Digital Transformation during a Pandemic: Lessons Learned

Article Agile

Our leaders find unique and innovative ways to deliver quality planning and leadership sessions remotely, overcoming limitations on traditional interpersonal communication and learning styles.

INTRODUCTION

For years, it was assumed by many that being in an office and collaborating face to face was one of the most effective ways to get work done. To a few, it was in fact the only way. I have personally worked with leaders who strongly believed that remote work should not be allowed, and would vehemently express the opinion that it would be “abused.” It is possible that those few leaders still have those opinions but for many, the past year was eye opening to just how productive and effective their employees can be.

For me personally, this year proved that sometimes our assumptions and strong beliefs prevent us from achieving our goals. They may hold us back from what could be extraordinary success in delivering value to our clients.

 

ASSUMPTIONS AND STRONG BELIEFS

A few years ago, I along with a team of Agile Coaches facilitated a Program Increment (PI) Planning Session for over 30 teams within a few short weeks. It was a huge success gaining clarity of the vision, roadmap alignment, cross team dependency identification, relationship building, and rapid collaborative decision-making. There was only one problem with that planning session: the cost. A large chunk of the budget was spent on flying everyone in from all over the world. When one of the major stakeholders approached me with the budget concern and asked to brainstorm alternatives, I knew I didn't have a quick answer for him. We experimented with running PI Planning for smaller independent teams remotely. It wasn’t the same but seemed good enough, especially for more incremental work rather than starting something new. We agreed to limit the in-person, large PI Planning session to once a year and continue with remote sessions whenever possible.

We kept an open mind (or so it seemed at the time), but eventually agreed that there was just no way to run a quality PI Planning session with 100+ people remotely. I truly believed that there was just no way. I strongly believed that unless you got people in the room together, no tools or professional facilitators could keep 100+ people focused and collaborating effectively remotely.

To my own surprise, I had quite a few eye opening moments this year!

 

PI PLANNING REIMAGINED

Biggest surprise of all: We got feedback from participants that 100+ people online was even better than in person. Truly unexpected, but we took it with gratitude and appreciation.

When we engage with clients, we run insight workshops to first understand their pain points. We work collaboratively to identify areas of improvement and create backlogs to track the work that needs to happen for a successful digital transformation. We often find that the root cause of most pain points is the lack of alignment between the vision and what needs to happen in order to bring that vision to life. We start with a training session on what PI Planning is and what it solves, but mainly focus on what the outcomes of a successful session look like. Once clients see the benefits of a PI Planning and are willing to experiment with it, we discuss what needs to happen in order to prepare for it. The input to the planning sessions are well-defined Epics, and the state of the Epics define next steps. We run another training session right before the event to show product owners, scrum masters, and stakeholders what the execution of the event will look like. This is where we had to completely pivot during the past year.

When COVID-19 hit and forced us to shift and adapt in all aspects of our lives, we had just completed in-person PI Planning sessions for multiple clients and had just returned from a scrum master summit in Chennai, India.

Biggest surprise of all: We got feedback from participants that having 100+ people online was even better than being in person.

How do you go from using five conference rooms to accommodate 100+ people with seven different teams, to not being able to get anyone together? No flip charts. No sticky notes. How do you go from believing that unless you travel to India, you won’t be able to train and facilitate teams, to having to do it remotely?

A few of my colleagues who were extra savvy with a collaboration tool called Mural took on the challenge, transferring everything we had done in person and on the walls of conference rooms to the online tool. They worked very closely with teams to make sure Epics were in good shape, and what would previously have gone up on the wall of a conference room was instead entered into Mural. The agenda for the event itself remained largely unchanged, however we did eventually recommend adding an extra day to cut the sessions shorter each day. We discuss this process in detail in multiple Apex Systems Podcasts.

My colleague Nadia Clifford, Digital Transformation Coach had this to say about our PI Planning experience:

"One of my early 2020 learnings was that a fully virtual PI Planning event can be much more collaborative and productive than an in-person event. Everyone was able to participate equally because we were all sitting in front of our computers at home, using video conferencing and looking at the same virtual whiteboards. Participation was equal, regardless of people’s time zone or location. A similar previous event that had a mix of onsite and remote locations was biased towards onsite participants and didn’t allow equal participation from offshore teams.”

Now in ‘COVID times,’ we have run many extremely successful remote PI Planning sessions for hundreds of attendees using collaboration tools such as Zoom, Miro, and Mural, and others. Regardless of the tools used and with extensive preparation and multiple dry runs, we managed to have successful PI Planning sessions with collaborative breakouts where we achieved the objectives and desired outcomes. It proved that our assumptions and strong beliefs might not always be reality. My eye-opening moments didn’t end at the remote PI Planning sessions. There was more.

 

LEADERSHIP TRAINING

My last day onsite in an office building with people other than my immediate family was in the middle of March, 2020, which became a memorable day for me. We had just wrapped up scrum master summits for a client when the executives sponsor for this engagement approached me about a similar training for their leaders.

It turned out to be a memorable day because my response was:

“Let’s hold off on that. Leadership training is truly more effective with everyone in the room.”

At the time, I genuinely believed there was no way to build rapport with high level executives we hadn’t met before, get them to open up, and be receptive to what we had to offer remotely. It was a strong belief that I was able to shatter myself in less than six months later. Since then, we transferred all hands-on exercises to the online version and delivered remote leadership training to 60+ executive leaders, all of whom were very receptive. 

 

CONCLUSION

A lot has happened in the past year, and we continue to build our resilience. We test our patience when our colleagues are talking on mute or dogs start barking in the middle of a sentence. We learn to not take it personally when someone decides they have had enough camera time for the day. We accommodate parents who have young children at home and show empathy to those who are sick or struggling.

We collaborate with our colleagues and clients to come up with best solutions. We remind each other it is important to take care of yourself and perhaps go for that walk. We listen to each other. We brain storm together what can be done next in order to continuously improve.

This year we learned just how important it is to be forgiving, understanding, supportive and creative. We also learned that being open to embrace change and challenge our assumptions and strong beliefs allowed us to innovate and continue to deliver value to our clients.