Business Agility for the “New Normal”

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The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced organizations to go through rapid change. Some organizations are making the transition to new working conditions more effectively than their competitors, including mitigating remote work, volatile markets, and a new emphasis on health and safety. The difference was their focus on Business Agility. This publication represents Agile By Design’s point-of-view on how Business Agility has become even more essential in the post-pandemic, “new normal”, world.

Organizations around the world are currently experiencing one the most abrupt shifts in their existence. All organizations are forced to adapt in the face of change. This pandemic does not discriminate by industry or region. It is forcing all of us to reflect on how we might be better prepared in the future.

Public health and social guidelines, such as Shelter in Place or Physical Distancing, require organizations to adopt practices that significantly affect operations. Many have struggled to survive. Some organizations are set to re-open as we approach the summer of 2020. Several regions have already started the process of re-opening their economies with strict guidelines. Those same strict guidelines are the “new normal” we often hear discussed.

Health restrictions immediately changed life at home and at work.

The current health and social restrictions will form new social expectations and entrench a lasting change. Physical Distancing will permanently alter how organizations deliver products and services. Working from home habits will increase the emphasis on work flexibility, distributed teams, and online collaboration. Many industries lack clear timelines and guidelines for their recovery over the next 12 to 24 months.

Agile by Design believes that organizations must increase their focus on Business Agility now, more than ever. We present 3 main stages of focus that an organization must consider as we transition to the “new normal”:

  1. Reset – embrace remote work and re-focus on value delivery.
  2. Succeed – iterate on business models that increase value.
  3. Accelerate – continually re-structure to outpace market changes.

Business Agility is critical to succeeding in this time of increased, and prolonged uncertainty.

Reset – Improve transparency across business portfolios to increase adaptability in changing market conditions.

“There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.”

– Franz Kafka

Historically, many organizations sought more effective means to support remote workers prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Now, there is greater demand for this expertise, as entire workforces have suddenly found themselves working remotely. Transparency has never been more important. In response, organizations have elevated team agile practices, such as visual backlogs, and lean flow, to the program and portfolio level using digital tools. This has enabled transparency across organizational silos and hierarchies, including departments, vendors, and customers. Organizations that have elevated their transparency, have sustained and improved their ability to align on, and address organization-wide concerns as they happen. These organizations have also laid out the groundwork that increases their ability to proactively respond to change.

Our client’s portfolio management tool that combines lean and agile principles to increase awareness and transparency across organizational silos.

Tip: Use Portfolio Kanban, or similar practices and tools, to visualize cross-team work and impediments. Collectively take ownership of organizational impediments and focus on improvements as a portfolio “team”. Shift the mindset from “your problem”, to “this is our problem”.

Case Study: In a recent scenario, our Telecommunications client initiated the planning for a brand refresh of a major product just as the complexity of working from home was being mandated. In spite of several major hurdles, including mostly new employees doing the work, our client was able to use agile portfolio management to help coordinate approximately two dozen different teams. This enabled close alignment across the executive and team level. The client was able to deliver all operational, business, and front-to-back processes with their dependent IT systems by the planned launch date.

Reset – Implement enterprise practices to rapidly re-deploy people into teams based on shifting requirements.

The abrupt shift in many industries, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced companies to double-down on mission-critical operations. At first, organizations were concerned with maintaining operations to stay afloat. Next, organizations needed to rapidly re-direct teams and people to mission critical activities, such as supporting call centres, IT operations, and other initiatives focused on providing services to customers who required immediate support. Many organizations have put core initiatives on hold and plan to restart as we transition to the ”new normal”. Some organizations are managing this continued shift in priority both thoughtfully and quickly. They can rapidly agree on value-for-effort and ensure the best use of limited resources and people. A key component of success has been the use of lightweight methods to break up priorities into smaller, minimal increments of value, and then shift people and teams as required to deliver on these priorities.

Tip: Digitize activities that break down priorities into minimal increments, using a tool that is accessible and understood by everyone. Deploy people into cross-functional teams based on optimal value-for-effort initiatives. Use a dedicated planning cadence to regularly re-deploy teams and people as priorities change.

