The Agile Cure for Continuity in a Crisis

March 30, 2020
3 Minute Read

The spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 created an unprecedented level of uncertainty for the entire business world. Although there’s still much we don’t know about its ultimate impact, we must continually prepare for this kind of Black Swan event before—not after—it strikes.

Unpredictability is always a hallmark of complexity. But the sheer scale of unpredictability caused by this global pandemic has exposed unprecedented weaknesses in many organizations’ ability to operate at a higher level of complexity.

So, how can we best handle this kind of crisis? While it’s impossible to create predefined response plans for unknown events, we must develop the behaviors and mindsets needed to quickly coordinate, communicate effectively and make rapid decisions on appropriate actions to stay a step ahead.

Agile organizations are better prepared than others to absorb the impact of an unforeseen crisis and recover quickly to maintain business continuity. Here are some key insights into why—and how.

Agile Mindset and Tools: Made for ‘VUCA’

VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity—is a term coined by the U.S. Army College after the Cold War, but it’s gaining new relevance in today’s global health crisis. The empowered and self-organizing Agile team construct can provide the mindset and tools needed to operate effectively within VUCA circumstances. For example, Agile organizations know that in order to be effective in such environments, it’s critical that inefficiencies from company hierarchies don’t interfere with self-organized teams that can swiftly coordinate and decisively curtail negative impacts. These teams are typically closer to the problems at hand and often have the most up-to-date information for making the right decisions.

Leadership communication also plays a key role during this time. Agile leaders ensure that communication is frictionless and transparent throughout the organization, so everyone is working from the same storyline. Vision that’s consistently reinforced yet open to feedback will provide guide rails for team performance and delivery. Clarity, candor and consistency beat rumors and watering-hole speculation every time.

Testing Response Plans with Crisis Simulations

Almost every large organization has documented disaster recovery and business continuity (BC/DR) plans. But for many, these plans do little more than pass annual compliance audits. That’s not enough. These plans are life-saving procedures for corporations in the event of a crisis and thus need far greater focus, commitment and resources than many are currently receiving.

Crises can range from cyber-attacks and fraud situations to natural disasters and epidemics. Disciplined testing and validation of BC/DR plans expose procedural deficiencies that we might encounter during real-world situations. These deficiencies can show up anywhere, from the operation and security of systems, networks and personnel to the management of regular communications with employees, clients and other relevant entities.

Crisis simulation exercises are an excellent way to iron out existing response plans’ procedural wrinkles before they’re stress-tested in real life. Agile organizations, however, go a few steps further. For example, they adopt modern DevOps practices that enable as much automation as possible to build, test, operate and monitor business-critical systems. They also build in self-healing mechanisms to keep production systems running while simultaneously freeing up key personnel for work that cannot be automated.

Agile Teams: Pre-Wired for Business Continuity

While business continuity usually focuses on addressing systems, technology and localized events, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to think of business continuity on a macro-scale—especially how we manage the risks of a disrupted workforce.

Over the last few years, companies of various sizes have grappled with the need for flexible work options and distributed teams. U.S. Census data shows that fewer than 5% of workers who are not self-employed are able to work from home when needed. IT leaders are reorganizing infrastructures to support remote work at a broader level with many cloud-based digital tools now making remote collaboration easier to deploy and use securely within a corporate environment.

Connectivity tools will unquestionably be the foundation of tomorrow’s digital workplace. But it’s not just about the technology—it’s also about your people.

An evolved culture of trust, collaboration and open communication will always be the real driver for making remote work effective and successful.

These are the same Agile tenets that support self-organizing and high-performing teams, which are ideally suited for scenarios requiring technology to connect and collaborate. When business continuity plans kick in, your teams will already be wired and ready to go.

Building an Agile Foundation for the Future

The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for all of us to rethink much of how we currently organize and operate our businesses. It’s also forcing some very hard lessons on more than a few organizations—especially those lacking an adaptive agile mindset that builds resilience into their operations and culture. Business agility will not only allow organizations to thrive in relatively routine times when rapidly changing marketplaces are the norm, but also thrive in categorically non-routine times of crisis like today when everything changing is the new norm.

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