Survival of the Fittest: How Agile Organizations Thrived Through the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic caused massive disruptions to businesses worldwide, marking a fundamental change in the way many businesses operated. When put in a situation of adapt or die, some businesses were able to not only survive but thrive, while others shut their doors for good.

The organizations which shifted quickly and were able to rapidly iterate their business models were able to grow, while competitors who lagged behind saw their market share shrinking due to their inability to adapt to the uncertainty and complexity of rapidly changing markets.

Those that thrived were Agile-enabled businesses. As its name suggests, Agile is an evolving methodology that can serve businesses in all niches. Here’s how they won big:

        Embracing uncertainty — businesses that embraced the uncertainty and risk of a rapidly shifting environment were able to commit themselves to continuously iterating and evolving themselves together with market and pandemic conditions.

        Focusing on customers — quickly receiving as much feedback as possible and swiftly turning it into new products or product updates.

        Being flexible — changing project requirements, expectations, or processes (even if it was late in development) to keep consumer benefits front and center.

        Ensuring consistent quality — never sacrificing quality in the name of speed or efficiency, since providing high quality goods retains consumer loyalty.

        Putting people first — the pandemic disrupted not only businesses but the personal lives of every organizational employee.  Companies that were able to empathize with and prioritize the needs of their employees were able to cultivate an environment rich in openness, engagement, and trust.

With these and other Agile principles in place, Agile organizations were in a unique position when the pandemic sent shockwaves through businesses around the globe. Processes were disrupted, supply lines faced shortages and roadblocks, and employees and employers alike had to worry about rapidly changing healthcare precautions which impacted their ability to carry out business as usual.

Unlike their competitors, Agile organizations had a reliable framework which enabled them to navigate and prioritize as they dealt with the pandemic, using new methods and technologies to help them connect with their customers. They became more active on social media, ensured their websites reflected operational changes with respect to COVID-19, and quickly adopted then-underutilized technology such as Zoom or Microsoft teams.

Similar measures were taken to enable businesses to work remotely or safely. Since Agile teams tend to have highly motivated individuals who make delivering high quality goods their top priority, there was little pushback in adopting new working methods if it meant a job well done.

When McKinsey & Company interviewed businesses undergoing Agile transformation, their analysis showed that when it came to the ability to perform in key sectors of business management during the pandemic, 93% of respondents said almost all of their Agile business units performed better or significantly better in delivering customer satisfaction than Non-Agile units.

Similar results were reported for operational performance and employee engagement, with employee engagement performing the worst of the three metrics (even so, 76% of respondents said Agile helped them perform better than non-Agile units did).

Agile has expanded far beyond its software roots and is still growing and constantly evolving to keep up with a changing world. That said, looking back at how businesses survived, thrived, or died during the pandemic, there’s a strong case to double-down on your Agile transformation.

The Symbiotic Relationship between Sprint Backlogs and Product Backlogs

The Symbiotic Relationship between Sprint Backlogs and Product Backlogs

If you’re new to the Scrum methodology, the difference between Sprint Backlog and Product Backlog can be a head-scratcher. Let’s take a quick look at these tools. Ready, set, go!

What is the Product Backlog?

Essentially, a Product Backlog (PB) is a dynamic list of potential future investments a team is going to make in pursuit of a higher level product goal.   It’s almost a wishlist of future delivery — a prioritized list of outputs and outcomes that a scrum team may deliver down the road. Its elements are referred to as Product Backlog Items (PBIs), which can be features, services, process improvements, research, defects fixes, solutions and potentially even user stories. Items prioritized higher are more likely to be invested in — whereas lower prioritized items which are less necessary or valuable are less likely to be worked on.

A scrum team has only one Product Backlog, a changeable plan owned by the Product Owner. As the Sprint proceeds and the team gains more knowledge on the product to be delivered, Backlog Refinement takes place as PBIs are removed, re-prioritized, and added.

Product Backlogs can be quite lengthy. In fact, some complain about their product backlog being far too long. Limiting the number of items on your product backlog might make your product owner, and in fact your entire Scrum team, more focused. 

Related: Agile QuickTip: Add Expiration Dates to Your Backlog Items

What is the Sprint Backlog?

The Sprint Backlog is the planned work in the current sprint.  It contains the team’s sprint goal for that sprint; the items from the Product Backlog that have been selected for the sprint; and the implementation plan that the Developers on the scrum team continuously update as they progress through the sprint. It’s basically an implementation plan owned and operated by the Developers, covering a subset of PBIs. Only PBI that are ‘done’ and usable are included in the increment — the latest version of the complete product that is achieved by the sprint’s end. If Developers are unable to complete an item, it doesn’t form part of the increment, and the item goes back into the Product Backlog. 

During the next Sprint Planning, the team will decide whether they want to include it in the upcoming Sprint or put it on the shelf and deal with it later — or potentially remove it altogether. Since only the Sprint Goal is fixed during a sprint, the Sprint Backlog can be modified by the Developers along the way towards the finish line to better focus on maximizing the sprint goal.

The Bottom Line

The Product Backlog represents future work for the team. The Sprint Backlog is the work being focused on today.  One cannot exist without the other. Both Sprint Backlogs and Product Backlogs are vital assets to Agile project management, providing teams with the focus and visibility to deliver increments successfully. 

The Agile Approach: Focus on Outcomes, Not Actions

The Agile Approach: Focus on Outcomes, Not Actions

As they sail the ship towards success, good leaders act as role models, setting an example for team members and boosting their performance. To continue the analogy, Agile leaders are well equipped to handle changing weather conditions or stormy seas by being quick to adapt. They combine staying power with flexibility, creating a stable work environment while inspiring the team to navigate the challenges ahead. When the going gets tough, Agile leadership can make a massive difference, boosting team performance and business growth.

Changing working methods to meet new challenges

Good leaders with productive mindsets focus on outcomes rather than actions, offering flexible work environments to teams without controlling the methods. Agile teams thrive on experimentation and lack rigidity. Since they aren’t following a set methodology to complete tasks, they’re able to change their working methods to meet new challenges.

Adaptability isn’t always easy, particularly for early-stage businesses encountering multiple challenges. With inexperienced teams, the work environment can be chaotic. Agile leadership acknowledges these challenges and creates flexible environments, allowing workforces to adapt according to the changing task requirements.

React quickly to changing circumstances

To react quickly through changing opportunities and situations, businesses need to be flexible. Today’s work environment is continuously changing because of fluctuating customer behavior. In rapidly changing conditions, teams rely on agile leadership that follows efficient and flexible execution strategies.

Since agile leadership doesn’t bind employees to follow one method for performing tasks, employees can fully utilize their unique capabilities and talents. In rare scenarios, Agile leaders may tell teams how to perform a task. But in most cases, they share the expected outcome and let the team figure out how to achieve it.

As an example, they may task teams with improving sales revenues so the business can launch a new product line. Thereafter, they consistently evaluate individual and team performance to see whether they are moving in the right direction. Throughout the process, an Agile leader concentrates on outcomes instead of actions. This helps teams put processes in place to achieve the desired results.

Agility is built on flexible environments

This approach revolves around building a flexible environment in the workplace, so team members have the freedom to put new ideas on the table. And it helps Agile leaders to grow the business with a streamlined strategy.