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How Are Agile and the Coronavirus Crisis Related?

Have you thought about how Agile and the current coronavirus crisis are related? I think that there is a lot we can learn from applying an agile approach to the coronavirus crisis. The current coronavirus crisis that is going on throughout the world now is probably one of the worst crises that the world has ever seen in at least 100 years and it poses some very significant challenges from a management perspective. Its easy to see how inadequate our traditional, plan-driven management approaches are for managing this kind of crisis and it seems very apparent that a very different style of management is needed.

Agile and the Coronavirus Crisis

A lot of people have used this as an opportunity to criticize President Trump and the US government for how this crisis is being managed. There are certainly some things that are not perfect but I prefer to take a more objective and systemic view. When you step back and look at this from that perspective, you begin to see that a whole different management approach may be emerging here.

Why Is a Different Management Approach Needed?

The project management profession has been going through very profound and significant changes as a result of the influence of Agile. These same changes have a similar impact on organizational and business management as well. As a result of the coronavirus, it will also apply to how the government manages this crisis. There are two very important forces driving this change:

1. Levels of Uncertainty

A traditional, plan-driven management approach doesn’t work well with high levels of uncertainty that require a much more flexible and adaptive approach to deal with the uncertainty. In today’s world, there are typically much higher levels of uncertainty that we need to deal with. That means that we need to get started quickly without trying to resolve all of the uncertainty first and resolve the uncertainty as we go along

If there ever was a situation that fits this criteria, coronavirus is it:

  • No one has ever faced a worldwide pandemic of this severity and magnitude before
  • It is a new virus that we do not have a known treatment and cure for and there is no vaccine at this time
  • We don’t fully understand the impact – some people will develop mild or moderate symptoms and recover quickly; others will develop much more severe symptoms and possibly die

2. Need for Creativity and Innovation

The design and implementation of complex solutions can be very demanding and an excessive emphasis planning and control can stifle the creativity that is needed to develop leading-edge, innovative solutions

Coronavirus also fits this criteria. It requires a lot of creativity and innovation to find a solution and it is urgent to find a solution quickly. Empowering a number of different companies and agencies thorughout the world to find a solution without an excessive level of planning and control is essential to increase the odds of finding an effective solution.

It should be apparent that a traditional, plan-driven management approach won’t work well in this situation.

What Can We Learn From This So Far?

We can learn a lot from the experience we have had in the US so far:

Initial Response Time

Certainly the severity of the virus wasn’t well-understood in the initial stages; and for that reason, the initial response of the US governmentwas criticized for being slow to get started. In hindsight, we should have gotten started more quickly before waiting for more certain information; however, there are at least several mitigating factors that influenced the US government’s response:

  • Any response should be proportional to the severity of the problem; and in the initial stages, the severity of the problem was not well-understood. It’s difficult to develop a response based on speculation of how we think the situation is going to evolve if we really don’t know
  • In a problem of this nature, it’s important to keep everyone calm. We don’t want to create unnecessary panic and alarm in the population
  • Anything you do to control the spread of the virus is likely to have significant economic and personal impact. For example, enforcing stay-at-home orders to control the spread of the virus will result in closing down thousands of businesses and putting millions of people out-of-work
  • Above all else, this is an unprecented situation in history that noone has ever faced before and it is difficult to develop a quick response to such an unknown situation

Nonetheless, this is another indication of the need for a more agile approach. In a situation like this, a traditional, plan-driven managemetn approach where you wait for some level of certainty before getting started will result in a slow startup. This kind of crisis demands getting started quickly and that requires a more agile management appraoch that gets started with some level of uncertainty that is unresolved.

Management Process

Once we were past the initial startup phase, there seemed to be different schools of thought on how the resolution of the crisis should be managed:

1. Plan-Driven, Top-Down Approach

Many people are used to a traditional “big government” approach where the US federal government is expected to take almost total responsibility for solving any problem like this that you might have. The approach involves centralized, top-down, plan-driven management direction driven by the federal government. In project management terms, that is essentially equivalent to a traditional plan-driven project management approach. That has been a somewhat expected role of the federal government for a long time. We have been slowly moving away from that approach but the coronavirus crisis probably indicates that we’re not moving away from it fast enough.

2. Distributed, Collaborative Approach

Others (including myself) think that in this kind of situation that kind of approach is unrealistic, ineffective, and inconsistent with the way the US government was intended to operate. A more realistic approach for the federal government seems to be to:

  • Take a leadership role but not become a bottleneck by trying to over-control every aspect of the solution
  • Partner with private industry as necessary to fully engage them in a collaborative effort to develop solutions
  • Share responsibility with state and local government and empower the state and local governments to determine what is best for their particular area
  • Engage all US citizens to do their part by adhering to social distancing recommendations

In project management terms, this is equivalent to the way an Agile/Scrum project would be managed. Instead of having a single person called a “Project Manager” who provides centralized control of all aspectes of the solution, the functions that might be provided by a project manager have been distributed among the members of the Agile/Scrum team. That results in a much more dynamic form of project management.

What’s the Right Approach?

The contrast between those two management approaches is very similar to the difference between a traditional, plan-driven project management approach and a more Agile approach:

  • Traditional, Plan-driven Approach – The traditional plan-driven management approach emphasizes planning and control of the effort as well as centralized management decision-making controlled by a project manager to achieve some level of predictability over project costs and schedules.
  • Agile Approach – A more Agile approach recognizes and accepts the level of uncertainty in the situation, emphasizes getting started quickly and is based on using an incremental and iterative approach to refine and further elaborate the solution as the project is in progress rather than waiting for the solution to be defined before getting started. In this kind of environment, if there is a project manager involved at all, he/she plays more of a leadership role and less of a controlling role

At a project management level, we’ve been moving away from a pure, traditional, plan-driven approach for some time but it has been a very slow, gradual progression. The coronavirus crisis probably indicates that transition is more urgent than we may think it is. However, as I have emphasized in my books and training courses, this is not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between two extremes. Many situations will require a blend of these two approaches.

