How agile saved the game for our international projects in times of COVID19. My experience.

COVID-19 is still having an impact on us all and will do so for a longer term yet. Nevertheless, projects around the world still take place, maybe in an adapted form but they surely are on the run – some of them with more success than others. Companies are trying desperately to keep things running. In some cases they have put in place online collaboration options – more or less – in a professional manner. But what happens when an organisation is in urgent need of an assessment or an intervention from a third party that needs to be flown in from abroad? It happened to us and I would like to share some experiences with you:

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Our international projects are partnerships with clients. According to the Cambridge Dictionary a partnership is “an agreement between organisations, people, etc. to work together”. While this is a correct definition of a partnership I would personally think that it goes far beyond this. A partnership has the vision of “collaboration” intrinsic in it. The Cambridge Dictionary says about collaboration that it is “the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”. Now, this goes more into what our success stories of the last months tell us. But there is still one step missing here: from the partnership to collaboration to creating a successful team.

This is our experience:

We were asked to conduct 2 different assessments abroad including interviews, review rounds, second and third rounds of interviews, partly in some difficult regions of the world. Normally, we would have assembled the team, took the plane, conduct the assessments and fly back home. But Covid-19 was there, the lockdown was there, and our clients dearly needed our help. Online interviews in both cases were only partly feasible due to the complexity of the issues and partly due to the locations. So we decided to propose a combined approach of coordination and online delivery from within and local LIVE expertise. We used our network of local experts and created a partnership approach to be able to deliver what our clients needed. We and our partners learnt through the first assessment and then made the necessary adjustments to our approach as we went onto the second. The question we had the first time was how to ensure the same quality of results we normally deliver with our internal team and nevertheless to deliver the project in time and budget. So we decided to ensure three things:

  • The feeling of a team must be present at all times
  • We have to be flexible, trust each other and be accountable to each other and the client
  • In short: we will be agile

Ensure the team is strong and works as a successful team

“A strong team can take any crazy vision and turn it into reality.” – John Carmack

After we took the decision on the local experts, the partnership was created and collaboration needed to start. However, the picture was the following: 

  • Expertise teams sitting in a total of 4 countries. 
  • The assessment to take place in a developing country. 
  • Constraints in time and budget.
  • A virus going mad in some of the locations
  • Different lockdown restrictions
  • Failing communication systems in the target country and complete dependency on internet availability

Basically all the nightmares you as a project manager can imagine were present. But the team had the expertise and the determination to make this a success. Thankfully internet did function well during the “Getting to know us” kick-off session, which had a careful preparation in order to really give room for the people to get to know each other. That first well prepared online session, including professional and personal presentations, short questions rounds, experience sharing and tools discussion and games in an informal way, was the basis to built the strong team to get the project done despite all the constraints. Informal sessions became a part of every weeks closure, although this was not intended it turned out to be the one thing that built a strong team feeling in which everyone knew they could count on everybody. And…we had fun! 

This was so successful that we decided to copy it for the second assessment which took place in a different country and with different teams. The results were again fantastic. Looking at the characteristics of successful teams, this way we were able to ensure the following ones:

  • communicate well with each other
  • offer each other support
  • ensure and embrace diversity
  • have fun!

Be flexible, accountable and agile

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” –  Stephen Hawking

Now, the collaboration needed to be put in place but how to be flexible on one hand, keep accountability within the team and deliver the project in the time given. We needed to get everyone at all times on the same page and keep it simple for everyone. We decided to have a short 15 minute Zoom call each day, in the best scrum manner, each one of us should share:

  • What did I do since the last call?
  • What will I do until the next call?
  • What barriers are hindering me and who can help me?

Due to the communication constraints, it was important for us to have progress and issues of the project visualised, so we went for a Kanban-Board and decided to use Trello. This way we were able to keep the whole team informed about progress at all times. 

By using the board we increased the productivity of the team as everybody was able to see how the others were progressing. This gave all of us the kick to get our things done! And, whenever someone had too much on their plate others were able to take over and help out. All in all, collaboration was not only secured but definitely improved. We were able to react on a daily basis to new developments in the target country, enabling a flexibility to react practically on real time. 

For this endeavour we gave the client reading access to the board, becoming not only completely transparent within the team but also towards the client. This ended in us having the complete trust from the client. Our team lead ensured short feedback sessions with the client almost on a daily basis, so that barriers to our agile way of working were swept away and the team in the target country was free to work.

Having had a distance to recap on those projects, we can say, that by using these agile tools and approaches, we ensured the following characteristics of successful teams:

  • focus on goals and results
  • everyone contributes
  • offer each other support
  • good leadership
  • the team is self-organised

We have been able to build new strong international partnerships and repeat that success for the benefit of our clients using agile principles.

Agile originally started as a powerful tool for software development, not only providing benefits to the development team but also providing a number of important benefits to the client. 

It has surpassed the boundaries of just software development a long time ago. Our examples are a living proof of it. Agile helps project teams deal with many of the most common project pitfalls (such as cost, schedule predictability and scope creep) in a more controlled manner. Despite all the constraints we were able to deliver in time and within the budgetary limits.

In today’s disruptive world, organisations look for a flexible approach to delivering projects and want to become more agile. However, for organisations delivering projects and programs, and where traditional project management processes still exist, the informality of the agile approach is challenging and considered too risky. I can only recommend you to give it a shot but remember that this is not only a set of tools or just an approach. A change in culture is required from your organisation to really gain from its benefits. 

We at 3E believe that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE and SYSTEMS should be in sync in order for you to be successful. We believe that agile methodologies at every level of an organisation are the answer to cope with the disruptive elements around the world because they minimise risks, they reduce costs, they are flexible and can adapt to new developments at every time, and they increase the delivery speed or time to market.