collins suggested his talk, it really excited me because it’s this idea about how do we take agile work and really bring it into a remote environment. So often when we think about agile and how it was born, we think about sort of big four or five engineers around a Scrum, around a wall with Post-it notes. I think it’s so important now, especially in the world we live in today to talk about how do we take it remote. Collin has been doing this and has been talking about this. He’s incredibly insightful about this topic. I’m just going to hand over to him and he’s going to smash it out of the park. So, so happy to have you, Collin.

Collin Lyons:

Great. I’m really happy to be participating in this. I think it’s a fantastic thing what you guys have organized. But you’ve just really touched on the context I want to set, which essentially is that agile was born in an era when the idea of how you developed digital products was that everything had to be written down. So if you think about, this is like 20 plus years ago. If it wasn’t written down essentially didn’t exist.

And the rationale for that is that you could basically have a team of people who would do the upfront work. For instance, you have some business analysts to say, “We are going to be doing the analysis on what’s the requirements are for the system.” Their job was to capture that and make sure it was fully documented so they could pass that on and they could move off to go do something else where the rest of the team would pick that up and then continue to carry that forward. So the documentation really was the artifact that mattered more than anything else.

At the time when the people who are proponents for this new way of working, sort of agile way of working, they were recognizing that there was a real flaw there that the best way in which communication should take place in terms of understanding the richness of what’s needed and how things are to be done, what’s to be done face-to-face. So it made a lot of sense that that was the approach that they took.

To be honest with you, I actually think face-to-face makes a lot of sense. That said, I think that we need to also put it in the context of the year in which was being done. So we didn’t have the ability to do what we’re doing right now, which is to have massive bandwidth, great video conferencing and some other things I’ll talk about later.

So the era of when that was made was being pushed for was also within a particular context. And that context has changed over the last two decades or so. I think it’s worthwhile bearing that in mind when we think about the different things that we might think about when we want to go remote. In some cases we have to go remote like we’re all experiencing this week and going forward.

I think it’s worthwhile also to just pull out some specific things I want to touch on because people who are, I suspect a lot of people who are here are actually a quick familiar with agile. And when we talk about agile principles depending on what camp or what school you come from around this, you may have a set that feel very specific to what agile is about. Well, I think there are certain ones that we would all agree that come through the agile ways of working that I want to actually focus on. I think those are the things that are sort of essential to getting some of the benefits of our job.

So what I’ve put out here is collaboration. I think there’s no question that the whole idea of bringing multiple people together, to work together to both understand the problem space as well as understand the solutions is at the heart of how agile is supposed to work. We want people to be included, we want inclusivity. And that can kind of cross in terms of diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of backgrounds because that makes better products. Cross-functional teams. I think that’s a self-explanatory. And then the transparency. I’m not trying to say that this is all of them. But these are some key ones that I think will underpinned it that conversation I want to have with you today.

It’s quite natural to try to think about these things in terms of tools and processes and people. So I’m going to use that. And then to be honest with you, we’re going to fly through the first two because I think that a lot of people in this audience are probably quite familiar with some of this stuff, but I think it’s also worth touching on for those who may not be, and may also be curious about what does ustwo do.

So instant messaging. I think Slack has become quite a popular platform. It’s core to how ustwo works. In fact, when we are co-located, we still use Slack. Slack is a really powerful way in which to communicate in a certain way. But there’s also WhatsApp. Sometimes our clients are not able to use Slack, either restrictions within the organization or whatever. And WhatsApp can also be an alternative way to communicate in real time with a bunch of people.

Video conferencing. We’re living it right now. Google Hangouts has been quite popular for us. Zoom is amazing. Really impressed with what Zoom does and it seems to be a thing that’s drawing, at least ustwo. It’s drawn a lot of people, projects and teams over to towards Zoom.

Digital whiteboard. So Bud was mentioning this picture you have in your mind of agile back in the late ’90s and early 2000. But essentially a bunch of engineers who are around a whiteboard with Post-it notes. That’s still persists today, but I think what we’ve seen now is that some of these digital whiteboards are, they’ve really how to replicate the experience you’re trying to have by having people physically in the same space. Mural is a fantastic tool for that. They’ve really nailed the whole idea of having this infinite whiteboard. But then on top of that also having the Post-it notes and so on. Miro, which is quite similarly named, is also another tool that’s quite similar to Mural. I don’t know the history behind how their names are so similar and their practice is similar. But it’s worth knowing they both exist. And share documents. The ability to collaborate in real time with documents, when you do need to document. Google Docs, hands down is the best I’ve seen. It’s been that way for probably 15 years. It’s a great tool for that.

