Wondering how to adopt an agile mindset in a remote-first environment? Join Andrea Crocco, Agile Coach at Vista DnA, as he sheds light on our team’s transformational journey, the challenges faced so far, and new insights that are paving the way for us to become truly agile while embracing a remote-first culture.
Our Data and Analytics organization at Vista is on a major data-driven journey. With the mission to offer the best-quality data products to all stakeholders and implement a new way of working, we are going through many transformative experiences. One of our key milestones to gauge the success of this transformational journey is to adopt an agile mindset, following the principles and values laid out in the Agile Manifesto.
However, early into the pandemic, we also made a decisive call to become a remote-first organization, providing our teams with a flexible environment within which to work towards our common goal. That has worked well on many different levels, and not just while operating within COVID restrictions. Today, we all have the flexibility to work in a remote-first agreement, where each one of us on the Data and Analytics team can choose to either work from home or go to a collaboration center.
The key challenge for us has been one question: How do we become both agile and remote-first simultaneously? That is where the problem becomes unique; as Peter Theil says, all happy companies are different. Both ideas function in different ways, down to the way people collaborate within the organization. Combining these concepts effectively and maintaining the delicate balance between the two is what we all at Vista are now striving for. In the process, we’re uncovering new insights.
Balancing Agile and Remote-First Approaches
The Agile Manifesto states: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” and one of the related principles says: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” This is something known as synchronous collaboration. Synchronous collaboration happens when you exchange information with colleagues instantly and at a specific time.
On the other hand, as you might’ve guessed, remote-first encourages asynchronous collaboration – getting things done without depending on real-time, synchronous interaction and communication.
At Vista, we’re on a mission to make “how and where” we work one of the key strengths of our culture and a competitive advantage, and a remote-first model is essential to achieving this mission.
To get there, we’re building collaboration centers, exploring new tools, and building competencies like asynchronous collaboration (async). Essentially, we are trying to achieve an effective balance between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.
How We Understand Asynchronous Collaboration
At Vista, we believe that asynchronous collaboration should not be viewed as a goal by itself. Instead, we view async as a competency essential for distributed teams to stay productive and disciplined.
Our pivot to a remote-first model did not undermine real-time collaboration, but instead created an opportunity to be even more thoughtful and deliberate in our actions. This change of perspective is reflected in the work-life harmony between our teams and business outcomes at Vista. We like to call it the art of creating “dynamic collaboration.”
However, by offering flexibility through our remote-first culture while trying to adhere to agile philosophy, we face an inescapable dilemma: How do we successfully implement an agile mindset while fostering asynchronous collaboration? To generate a meaningful resolution, we’re looking at the Agile Manifesto from a whole new perspective.
The Dilemma Exercise
While we continue to be strong supporters of the Agile Manifesto, we also realize that it was written a couple of decades before any human being could even start conceiving the remote-working models that we navigate today. Therefore, to become truly agile in the changing and volatile world around us, it is also critical to “inspect and adapt.” Building on this idea, we’re taking a unique approach to deciding what works best for our teams.
Our approach is based on experimentation, with iterations of transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Using the format of dilemmas over absolute values helped us shape a dilemma exercise to determine the best course of action when deciding between sync and async collaboration.
For example, a dilemma exercise about daily alignments of a team would offer two opposing choices:
- Async, in which teams collaborate through messages in a chat
- Face-to-face, in which the team collaborates in a video call (the remote version of a face-to-face meeting)
Here, we inspect the progress, adapt and adjust the plan, and share impediments.
For instance, consider a team with members from vastly different time zones. The limited amount of overlapping time available for video calls is precious in this case. Therefore, it is necessary to carefully decide if it justifies blocking this short window for each team member. Perhaps, they may also alternate between sync and async daily alignments.
Similarly, what if another team is located in the same time zone? Possibly, team members would prefer video calls for their alignment, as these allow team members to quickly address questions/concerns, rather than waiting for an answer in the chat.
By performing the dilemma exercise, we can take into account the specific context of each team. Moreover, we look after people’s preferences to create solid working agreements that fit the purpose of getting aligned and are comfortable enough for team members to thrive.
What We Have Learned So Far
Several challenges and insights were revealed to us as we started implementing these dilemma exercises at different levels and for different teams.
We know that there is no universal solution to the problems we’ve discussed so far. Teams are ultimately guided by their members’ preferences and geographic locations, the type of work they are doing, and the stakeholders they interact with.
Therefore, it makes sense to foster a flexible approach that allows each team to find their own balance between synch and async, to make the best of both worlds. This is an iterative process. We constantly need to use experimentation and use what we learn to adjust through inspection and adaptation. For instance, we realized that we need to keep building solid work relationships between team members so that the team itself can remain self-organized, deliver high-performance, and rapidly adopt an agile mindset and its practices.
Shaping these challenges through the dilemma exercise gives us some guardrails for managing tradeoffs within teams and finding agreements. As a positive impact, we noticed that team members thrive under this way of working, since they now enjoy a solution tailored to their needs.
Our transformational journey has only started as an organization, and we’ve got many more miles to cover to fully embrace the agile mindset in a remote-first environment. However, our learnings so far are inspiring and suggest that following an agile mindset in a remote-first organization is possible, if sometimes tricky.
What dilemmas in balancing agile and remote working have you experienced in your organization? And, how are you tackling these dilemmas?
P.S. A hat tip to Erin Meyer for introducing our organization to the idea of dilemmas, serving as an important source of inspiration for this piece of writing. Also, a big thank you to Andy, Basti, Daniele, Miguel, Omar, Raul, Susheel, and Tarun for making this article possible. Collective intelligence is everything!