By Lenka Pincot
When crisis strikes, the first thing we’d like to do is quickly re-prioritize, re-assign resources to the activities that provide the most value under the current circumstances and materialize the benefits as soon as possible. While this may be a distant dream for some organizations, it is far more realistic for those that have gone through at least the early stages of agile transformation.
Why is that?
In the 13th Annual State of Agile Report, the ability to manage changing priorities was listed as the top reported benefit of adoption of agile practices. It’s followed by project visibility. These two factors go hand-in-hand.
Companies with multiple project portfolios that have adopted large-scale agile practices must find a way to align priorities across compact cross-functional agile teams. This may be done in various ways, whether we call it Program Increment Planning (SAFe framework), Scrum of Scrums or Quarterly Business Reviews (inspired by Google and Netflix, and popularized by ING). These alignment activities all require agile teams to define their initiatives so that benefits are traceable and achievable on a short-term timeline. As such, it doesn’t leave much space for building dazzling business cases, right? At this point, the project visibility to all parties involved in prioritization and planning is crucial.
The OKR Method
Because agile teams maintain a certain level of dependencies among one another (e.g., shared technological platforms), their initiatives must be prioritized with this in mind. There is certainly more than one way to get these project teams on the same page and across the finish line together. I am preferential to the OKRs method, which involves translating business objectives (O) into actionable, quarterly-based commitments, or key results (KR). While objectives should describe what you want to achieve in a 12-to-18-month period, quarterly, measurable key results explain how you get there and are regularly redefined.
Next, ask agile teams to provide you with a clear link that shows how their initiatives support the quarterly key results. As a result, activities are exposed to an open discussion to determine how they support project goals and if they are enough to help project teams achieve what they need to achieve.
When strategic priorities change (e.g., a company needs to strengthen its online operations during the COVID-19 crisis, when a month ago its main revenues came from physical customer interactions), you assign higher priority to the respective OKRs and move the linked initiatives to the top of the list. But this only works if you’ve achieved a high level of transparency and trust across the organization. And agile teams provide smaller and more measurable product increments, so that their business value is easy to understand.
Because agile teams are stable, they have resources to execute the top priorities instantly. The agile mode of delivery is iterative, so there is no need for detailed analysis prior to the actual implementation. Teams are actionable right after re-prioritization occurs.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience such high agile organizational maturity firsthand. It is fair to say that achieving the organizational capabilities described above takes many years and a lot of persistence, coaching and awareness-building. But once you’ve moved to such a stage, you know that the agile approach will have your back when you need it most.
How has agile helped your team manage changing priorities?