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Centaur Stage Ep. 12: What agile teaches us about running remote teams with Andrew Blain

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series where we explore bold ideas about the future of work and learning. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 2:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of how we work and learn.

In this episode, Marilyn and Andrew Blain discuss the interconnection of remote and Agile. Watch the full episode here.

About Andrew Blain

Andrew Blain is a founder of remote:af, the world's first framework for effective remote working. He is also the founder of elabor8, Australia's leading lean/agile consultancy, which aims to help its customers deliver exceptional products and services and drive positive cultural change through the adoption of lean/agile. He is an experienced technology leader with expertise in strategy, organizational design, complex facilitation, and adaptive leadership.

Andrew starts by introducing remote:af to us. “We originally called it the remote agility framework. Over time it kind of morphed into remote as fuck, you can call it remote agility framework in polite settings, but you can call it what you want when you're working in teams. Basically, it's a framework that's built on a decade or more of working with some of Australia's biggest companies, and some of more forward-thinking organizations as well. We've learned a lot, we've failed a lot, but as well as succeeding occasionally. We've tried to build that into the framework.”

About The Topic

In software development, agile practices involve discovering requirements and developing solutions through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end-user(s).

It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages flexible responses to change. It was popularized by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development written in 2001.

On Agile

Marilyn kicks off with the first question ”the Agile purists always refer to one of the manifesto’s 12 principles, which says the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversations. Yet software development teams are amongst the first to have adopted remote work. What are your thoughts on that?”

Andrew refers to a paper published by Scott Ambler and Alistair Cockburn in which there was a description of the richness of communication that you get via different channels. “Basically it went from paper-based communication to email-based communication, to other forms of communication and talked about how effective and rich those forms of communication were and obviously the most effective way and the richest form of communication is face-to-face. There's more research coming out now and there was a paper published quite recently that talked about the impact of Zoom fatigue. There was also a piece that came out recently that says that this method of communicating is actually quite cognitively challenging because we're missing feedback loops. We cannot get away from the fact that face-to-face is the easiest way to communicate. If you've got a whiteboard and you're drawing and you're sharing then that form of communication is the most synchronous. It's the best opportunity for feedback loops. You've got all the natural feedback that you get, the oral feedback, the sense of smell, all the things that are important to us as humans. So we can't get away from that."

He continues, "What we have found, with remote teams, is that there are benefits to communicating in different ways. We found over the last four or five years, that there are some genuine benefits to digital whiteboards over physical ones. For instance, introverts really come to the fore. So, in a room where you've got lots of egos, big voices, you'll often find those good ideas are drowned out by the more energetic and happy-to-put-their-opinion-forward people in the room."

On digital whiteboards, introverts really do actually come to the fore and have a louder voice. One of the really cool things you can do with digital whiteboards is true silent facilitation when no one knows who's putting ideas up and it's truly an ideal meritocracy because there's no name attached to what's happened.”

Marilyn then asked Andrew about the elements of Agile practices that he thinks are appropriate, in approaching remote work. Andrew goes to the history of Agile saying, “we moved into these organizational structures where you had functional silos, and then you'd bring project managers in to orchestrate work across these silos. I'd take someone from here, someone from there, work out the phases I needed, and put people into the project phases, and work through them. With each change of team, you lose fidelity, and the knowledge that was gained during the process is lost and has to be rediscovered again. That's why we started embracing agile frameworks and the agile manifesto. It spoke to a lot of IT people. Building software or building technology products is a problem solving or a knowledge discovery process. It's not a mechanical process. We'd gotten into the habit of trying to use techniques that were really great for building skyscrapers or construction projects that were just completely not fit for what we were doing. In terms of what fits for remote, small cross-functional teams that have a clear idea of what they need to achieve and can achieve that in a largely autonomous fashion is ideal for remote working. When you've got that, it's really easy to do remote work. When you're trying to work across lots of organizational silos, stitch things together, orchestrate, manage up the org chart and all the stuff that you need to do to through a system it's actually quite hard.”

On Hybrid Models

Marilyn jumps to another question: “Do you think that companies that are really considering remote work as a long-term work model beyond the pandemic need to reorganize?”

Andrew answers this question in two parts: “Yes, I do, but I also think that remote presents a whole heap of new and interesting constraints that we didn't have in a physical environment. Take your normal design process, one of the things that you think about is your constraints in your affordances, and create an environment where you can really narrow in on solutions for things. When we move out of the office and into hybrid models or into fully remote models, we have new and interesting constraints to work with and we need to design our operating models. The structures, the flow of work through the system, how we govern the system, how we lead teams, how we measure teams, all of that stuff needs to be rethought around the constraints that remote or hybrid present. But further to that, philosophically I don't think that big changes are a good way to do things. Rather than getting a top consultancy firm in every five years to rip your business to shreds and see what comes out on the other side, now organizations are actually designing an operating model and cadence. They're constantly looking at whether the strategy has changed, what that means about the way that we organize, govern, and measure. They make small changes to align our operating model with the strategy. My preference would be, think about unique constraints, design, something that fits your new constraints, and then iterate on that over time, rather than doing something big and disruptive and ugly.”