So we use all of these. This is a tools kit that ustwo uses for whether we’re working remotely or working in person. You’ll see my little footnote at the bottom that says, “It’s not about the tools.” I’ll come back to that why I’m saying that.

Then we move on to talking about processes. So in this case I’m going to focus on meeting processes. It’s quite important to remember that a lot of times people who are working in an agile way, especially if they’re new to it, will often say, “There’s too many meetings.” But the truth is a lot of the work is the meeting. The work you’re doing is happening in the meeting. So to have your meetings be effective so people feel like they’re wasting their time, there’s some key things that you need to do. I think when you’re talking about doing it remotely, it’s the same stuff, but you just need to amplify that.

So one of the things is at ustwo, we don’t have project managers per se. We have people that we call coaches. Out in the world of agile, you have agile coaches or Scrum masters or different language. Delivery managers, delivery leads. That role is kind of the same. But the idea of having facilitators is really, really important to get meetings to be efficient. You need people whose job it is to be looking at the bigger picture of the meetings process as opposed to the specific activities and discussions that are going on so that the meeting can be smooth and it can be effective.

So when you’re talking about doing this online, doing it remotely, that becomes all the more important. What we’ve noticed, and I should also preface this by saying, even though ustwo’s quite familiar with working remotely with our clients and so on, and we have some staff who are permanently remote, this week has forced us to do something we’ve never had to do before. Every single person has to work remotely. So we’re still learning. We’ve gotten some really interesting learnings this week through having to manage that.

So coming back to using facilitators. We found out in our meetings, someone, whether it’s a coach or whoever, but someone has to be designated to kind of be the orchestrator because you don’t have those visual cues that you would have if you were in person. So that person is paying attention and orchestrating how that meeting’s going. Even as simple as knowing if you’re doing a check in that type of thing where each person gets a chance to talk about an issue they’re having or how they’re feeling or whatever that might be. Even knowing who should go next is not obvious as it might be with certain nonverbal communication in a room where everyone’s together. So facilitation I think is super important. When you do it, it makes things a lot better.

Leaving space between meetings. It sounds so trivial, but there are some people whose lives are back-to-back meetings. I’m one of those people. What we’ve experimented with, I think some of you will be familiar with the idea of making a 50 minute meeting. So you put it in your calendar, you have an end at 50 minutes past the hour. The idea is that gives people some space to kind of get to their next meeting if they’re back-to-back.

I have found that actually doesn’t work. People just tend to keep on talking until the time kind of they’re accustomed to sort of the human element of meetings. At the half hour or the hour, I think takes over the idea that we’ve booked it in a calendar to say 50 minutes. So what we’ve been doing is experiment with the idea that meetings are still booked for either a half hour or an hour, but the first five or 10 minutes of that meeting is just chit-chat, bio-break if you need one, whatever. But it creates that feeling of relaxed interaction prior to getting into the meeting. We found that so far it’s been working quite well. It’s an interesting way to solve that problem.

I think this next one is really something that is quite personal. I think it’s people need to take a personal responsibility and paying attention to kind of space they take up. By that I mean when you’re in a meeting, especially when it’s remote, the amount of space you take up is critical to allowing other people to also have space. Because we don’t have those same cues, it helps to be self aware about that. Pause, gives space for other people.

That kind of leads into the next point, which is about checking for explicit understanding. Here I am, I’m going at full pace. I think you understand everything I’m saying. There’s a very good chance there’s some people that don’t understand what I’m saying and not having the opportunity to just pause and say, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I think is a bit of a risk. But when you’re in meetings with your teams, you have more opportunity. Just pause and just check. Do you get what I’m saying? Am I making sense? What I’m saying is making sense?

And then also that last one is leading on the idea of pausing. I think this idea of giving, recognizing that people process differently and some people just need some space. You see a little pause to give people a chance to absorb what you’ve been saying.

Now I’m talking about at a million miles an hour, but that’s because I want to get a lot of information to you in a very short period of time. This will be recorded, so hopefully you can go back and check in the future.

Again, I’ve put it up footnote, “It’s not about the processes.” So it’s not about tools, it’s not really the processes. What is it about? It’s about people. Fundamentally, it’s not about just the people, it’s about culture.