Case Study: Immediately following the transition to remote work, leading financial institutions were asked by the Federal Government to deliver on an emergency program that would facilitate the direct deposit of relief funds to both consumers and business account holders. Leveraging portfolio level visualization, our client was able to quickly assess impact on existing strategic program work and re-structure a cross functional team (pulling from many areas) to successfully deliver on the mandate. The Federal Government praised our client’s ability to quickly and flawlessly deliver on the mandate.

Reset – Digitize agile concepts to enable virtual teams and increase effective collaboration.

Organizations making the sudden shift to remote work have faced challenges. We looked at a cross-section of companies and saw that some were better prepared than others. Often, it came down to differences in team culture and digital tooling. Several organizations delayed investments in digital technology, which immediately hindered work productivity at the outset of physical distancing. Other organizations had not established the concept of cross functional teams to deliver on outcomes.

The most successful organizations were able to take advantage of both digital tools and well-established teams to create “virtual” agile team collaboration spaces. They adopted a remote work culture that enabled the right balance of collaboration and individual focus. We expect the “new normal” to embrace the home-office.

Tip: Provide options to truly digitize all aspects of agile team practices. Use digital Kanban boards, collaboration boards, team video conferencing, chat, and create a “virtual team space”. Consider implementing dedicated team collaboration and individual focus hours using team calendars.

Case Study: In the early days of transition from in-person collaboration to remote work, our automotive client had to quickly adopt tooling and infrastructure to meet the needs of their remote workforce. With already well-established agile teams, Agile By Design supported their teams’ transition to tooling that met the needs of agile team practices and collaboration. The client quickly recognized the value of good digital tooling combined with face-to-face video conferencing.

Succeed – Rapidly evolve organizational processes that maximize value and adapt to rapid change.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

All businesses will face new guidelines for re-opening their offices or store-fronts. We are already seeing examples of businesses forced to re-think their traditional processes for re-opening. Organizations must look across the whole value stream to effectively convert physical processes to digital or contact-less processes. Those that adapt their processes, services, and products first will win a disproportionate share of demand and learning.

Tip: Model your value stream and challenges using lightweight practices such as value stream mapping, 5-Whys, A3, PDCA, or other continuous improvement techniques. Build a cross-functional team that focuses on problems holistically and can effectively uncover opportunities to convert processes. Often this means mixing people from various Business and IT departments into one team.

Case Study: For one of our clients, the initial onset of the COVID-19 caused their business and delivery processes to be turned upside down. To manage the uncertainty of the situation, the client began a series of continuous improvement events including surveys, video conferencing, and electronic retrospectives. The aim was to collect feedback, crowd source improvements, pilot & scale. In this way, their remote setting improvements include monthly achiever recognition, motivation exercises, no meeting times, home equipment, social games, among others.

Succeed – Embrace a “test and learn” mindset for problem solutions to outpace market recovery.

It is not enough to simply convert existing processes to digital or contact-less. Market recovery will not be straightforward for most organizations. These organizations must be flexible enough to test multiple re-opening and business market scenarios. New products and services will emerge that fit the context of the “new normal”. In many cases, revenue forecast models will need to be put aside in favour of a test and learn approach. It is now more critical than ever that organizations adopt a culture of experimentation and customer centricity. Organizations can encourage a Design Thinking style idea creation approach that is managed through a flow of constant market validation (known as Validated Learning) . Organizations who embrace an experimental mindset to iterate on their products and services will position themselves to outpace market recovery.

Tip: Combine practices from Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile into a single flow to enable measurable and problem-driven solutions. Validate a solution and problem space using a variety of research and facilitation sessions. Utilize user testing to validate customer and solution related assumptions. Deliver the smallest possible solution increment that enables further customer validation. Validate users are getting value from your solution, starting with a small set of users, and gradually expanding the user base.

Accelerate – Increase the scope and autonomy necessary to truly deliver, and then own business outcomes.

“I learned that the moment you want to slow down is the moment you should accelerate.”