Marilyn adds to this that “a lot of people think that organizational strategy is separate from business strategy, and it’s not. There are no perfect organizations. There's only the organization that can help you accomplish your business goal. In the corporate world, there's a huge fear of big reorganizations. What you're suggesting is, how you can become an adaptive organization and move to accommodate for the goal that you're trying to accomplish."

Following up with a question, she continues, "when we talk with clients and I'm sure you have the same conversations, I always tell them I am not a remote work evangelist. I'm not there to convince them that remote work is the right approach because I actually think that depending on your context, your business strategy, what you're trying to achieve, it might be that your work models need to evolve, but they just need to evolve towards something else. We've seen the innovators, or the GitLabs of the world say we're going to be remote only. The early adopters like The Spotifys, the Twitters, the Facebooks say we're going to work from anywhere. But we've also seen more conservative, more traditional industries say, listen, I don't know about this work from anywhere thing but let's try and figure out something hybrid. Do you think that there is a logic behind saying hybrid might be the right organization for our business strategy?”

”It's an amazing question,' says Andrew. "There's a lot of angles you can look at that from. First and foremost, there are some activities that you simply cannot do remotely. You can't work with a physical plant remotely unless you've got a robot that you're programming to do the work for you. You can't do surgery remotely without a robot with laser beams. There's a lot of service industry staff in retail and hospitality that requires people to be in the place where the work is. That eliminates remote as an option for parts of some workforces. I think then you need to look at the nature of the work."

He continues, "So, in R:AF we talk about operations teams, product teams, and mission teams, The operations teams are an archetype for teams that are dealing with a demand that just comes to them. It's not really planned work, there's stuff that they have to do in response to the customer. That means that they have to respond in a certain way. They might have a little bit of space to do some planned work, maybe it's accounts payable or accounts receivable or that kind of thing. It's a lot harder to get an operational team working effectively, engaged, and motivated than it is to get a team that is working on product, software, or technology development. I think you need to think about the nature of the work that the teams are doing. You have to think about the people in the teams and the quality of the leadership and make sound decisions about what is really going to suit the remote context and what you might want to have more co-located or hybrid.”

Taking an audience question Marilyn asks Andrew how this differs in industries that are not traditionally co-located.”

Andrew says: “I don’t think it's an industry vertical aspect. I think it is the nature of the work, the competence and the engagement of the people and the leaders, and how the operating model is set up. If you've got a team that is simply taking orders and doing things repetitively every day, and all they have to do is get through piecemeal work, if they haven't got a particularly engaging leader, and they don't have a lot of autonomy about how they can go about things; It's going to be really hard for a person in that team to maintain engagement longterm with your organization or with their team. If we go back to the Dan Pink characteristics of engaged people, you've got autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If you created an environment where your people don't feel like they're learning, have control of their destiny, or how they do things, it's going to be very difficult to motivate those people to work, to be as productive as they might be in a space where there's a social and human connection.

That said, a lot of the stuff that we do with the team launch patterns in R:AF is about helping leaders to create that environment. Even if it is an operational team, giving that team a sense of ownership of the work, a sense of continuous improvement, building a learning culture so they feel like they're developing beyond the repetitive tasks. You can do those things if you launch those teams effectively and if you lead those teams effectively, you can make them work remotely. But doing it without good leadership, good frameworks, good and competent people it's going to be quite challenging.”

About the remote agility framework

Andrew takes a minute to present the framework he’s built with his team.

“We built the framework to tackle, first of all, the team challenge, how do you create highly engaged remote teams that have autonomy, a sense of direction and purpose that connect with each other and understand who they're working with, what are the behavioral standards they'll accept. We also built in that idea of, getting a good understanding of where the work comes from, how that work is dealt with, and how to continuously improve the way we're doing things so that you get that sense of achievement and that sense of moving forward that makes working in a team fun. The next layer is about the challenges that you have with several remote teams. It's the planning challenge; how do you plan across multiple remote teams, understand dependencies, risk, sequencing, and make sure we have a viable well-communicated plan everyone can follow."

"Secondly, how do we build operating models or design operating models that are fit for the remote context and ensure that we've got small teams that have bound in autonomy where work can just flow through the system to customers."

"Finally, we've got the enterprise layer. This is all about leading the enterprise, governing the enterprise, designing the flow of work through the enterprise, and how you are going to measure things. It's how to shift from output-based measurement to outcome-based measurement. How do you take strategy into planning? How do you look at the directional intent of the business? It patterned to cover all of the things you would need to run a remote organization effectively, but we've also designed it knowing that companies do things the way they like to do things so that you can just pull modules out. If you want to just launch a team, if you've got a planning challenge, use the planning pattern.”

Advice for remote teams

After a quick exchange about the beauty of Agile and how it is a real community movement, Marilyn asks Andrew about the common pitfalls that people should be aware of when going towards these kinds of practices.

