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Perspectives

Agile in a Remote Environment: Adapting a Collaborative Process for Communications and Media Companies

2020-08-05


Among communications and media companies, the need for virtual teams puts newcomers to Agile in a tough position: They’re still learning the development methodology’s techniques just when they most need its strengths. Here are steps they can take to extend Agile into a remote world.

The pandemic’s work-from-home mandates threw a wrench into many communications and media companies’ product development efforts. With no quick return to co-location in sight, companies that are new to Agile are tasked with not only mastering the software development methodology as they transition from traditional waterfall processes, but doing so in a remote environment — a turn of events that runs contrary to Agile’s emphasis on collaboration.

With some course corrections, though, we believe remote Agile is within reach — perhaps making teams even more productive.

Interpreting Agile

Complicating communications and media companies’ challenge is that many are newcomers to the Agile methodology and its many processes. Although Agile has standardized approaches, it’s also a framework that’s subject to wide interpretation. Agile means different things to different people. Some stakeholders view it as an IT-only approach, others as a broader path to overall business flexibility. Both are right. What’s missing at many companies is a unified approach that brings the two perspectives together. Without it, an organization never really becomes Agile enough to take full advantage of its potential enterprise wide. 

For example, we regularly help companies kick off their Agile efforts with training for technology and business teams, which is an important start. So is involving multiple stakeholders in product development conversations. Within communications and media companies’ advertising departments, for instance, we’ve seen in-house digital development teams welcome marketers and product strategists to the training table and product planning discussions. 

Where companies’ efforts fall short, however, is in execution. They don’t build out the full Agile methodology and underlying DevOps and automated testing that enable virtual teams to work together effectively. Teams that rely on a more superficial form of Agile can often fare well from a process standpoint when it comes to hosting virtual sessions. But the release of software on demand requires enabling Agile’s continuous delivery pipeline, and that means adopting new ways of working, such as a streamlined change-approval process that allows for a more continuous flow. In this deeper level of adoption, companies that are new to Agile and still on a learning curve often fall short of their desired results. And many other organizations are missing out on Agile’s ability to pivot quickly — just when teams need it most to improve product quality.

Fully embracing Agile offers significant process and efficiency benefits for communications and media companies, especially in a mid- and post-COVID-19 world. We recently partnered with one of the largest U.S. cable and internet companies on a strategic program to embrace Agile, which included training product development teams in the methodology’s techniques. The company also adopted the continuous delivery model. When the shutdown hit, the company shelved its Agile project and pivoted the team’s focus to address a more pressing business need: enabling the sales force to sell more with fewer people.

Ramping Up with Remote Agile

Getting Agile right in a virtual environment requires communications and media companies to double down on their commitment to the methodology. Here are steps they can take to recalibrate and more fully adopt remote Agile:

Make the work visible.

Agile depends on transparency, making work streams visible to all stakeholders. Otherwise, “black holes” can occur. That is, it becomes impossible for teams and the business to catch bottlenecks and to track cycle times from the idea phase into production.

In today’s virtual work environment, it’s more important than ever to track the status of work in process. At the click of a button, it should be easy to access and view how fast an Agile project is flowing from ideas into epics (the high-level features that typically take two to three months to deliver), and then down to the story level.  

Providing the collaboration tools that teams need is an essential step in making work visible. Because Agile reinforces open communication by eliminating silos and creating cross-functional teams, teams are already primed to work closely together. Yet many companies fall short on implementing many of the tools that facilitate Agile-specific collaboration. Remote work is providing the impetus many companies need to finally equip teams with the right tools.

Strike the right mindset.

To achieve continuous delivery, teams and their leadership must build trust and support autonomous work. By doing so they encourage the work to flow smoothly, which in turn allows teams to prioritize and commit to what they can accomplish in a sprint. In a remote work environment, leadership must be more vigilant than ever about removing hurdles that teams might not necessarily fix themselves. Small steps can make a big difference. For example, while we’ve all become veterans of videoconferencing during the last few months, it’s important to turn on the camera when part of a collaborative endeavor like Agile development. Having all participants on video helps build engagement and underscores Agile’s we’re-in-this-together transparency. 

Get comfortable with failing in small ways — and learning from it. 

Failing fast is at the heart of Agile’s continual learning process, yet many corporate cultures continue to frown on failure, even on a small scale. Similarly, as they transition from the everything-all-at-once approach of waterfall development, many companies struggle with Agile’s requirement of breaking down work into its smallest components. By addressing the two stumbling blocks together, organizations realize an important benefit: Failing on a small scale can help to avoid more significant impacts associated with large failures. One CIO we work with gives out Amazon gift cards to encourage teams to recognize when failures occur and learn from the experience. The beauty of Agile is that it ensures continuous feedback loops that allow teams to learn quickly and adapt accordingly.

Measure the right stuff.

One of the biggest problems we see with Agile software development is that many companies don’t measure what matters. It’s especially critical to get metrics right when teams work remotely, and output is easier to measure than activity in this environment. Take the measurement of release frequency, for example. This measure assesses the speed between delivery cycles, but using smaller stories is a hidden success factor — the smaller the stories, the faster the release frequency. Because many companies publish far too much code, they struggle with release frequency.

Executing Agile to its full potential enables communications and media companies to deliver business value even in an environment marked by uncertainty.

To learn more, sign up for our upcoming webinar, Agility Done Remote? Software Product Engineering in a Virtual World; visit our Consulting Practice page; or contact us.

This article was written by Carol Houle, Vice President, Cognizant Consulting, and Daniel Weinbaum, Senior Manager, Cognizant Consulting.

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Agile in a Remote Environment: Adapting a Collaborative Process for Communications and Media Companies