Now out of this whole discussion, there’s two things I’d love you to take away. One is it’s about the culture and the other one is that what matters most is the environment that you create. That has nothing to do with whether online or you’re offline.

So trust. Trust is core to agile ways of working. By that I mean you need an environment where people feel it’s safe to take risks, that it’s safe to give you bad news early, that it’s safe to expect that if I am doing my best and I don’t reach the outcome that we anticipated that I won’t be held accountable in a way that makes it feel like it’s not safe to stretch and reach. Trust, we could probably do a whole discussion on trust by itself as it relates to agile. But I think what we want to do is foster an environment where there’s psychological safety in that trust underpins all of that.

Moving to a less serious tone is the idea of encouraging people to engage in an ad hoc way. So we’ve got a few things that we’re experimenting this week to try and keep the culture of ustwo alive, which keeps people feeling connected and then also people feeling that in their teams, that they maintain that cohesion.

So one of the things we’re doing, which is kind of studio-wide, is to do a sort of a virtual breakfast. So people, they start the day, you can tune into this channel, they’ll be people eating and chatting and asking questions and so on. I think it’s nascent and people are engaging with it. It’s interest to see if that continues where people feel that it’s a good way to start their workday by connecting with others in a very casual sort of way, kind of replicating what we do in the studio.

We’re also doing a 15 minute check in by discipline. So all of the designers get together for 15 minutes at the same time that developers and so on. That is for no other reason than people’s to check in on how people are doing. So clearly, we’re in a context of crisis. So there’s a lot of concern for people’s mental well-being, and also physical well-being to the extent that people could be getting sick or their loved ones. So this gives an opportunity for everyone to just get to see each other. Look each other in the face and hear how people are doing. So that’s been a really interesting thing.

And then there’s a tool I want to mention called Donut. One thing I didn’t say about Slack, one of the reasons why Slack is such a popular platform is that you can integrate an uncountable number of things into it. It’s an amazing platform for integration. One of the tools that we’ve used is something called Donut. D-O-N-U-T. And Donut allows you to add it to one of your channels and it will randomly select two people and say, “You two should meet at some point.” And it would checks in on you and see if you’ve met. It’s a really great way to foster the kind of random interaction that you don’t get when you’re fully remote.

So these are some of the things that we’ve been doing kind of just engender some fun, get some people connected and feeling like a sense of cohesion that can be quite difficult when you’re remote.

The last one, I think actually in some sense connects back to the first one. So sharing work in progress. There’s something about agile, I think we all understand is about transparency and openness. However, when you’re remote, it’s very difficult. You don’t have that same physical space to kind of pin things up and maybe put some Post-it notes and saying, “Hey, what do you think of this?” And so on. So you could use a whiteboard, but that’s a bit of a pull type of technology as opposed to push. Whereas if you had something on walls, it kind of pushes it on you, radiates the need to look at it. But you still need this idea of avoiding the big reveal. You want people to be showing stuff as it’s being developed so that you can get feedback on it. That is in real time and that’s in a time when you can actually use that. So finding ways to encourage work you share and in progress I think is super important to supporting an agile culture.

So that’s it for the content of discussion. I just want to sum up, kind of closes off by saying that the irony is that digital is a human endeavor. What we’re doing to make digital products is all about the human bit of it. And it’s by no accident that the very first sort of principle laid out in the agile manifesto is individuals interactions over processes and tools. To have had that foresight that has transcended two decades of evolution around software development, I think, is really remarkable. I think it’s something we should continue to hold dear. That having the processes and having the tools is not enough. You have to find ways to capitalize on the way individuals interact. So thank you very much.

Bud Caddell:

That was incredible. Thank you so much. I have so many questions for you. There were some questions around Donut, which is a Slack app. That’s correct, right? That you’ve enabled with Slack.

Collin Lyons:

Yeah.

Bud Caddell:

I have a question. So I’m a recovering software engineer and I have some questions about how you’ve been able to make this transition in the last week.

One thing I know about ustwo is that you have such a high taste level when it comes to design. And when you talk about share work in progress, what did you do before you went remote to make sure that… I can only imagine if you’re a new designer at ustwo and you see the work that’s being produced by at how frightening that idea is. But what have you done before going remote and is there anything that you’ve done after going fully remote that has ease the pain or made that feel safer?