Why Is There So Much Polarization Over This?

There has been an incredible amount of polarization over this.

  • For some people, it’s politics. Its just a continuation of all the other failed efforts to discredit President Trump and remove him from office. It’s amazing that some people would like to see President Trump fail in his efforts to control the spread of the virus because they would see it as a political win. They will find any excuse to blame the US government and President Trump for any aspect of how the crisis is being managed
  • Many other people don’t seem to understand the need for a more agile approach and are firmly-entrenched in the “Big Government” plan-driven solution approach. It’s the way things have been done for years and significant change doesn’t come easily

These problems, in fact, are very similar to the change management problems that you might face in trying to implement an Agile approach in a large corporate environment. Implementing Agile at an enterprise level frequently requires some level of organizational transformation to get it to work effectively and there are often people who will resist change and attempt to preserve the status quo. Preserving their power base and their way of doing things may be more importtant than doing what’s good for the overall business.

What’s Necessary to Make These Changes?

Agile Management Approach

Although the US federal government response may have gotten off to a slow start, I think the administration is on the right track now to develop a much more agile approach to managing this kind of crisis. If you look at what’s being done differently, here are some of the key things that I see that are important:

  • Recognize the Level of Uncertainty – It’s a very dynamic, agile approach that recognizes the uncertainty in the situation and is flexible and adaptive. The daily briefings that are being done by the coronavirus team look a lot like “Daily Standups” in Scrum
  • Empowered Team Approach – The team is empowered and collaborative and everyone shares a common vision of doing whatever is necessary to find a solution to the coronavirus crisis. Mike Pence looks somewhat like he is playing the role of an Agile Product Owner with President Trump as the key Business Sponor. The team is massive and consists of companies in private industry, state and local governments, many federal agencies (FDA, FEMA, CDC, etc.) and even individual citizens throughout the country doing their part to implement social distancing. Trying to pull together a team effort of that level of scope is an amazing effort
  • Cutting Through Excessive Regulation – There is also an emphasis on cutting through unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy to get things done. For example, the FDA has radically streamlined many of their approval processes for bringing new drugs to market

Change Management

It’s very clear that not everyone is on board with how this effort is being managed and there are still plenty of “naysayers” on the sidelines waiting for it to fail. That’s a change management problem that needs to be addressed. One of my favorite sources on change management is John Kotter’s book on “Leading Change”. It’s a classic that has been around for a number of years. Kotter has identified a number of errors that companies (or, in this case, governments) make when attempting to bring about change. There are three of Kotter’s factors that I believe are most significant:

1. Not Creating a Sense of Urgency

Creating and communicating a sense of urgency is probably the most important factor. I don’t think many people could argue that the coronavirus situation is about as urgent as you can get. What needs to be done; however, is to clearly and consistently communicate the sense of urgency. The US government has attempted to downplay the urgency of the situation somewhat to avoid creating panic and to keep people motivated that things will get better soon. The result is that some people are clearly not taking it seriously enough. Some are resisting social distancing recommendations and many are using the situation to gain political leverage rather than working for the common good of the whole country. The government needs to be a lot more forthright in communicating how serious the situation really is.

2. Vision For the Future

Another one of Kotter’s errors is “Underestimating the Power of Vision”. While I think the administration is doing a lot of the right things, they haven’t clearly communicated the vision that they’re trying to accomplish. There are some fundamental changes in the way that the government works to make this whole solution successful. They’re moving in that direction but that vision needs to be more clearly communicated to everyone involved including political opponents who may not want to go along with it.

3. Failure to Show Short-Term Progress

The third one of Kotter’s errors is “Failure ot Show Short-term Progress”. There are always “naysayers” who will resist change, but it becomes increasingly difficult for them to do that if the effort is really moving forward and showing positive results that are indisputable. This is something that I think the administration is actually doing well. The daily briefings spend a lot of time talking about short-term progress (masks and ventilators produced and distributed, etc.). Yesterday’s briefing on Tuesday March 30 was particularly good. It not only talked about what the administration is diong, it brought in CEO’s of major businesses to talk about what they’re doing. I have included a video of that briefing below:

Agile and the Coronavirus Crisis – Overall Summary

We’re in the midst of a major transformation that effects every level of management:

  • Project Management,
  • Organizational Management and Business Management, and
  • Govermental Management

The coronavirus will force us to develop a new management approach quickly in order to solve this crisis. This approach has to be more agile, but as I have emphasized, this is not a binary and mutually-excusive choice between an Agile approach and a more traditional, plan-driven approach. It probably requires blending those two approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation.

The management approach we use for solving the coronavirus crisis could be the prototype for a much more dynamic and responsive style of management in the future for many commercial businesses as well as government agencies. This also calls for some “out-of-the-box” thinking on how to apply an Agile approach to non-software development projects and at higher levels of management in addition to projects. The approach may not be Scrum, but it still embodies Agile thinking.

What we have seen developing at the Project Management level is only a glimpse of the broader changes that will have a massive impact on management at all of these levels (including government). It may require a huge transformation to make these changes and there is likely to be some resistance that needs to be overcome. Perhaps the coronavirus is the catalyst that is needed to create a sense of urgency about making these changes.

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Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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