Seamless remote working with Agile strategies – an interview with Morris Sinclair

An interesting interview with Morris Sinclair, Business Development Manager, Agile Capability, on how to navigate uncertainty with an agile mindset when working remotely.

Listen to (or read) the interview to have an in-depth understanding on the effects of remote working conditions on businesses and industries, and how agile management can be implemented in these times as agile strategies play a crucial role in organising workforce for optimal productivity.

   

Vanathy: Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Zoho Live. Today, we are going to talk to Morris Sinclair, a business development manager with Agile Capability, an organization that helps transform businesses by assisting them to adopt Agile strategies.

So, I was asking a friend of mine to teach me a bit about this whole Agile project management side of things, and he pointed me to a website that read this. I’m going to read that out now, “Agile project management is like tasting the batter before you cook it if you don’t, a lot of effort can go waste over a pinch of salt. Sometimes when my grandma finds that the batter is salty, she adds in a bit of another ingredient to save the dish so that in short is Agile project management“.

But that’s just from me we’re going to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Tell us a bit about what is Agile methodology and how is it so popular Morris.

Morris: You know, it came about, I would say 20 years ago.  A group of software developers coined it. And, its related project is the process of putting plans into small chunks of work so that they deliver value to businesses, and frequent short delivery is called features. Right? So traditional methodology to manage projects was called a waterfall. If you envision a waterfall, the waterfall cascades down. Likewise, all the requirements of the project are put together to design the features; everything would be laid out before the project even began. So, before development and testing is done.

The business would not see any tangible value until the very end, like what things could change. As we recently have seen in the past couple of months. So with the Agile methodology, it makes it much easier to get value and put something usable and make necessary changes to adapt to current conditions. Identity being created using small chunks of work or called sprints. And, it’s a great technique to use when businesses need.  

Business genes are frequently changing as you know it is happening right now. So with larger projects, the sprints can, for example, two weeks or no more than a month. And, then you can focus on what the business needs now, and if there any changes, those changes can be quickly accommodated to ensure value is always being received.

Vanathy: I see, okay. Also, Morris, I think that’s common that’s a misconception or a preconception that Agile management is predominantly or only for software companies, and maybe not for the other industries. And is that the case? Is that true? If not, where does this misconception come from?

Morris: Well, yeah, I can understand where that misconception came about. You know because it was really developed for the software industry, with what they called the ‘Agile Manifesto’. A group of software leaders coined the term as I was saying before. And it can be used for all kinds of projects. Non-IT projects, complex projects and projects that are suitable, for example, are facility movements for a company, or mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations in a company, events or changing business processes within a department. Now a lot of companies are moving from in-house where everybody works together to remote environments. So many companies are adopting Agile methodologies to make those transitions. And, anywhere where there are projects that are usable, say some product or service has to be implemented or produced in a very short period then Agile methodologies can be used.

Vanathy: I see. I think you briefly touched upon Agile management and remote work which is going to be my next question. So given that a lot of companies have already started to work remotely, and because the remote work culture itself is here to stay, how Agile way of managing things can work remotely?

Morris: Well, that is an interesting question because these are very interesting times. And, we see an unprecedented number of businesses, you know from solo entrepreneurs to huge conglomerates suddenly shifting the way how their work and that process alone can be very challenging. So there are various tools to use with the Agile methodology.

Agile methodology is a collection of two different frameworks. The best thing about Agile is, as a team, they can self-organize, which usually results in higher accountability. When the teams are given the independence to decide what their next product implementation would be, the results tend to be higher. So it increases productivity quite dramatically, it’s surprising. Thus, the Agile way is designed to have short daily meetings along with regular evening news in retrospectives, so each individual understands what their role is, and continuously improve and see what their impediments are and then continue to grow.

There are different methodologies within Agile. There’s one called Kanban. Kanban is a diamond method that Toyota used. This could be a good option for remote teams who work together. Kanban helps to provide a view of the whole thing where everybody can know exactly where each component is along the way of the project journey. And, the key thing to working remotely is the ability to collaborate regardless of what time zone you’re in. As long as you can coordinate your collaboration everything should be fine, even though the teams are dispersed. It makes life much easier to have all these tools under one umbrella. It’s almost like you’re in the office, but then you have everything on your laptop now. You know what, your company produces an excellent product for that – Zoho Remotely. Remotely has everything under one umbrella for meetings or webinar and tools like Sprints.

