Appropriate approaches for uncertain times

“Before Corona,” agile in some organizations was nothing more than an attempt to also go along with this “new management fashion” – without actually clearly knowing which purpose agility should serve. Through Corona, this changed significantly. Suddenly we were all in a VUCA world – a context in which agility takes hold and is highly useful.

One thing is sure: after a few months of experience with Corona, “VUCA” is quickly explained and quickly understood. VUCA, the acronym made up of the words volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, no longer applied “only” to individual industries or regions but has encompassed entire economies and societies in every respect.

  • The V for Volatility means that the scope of change, and above all, the speed of change, is increasing massively.
  • The U for Uncertainty means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a reasonable assessment of the (near) future. Forecasts are difficult because the situation can change dramatically from one day to the next.
  • The C for Complexity, in turn, reinforces this uncertainty: Causal relationships, i.e., clear “if-then” relationships, are often the exception rather than the rule. Due to the high global interconnectedness of systems, countries, companies, people, etc., there are many different interrelationships whose interplay is often hardly transparent, the classic “black box”.
  • The A for Ambiguity as the fourth component means ambivalence. Situations can rarely be assessed univocal, and facts cannot be interpreted unambiguously and clearly.

VUCA - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity

We got to know all these aspects during the first weeks of Corona to the extent that was new to us: new developments almost daily and changing framework conditions that did not allow for any planning beyond a few days or even hours. The high complexity of the issues and the fact that there were no “secured” facts (for example, a sufficiently robust estimate on actual infection figures or clear interpretations on legal frameworks) added to the feeling of limited capacity to act for many, especially at the beginning. Welcome to the VUCA world or “the new normal.”

Let’s take a moment to reflect: What was and is helpful to cope well with these framework conditions and to be able to act quickly? In our observation, those organizations that were able to perform (again rapidly) were those that worked according to principles that we call “agile.”

Agile ways of working or principles make sense in a context where neither the “what” – for example, the problem, goal, or result – is concretely fixed, nor the “how,” i.e., the procedure or method, is exact. Agile methods and mindset are effective in complex environments and with complex problems in a VUCA world. This is clearly illustrated in the Stacey Matrix (see graphic).

Stacey Matrix - It depends on the fit: What (Goals/Requirements) and How (Method/Proceeding) - are they clear on unclear? Agile methods work in complex situations.

Good handling of uncertainty

Which agile working methods and principles were and are helpful in the first phase of Corona? For example, many organizations very quickly began to set up regular, closely timed, short meetings or to adapt existing meeting structures accordingly. Whether these meetings are called jour fixe, stand-up, daily or weekly, or crisis team: They are essential for regular information and status alignment in uncertain times and for coordinating upcoming activities. In a situation where organizations must continuously “drive on sight,” i.e., reassess the situation almost every day and take appropriate action, it does not help to develop comprehensive and, above all, long-term plans. However, what is helpful is to develop hypotheses about possible developments and sensible measures and think in terms of scenarios. Professional meetings are essential here, and a clear objective and agenda, adherence to time frames (time-boxing), and consistent moderation. This is not rocket science, but unfortunately, it still does not come naturally – and just calling meetings something else (be it stand-up or a retrospective) does not mean that they serve the purpose. This is even more true at a time when many have switched to virtual meetings. To design collaboration in virtual settings effectively and efficiently, as well as to find the right balance between presence and online work (“blended” or “hybrid”), is an essential competence that have just become visible in and through Corona.

Getting down to business quickly

A further helpful attitude the Covid-VUCA world was to get into action quickly. Take small steps and observe whether the measures taken make sense, and, if necessary, adapt them quickly. No big plans, but setting “baby steps,” observing, learning, adapting. For quite a few organizations, the speed and courage to act – in line with the motto “Good enough for now, safe enough to try” – was a new experience. The fact that this is “allowed”, not unprofessional and useful is also a significant learning experience in some organizations, which in some cases has also shaken up entrenched organizational cultures. The important thing at this point is to evaluate which of these new experiences could help maintain the ability to act and future fitness and how these useful patterns can be stabilized.

Another aspect of agile organizations is that some organizations experienced the importance and value of it during the crisis, were well-functioning, high-performing teams. That means teams that could act quickly, even remotely, without direct leadership and coordination in the office. But what were or are the success factors of such teams? It is essential to be clear about the common purpose and roles and to have their own “room for maneuver” – elements that allow for self-organization and autonomy. Of course, teams cannot and should not act in isolation from others in the organization, but they can and should work very independently within the defined framework or based on their own tasks. This is true not only at the team level but also for individual team members. In high-performance teams, individuals act instead of reacting – when ordered to do so. Supported by tools that provide transparency about all relevant activities (such as Kanban boards in particular), agile teams regularly coordinate (alignment and coordination) and become active on their own when there is something to do, they pull tasks (instead of being pushed). This behavior is only possible if there is clarity regarding the standard framework and task and trust in each other. Managers have different roles here – creating context, securing frameworks, supporting when problems arise, increasing the teams’ competence through dialog and coaching. Especially now, in times of distance and working in virtual space, instruction and control were often no longer possible or only with great effort. Furthermore, the importance of interdisciplinarity and diversity has once again become apparent. Teams that are set up very differently due to their variety – for example, professional competence or experience background – are more likely to be able to assess situations quickly and develop possible solutions. Team members can bring diverse perspectives and expertise to the table and because they often challenge each other more and question solutions that are too obvious – essential in novel situations where proven approaches are not sufficient any more. 

Open dialog and clear roles

Maintain a dialog with customers, partners, and stakeholders. Even if it is not directly about applying agile methods such as design thinking or Scrum, which always include the customer’s intensive involvement, or about the development of products and services or project work, the dialog with customers and partners is essential. A regular, severe, and open dialogue with customers and partners at eye level enables trust to be created and maintained and solutions to difficult situations to be found quickly together. Explicit roles and processes support this. For example, analogous to the product owner’s role from Scrum or the systematic process of customer involvement in Design Thinking, clear roles – for example, cooperation partner or network management – are generally helpful because they ensure that someone “cares.” Ultimately, however, the attitude is critical to success: An attitude of partnership at eye level. And not only in this principle of agile working, but in general: agility or agile working is much more than applying methods and tools. It is a question of attitude. It is an attitude of learning, trying things out, and the conviction that people can and want to achieve and do not have to be driven and controlled. An attitude of openness, transparency, and dialogue. This makes it easier to get through the Corona crisis and master other challenges of the VUCA world.

Agile principles in a nutshell

  • Small steps: short pacing, getting into action quickly – trying things out, “prototyping” instead of complex concepts and exact plans for the next few weeks.
  • Short-term results: Sense of accomplishment, focus on reflection and learning.
  • Visualization, transparency on plans, progress, results, time, appropriate spaces.
  • Effective communication and decision-making: clear goals, roles, process, appropriate spaces.
  • Self-directed teams: with ownership, clear roles, and free resources.
  • Involvement of the customer or important stakeholders anchored in roles or processes and as an attitude: regular dialog and co-creation at eye level.