– James Dyson

Enabling autonomous teams significantly accelerates adaptability and improves economic outcomes. Most organizations use “agile teams” for a relatively narrow scope of responsibility, often limited to delivering software systems. Organizations that want to succeed in an environment of constant, and now abrupt change, will double down on the concept of agile teams . They will both bolster capability, as well as increase permission of teams to take over maintenance, operations, and support.

Tip: Iteratively widen the scope of agile teams by including more capabilities. Look for ways to extend the mandate of teams to include both upstream and downstream processes. Integrate operations and support processes through a relentless focus on automation. Increase team autonomy to make more decisions without dependency on centralized governance.

Case Study: In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our enterprise financial services clients made the decision to begin augmenting the responsibility of their delivery teams. The goal was to evolve from application-centric, cross-functional delivery teams to owning end-to-end customer facing product outcomes. By reducing the number of dependencies and expensive hand-offs between teams, they were able to transition teams to a remote operating model extremely quickly, with no “ripple effect” to other teams, or negative effects on value delivery.

Accelerate – Maximize the decision making of people who have the closest contact to your customers.

In an environment of extreme uncertainty, increasing autonomy of teams may not go far enough. Some organizations are extending the team concept to take full ownership of a market outcome, each team acting as a “Micro-Enterprise”.  They do this so that teams can take advantage of a feedback loop that outpaces market change. Moving as many people as possible closer to your customers or end users, dramatically increases the speed of which information flows into your organization. Moving authority and decision-making to the people closest to the customer, will result in better economic outcomes and customer experiences.

Tip: Place most people into teams that have direct contact with real customers. Teams closest to the market can respond more rapidly to changing conditions. Empower market facing teams to take on responsibility for owning and operating towards a market outcome. Measure performance on market-based metrics. Base decision making on market feedback from actual customers and end users.

Case Study: Our client’s shift to end-to-end customer facing product teams had a desirable shift in behaviour within the teams. The possibility to engage customers throughout the discovery and delivery cycles had the desired effect of shifting the product backlog to one that was centered around what this client’s customers needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, customer engagement and learning is critical in re-prioritizing team and portfolio backlogs.

Accelerate – Adopt flexible organizational structures to remain adaptable to the next once-in-a-lifetime event.

When docks flooded in Ontario cottage country in 2013, they said it was a 100-year event. Then the docks flooded again in 2019, only 6 years later. Let us not assume that another global pandemic or other major event will not impact us. Organizations that maintain flexible organizational structures and frequently evolve them, will ultimately remain market leaders.

Tip: Use Organization Mapping to create a view of market demand, required capabilities, and the supporting organizational structure. Look at your organization from many different perspectives and define a structure for your teams. Backlogs and visual management are prerequisites. Continue to re-visit your map and adjust as market conditions change.


We have come across several comments regarding the necessity of agile in the context of COVID-19 and in the subsequent recovery. Some organizations have refrained from making a business agility transition before the pandemic, treating it as nice-to-have. It is important now, more than ever, to seriously consider making changes in your organization that maximize agility. We are witnessing a significant difference between those organizations already along their business agility transition path, and those that have not started. Companies already on their business agility journey are faring much better in these times and have demonstrated an ability to rapidly adapt to remote work, market volatility, and other health related restrictions.

What’s next?

  1. Look for opportunities in your organization to tackle near-term problems and set up the right teams to tackle them. Tear down barriers that get in the way of a quick response.
  2. Embrace flexible organizational structures that allow you to rapidly move people and resources to high-priority areas.
  3. Enable and equip your people with the right tools they need to be effective, efficient, and productive from home. Consider subsidizing your employee’s home-office purchases.
  4. Introduce a new mindset, practices, and cultural changes that emphasize experimentation. Consider that the “new normal” is a moving target, and that there will be more abrupt changes down the road. Be prepared to adapt just as quickly.
  5. Look for ways to extend the autonomy of agile teams. Introduce successive waves of change that increase the scope of teams to include: support, operations, governance, and market ownership.
  6. Seek advice and guidance from the community, experienced employees, and trusted 3rd parties to help you through your transition.

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