Vanathy: Amazing. You want to talk a bit about your experience of how Zoho remotely has been, or wait, and I’m going to have to question you on that later.

I’m going to ask an even more important question. You mentioned about the framework inside Agile. You also talked about Kanban. So what are the different frameworks inside Agile methodology itself, and how can businesses benefit from these? You know these kinds of frameworks at a time that is so uncertain like you said, and I also hear that some of these frameworks might help solve problems with limited resources in a way too. So tell us a bit about those frameworks Morris.

Morris: Okay, so there are three main frameworks within the Agile methodology system. There is, of course, Scrum, which is the most popular. Scrum is really what most people are probably familiar. Scrum originally got its name from rugby. When the rugby teams get together, they have a sort of quick meeting before they go out and they make the plays. So that’s really where that came from. And scrum teams usually have anywhere between five to seven people, and there are short iterations or sprints. You know it can be too little as a week, and at the end of each sprint, a usable product or feature is released. Scrum focuses on servant leadership – there’s a scrum master who is leading the team, but they’re also serving all of their needs at the same time. And that’s a new buzzword lately servant leadership.

Whereas Kanban, which is another one and this encourages flow on the Kanban board, and there’s a limited amount of things or items that can be worked at the same time. So that increases productivity, reduces the amount of time that is spent on the development of the product. So you can sort of see the whole project with it. You are also working on one thing at a time. And then there are other methodologies. There’s extreme programming which is using software development and a few other ones. But Kanban and Scrum are the main features, especially for remote working environments.

Vanathy: I see and how do you differentiate between whether a business should go with Scrum or Kanban or the other framework that you mentioned? How do you make that decision Morris?

Morris: Well, for example, my company helps organizations decide what they want to use. So we have a meeting, and it all depends on how the teams can self-organize and work together. And one of the key things with Agile methodologies is self-organization. So you know the teams look at their capabilities, their technologies, their resources and it kind of all depends a lot on the project.

But as long as these frameworks and these methodologies are kept within the ramifications of whether it’s Scrum or Kanban, they work very well. So it really depends on what the project is and what the goal is and how long the project will go on.  

Vanathy: I see. Thank you. We talked about different frameworks, and we talked about how Agile can help teams work remotely. Now, from the way you spoke of Agile, it looks to me that the core philosophy of managing projects is to embrace change. And of course, we live in unprecedented times right now with full of changes, so tell us a bit about how this element of change can gel well with Agile strategies. Also, if Agile can help change things so dramatically and drastically, how do people meet their deadlines?

Morris: Well, you know it’s from the word alone ‘Agile‘ means the ability to move quickly. So if you’re an agile person, who can move quickly, you know change is constant. And it’s almost impossible to understand what’s happening with technology these days unless we look back and see Moore’s law. 

Are you familiar with Moore’s Law? Moore’s law states that every two years, the processing power of computers get twice as fast at half the cost. Just think of the technology that we had five years ago compared to now. This was coined by the Internet founder George Moore when he made this observation way back in 1965, and that has remained true even today.

Right now, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003 in just one day. Can you imagine the amount of data that we’re creating in only one day, from the start of time to 2003 now? This is going to be doubling very soon, so we’re going through some very rapid changes in our times and businesses have to stay ahead of the curve. One of the easiest ways to do is to break it down into chunks to compete with everybody else who is ahead of the curve. So, that’s why it’s crucial to quickly break the business processes into chunks that can embrace those changes. As things happen, we just go ahead and make a change without going into too much major technical details.

Personal life of every human being on earth right now has gone through some significant changes, so this vast paradigm shift would have been much easier if we can break it down into chunks and that’s exactly what Agile does.