Collin Lyons:

Yeah, I think it’s an interesting thing because a lot of people see ustwo as supremely beautiful experiences, which I guess we do have a history of that. The path to that probably doesn’t look a lot like you would expect. We do things very scrappy in the beginning as a way to kind of a surface ideas. And then do a lot of testing and that testing tends to be things with very, very low fidelity. It’s only once we’ve validated the need that we start to move into the higher fidelity. So all of the designers are aligned to having a vision of where we want to go, but moving incrementally. And doing that at the right level of fidelity depending on the level of comfort and confidence we have with what it is that we’re building. So we don’t over invest in anything until we’ve validated that it’s actually worth doing.

Bud Caddell:

Got you. Jackie Morgan asks, “Do you have any insights or opinions around experimenting with agile ways of working on teams that don’t traditionally work in agile? So accounting, human resources. We all know that agile when it hits a waterfall process quickly ends. Have you worked with those groups?

Collin Lyons:

Yeah. So I guess there’s two ways of looking at that question. One way is looking at is how can you get sort of non-software teams getting the benefits that software teams do get by using agile. The way I would say there is that you select the aspects of it that seemed relevant. So for instance, collaboration is a very good example. Collaboration in the context of software will look a particular way. However, if you are in a marketing team using collaborative techniques to lift the work to work to out together, to share, to problem-solve. Those are things that you can do even if you’re not a software team. The idea of showing work that’s in progress is also another thing you can do.

For people who are accustomed to it, that might seem pretty straight forward. But if you’re not accustomed to it, sometimes it’s hard to figure out how do I even do that? I know either it’s not done or it’s done. I don’t really know what to show you in between. So that can be a bit of a learning process, but that’s definitely some things to look at.

Bud Caddell:

Yeah. Sorry, go ahead.

Collin Lyons:

Well, I was just going to say another way of looking at the question would be from the way you… I think you were saying it, but it was just essentially we can have an agile process and it hits up against a waterfall environment. How do you manage that? I think that’s a much more complicated question. But the truth is that what you want to do is find places where you can hook into an existing waterfall methods. So for instance, waterfall approaches, we’ll say we’ve got our milestones and they’re going to be laid out in a particular way. You might say, “Okay, we’re going to continue to work in an agile way, but we will have a target to align with your milestone and we’ll try to come together with you at that point.” We may have to do this kind of thing coming in and out so we can still maintain our agile approach while they’re still working in a waterfall approach.

Bud Caddell:

Got it. I think this is probably the… We only have time for one last question, but I think this is a super important one.

“Are there any specific activities you’d suggest doing and building trust with senior leadership or stakeholders remotely?” This is from [Laxmi 00:20:19]. Yeah. How do you do that now in a remote environment?

Collin Lyons:

It is definitely more challenging. I do think that even when you don’t have remote, it’s still challenging. I think the simplest thing is to honor your commitments. That’s the first thing. Trust is built by people believing they can trust your word. So when you say something’s going to happen, make it happen. And then if it’s not going to happen, be sure you give that bad news as soon as possible and let people know, “I recognize I made this commitment to you, I’m not going to be able to make that. Here’s the reasons why. But here’s my new commitment.” I think that’s the most direct path to building trust with senior people.

Bud Caddell:

I love that. So Collin, thank you so, so, so much for joining us. Incredible stuff. All of these are being recorded and we’ll share them. Also, if you go to our website, you can click on Collin’s face and stalk him on LinkedIn. There you go.

Just a housekeeping staff. So there’s going to be a networking break that’s going to start literally in two minutes. You’ve got three choices. You’ll find them all on our website. One is just some movement and yoga. Sit and do some yoga. Maybe we’ve all been in a chair all day. It’s going to be good for us.

Another one is just sort of a virtual networking groups. So we’ll have a bunch of people join, we’ll split you up and so that you can talk about the sessions that you’ve seen. You can also get to know each other. I don’t know about you, but being sheltered in place here in San Francisco is a bit isolating.

And then the last one and Erin is about to jump off and run it is the very first virtual dog show. So we want to see your work from home companion animals. It’s just a good time to have some fun because my God, it’s a little stressful out there.

Erin Cooper:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bud Caddell:

So thank you to everybody. Thank you so much, Collin. Incredible talk. We’ll see everyone soon. Also, the links for the last section of the day, Resilience of Change, so if you go to our website, just refresh it and you’ll be able to get the right links. That’s it.

Erin Cooper:

Thanks everyone.

Published March 30, 2020

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