“One of the things I try to do with operating model design in R: AF is to surface what is preventing us from working in the way that we want to work... Often you've got funding models that are completely at odds with agile. You've got a finance team that says, I need a business case that says exactly what we're going to get and exactly how much it's going to cost before we start doing anything, and then I'll give you the money. That means that you can't build teams that are stable, that stick together. You have no real predictability at a management level about how to balance your spend so you're constantly trying to stack up and stand down capability as the business cases and the projects get approved. The second one is governance. If you've got governance frameworks that ask you to measure or report in certain ways or report or manage risk in ways that are incongruent with how you want your teams to work, you'll immediately see the friction. You'll create new roles but all they do is act as a translation service between the teams and those governance methods and practices in the business. The third one would be leadership. You need to have leaders who are comfortable with letting go of control. There's a lot of people who do hold on tightly to control of their people in how they do things.”

Marilyn then asks Andrew to talk about practices that would help these teams implement Agile and how to measure team morale in a distributed agile team.

“The first thing is to build an alliance between the team members. The team should have a clear sense of identity. I worked with a leadership team the other week and we've got these little story cards designed like a mini Facebook that you can create and share with your team members to tell them about yourself. One of the themes that came out of that was that everyone liked animals. The second theme was that there were a few photographers in the team and two of them liked taking photos of sunsets, and three of them really liked Japan. We came up with an identity for that team called sunsets and snow monkeys - the snow monkey is this cute little Japanese Macaque - but that team now has an identity that's tied into them as individuals. We spent a lot of time working out what the purpose of the team was, how would they agree to behave with each other, both in good times and also in the inevitable times when things get stressful and tough."

Another thing we really like in the remote context is that you're suddenly in people's houses. You might be in someone's rental house, or you might be in a house with their extended family. Maybe they've got a cultural role in their house and at times they need to prepare meals, or they've got greater expectations about housework or looking after kids.

You're not working with someone in a space that's managed, you're very much working with them in their space. Wehelp people to gently build empathy for the other team members’ situations so they can manage things like, keeping the camera off, working hours etc. That's the team alliance, and that's really critical. If you want a successful remote team, you have to spend time getting to know each other and working out who you're going to be together.

The second thing is a system of work. All teams have demand that comes in. The ideal scenario is when a demand comes in and you can go straight into serving customers. But a lot of the time you've got to work through dependency chains in a system in order to get stuff out. Helping people to understand where they sit in an organizational dependency chain, what their role is, how work flows through the system. That's really critical and it helps us to build Kanban systems which are amazing for optimizing the flow of work through the team and through the organization. There we look at how we're going to measure our effectiveness. We ask teams to think about how they are going to measure and prove that they're improving over time because we know you get a kick out of finishing things and knowing that you're getting better as a team. "

The final thing is to spend a lot of time on communication. First and foremost, how are we going to communicate at different urgency profiles? When do I pick up the phone? When do I send a Slack DM? When do I send a Slack message that I'm not expecting to get an immediate return from? What tools am I going to use in the different contexts in order to be clear about how I'm communicating with people. We also get teams to think about events. What we found at the start of the pandemic was that the agile teams that were working with just did exactly what they were doing before the pandemic, in a Zoom call. But the whole paradigm has shifted. Spend some time thinking about what a daily standup looks like if you're not standing up around a whiteboard? What does a planning meeting look like if you've got all these fancy new tools to play with? How are we going to communicate? How are we going to be together? How are we going to do these things differently now that we're in a remote context?”

Our last question

As with all guests, Marilyn asked Andrew to complete the sentence: The future of work is….

"The future of work is remote," said Andrew. . In the US, on average a commuter who stayed at home for the pandemic has saved 8.2 days in the last year in transit. They gained 8 days back in their life to do stuff that actually means something to them. Nearly half of people who are married or live in partnership said that working from home has improved their relationship with their spouse or partner. 62% of parents with children under 18 say that working from home has improved their relationship with their kids. Over one-third of workers say that if their workplace makes remote work permanent, they are somewhat likely or very likely to move to a different place where they'd like to live rather than when they have where they have to work."

He continued, "when we started to Elabor8 a decade ago, as an agile consultancy, we had this overriding purpose that if we could create really great organizations to work in that also delivered great shareholder outcomes, then we'd be making a big impact in the community. There are some really lovely stories that have come out of that last decade of people coming up to us and saying, 'until you introduced agile, I really dreaded going into work in the morning. Now this place feels alive. You add remote to that and not only can we make workplaces better, but we can also get people closer to their communities, closer to their families, closer to the places they want to be for their hobbies. We can build better communities."

"We also have this awesome environmental benefit as well. We're cutting out air transit, car transit, reducing the peak hour for everyone. Hopefully, if we have the right policies around home energy use and making sure that companies don't just shift their responsibility for clean energy off the corporate balance sheet and to the individuals in their companies, then we have a really great opportunity to actually do it, have a measurable impact on emissions, which is very cool. So yeah, that's what we're chasing. And I'm pretty excited about it.

Other Centaur Stage Episodes

Episode 9: Watch Marilyn's discussion with Helen Al Uzaizi about teaching entrepreneurship to kids or read the key insights here.

Episode 10: Watch Marilyn's discussion about the future of learning with 10-year-old Adam el Rafey, or read the key insights here.


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