Vanathy: Amazing. Talk to us a bit about the challenges that companies run into as they are adopting Agile strategies for this. You would have worked with a lot of businesses, and I’m sure at one point or the other, you would have faced some hindrances. It could be because of people’s side of things, or it could be because of the technology side of things. Whatever it is, tell a little bit about that where is it other people find it tough to start going agile  

Morris: Okay, well, first of all, you know whether it’s just inherent; people don’t necessarily like to embrace changes. So a lot of times when you try to introduce, people don’t understand what Agile is. So we have to kind of get everybody on the same page. And, when you’re working with large organizations, it makes it even difficult. But, one of the critical things about Agile is the ability to give the team the capability of self-organizing. So when people are given their domain, to make their own decision and even micro-manage everything, it makes it a bit easier for them to adapt. 

So another key thing is communication. So you have to make sure that you’re communicating with each other very well. And that’s exactly what a scrum master has to do. I would go into an organization, and I would assist them to go through those changes and smooth out those various misunderstanding so that we can all be on the same page and then we can begin to work. And once they understand the teams feel more empowered and are willing to go ahead.

Vanathy: I see and would this Scrum master have some formal sort of training or will they be able to get to know it as and when they start using?

Morris: I think that’s an excellent question. There is an organization, just go to scrum.org . That is an organization that explains everything. To become a scrum master, you get certified training. You go through a training process and pass an exam, and it is not an easy one. When you clear you get certified as a Scrum master. There are different levels of certifications that you get to that make you more and more agile. Let’s say, that’s an indicator that you are doing things with the company. So yes, there are certifications, and you can either go in, and train or you can outsource it and then we can do it for them.

Vanathy: I see, amazing. You mentioned small businesses, big businesses, large enterprises, is there a differentiation between how Agile works best for start-ups or SME’s or it works best for large enterprises or is there anything like that?

Morris: Not really. But Scrum is really the most popular framework, and if that means, you can do something with a team of as little as five people to work on a project. Whereas if you have a lot of cooperation, you can break those teams up into many different groups, as long all work basically from the same what we call product backlog or sprint backlog. That has all the information that you need, and you pull data from that based on task the team is handling. So it really doesn’t matter what the size of the company is, but it really is more effective, the more complex the project is actually.

Vanathy: I see and at what point do projects or businesses tend to think that maybe they’re doing it wrong and perhaps they have to sort out to Agile strategies?

Morris: Well, that’s an interesting question as well because I think that nowadays, companies have to stay ahead of the curve. Companies have to start to embrace their technologies and embrace you know a different way of looking at things. Earlier, as a company, you put the budget together, and you make sure that all the items are met on a budget. And you have your deadlines on it and so on. I think that once we can see how Agile can increase employee productivity, it can also help to boost morale in a company, it helps hiring ability. Then I believe that a company will be more likely to embrace an agile methodology. The bottom line is that all the companies they want to be as productive as possible, for as little money as possible further to cost as possible. So this is when we show them how this can help them to do that.

Vanathy: That’s amazing, so can you quote a real-time example of a project or a business that’s benefited explicitly because of their design strategies. 

Morris: Yeah, there are several companies. I know that your company, for example, Zoho, is one. And you know the interesting thing is in the very beginning of this interview you talked about the Jugaad process which is a sort of an informal version of Agile. With many people in India, it’s almost as if the world now is formalizing that process. I’m calling it agile even though it has been around for a very long time. But most of the big corporations, especially the technology-based companies, you know Google and Facebook, and so on, they have the system within their operations. But a lot of logistics companies as well that have to move services around the world. Companies that deal with having to organize teams, Airlines, for example. I worked with an airline for a few years, and they have to have Agile withing those organizations to manage teams to meet the demand.

Vanathy: From the way you talk about Agile and even Scrum for that matter, Morris, it feels like Agile is not just for project management, but it can to an extent maybe also set the tone of the culture of the company. Have you felt that way?

Morris: Yes, you see what I realize with Agile and with Scrum is, though it’s a blanket term for all these methodologies. You know, and I was saying, the teams are self-organized, it also gives a lot of independence. As you listen to people or employees, morale tends to improve. People are understanding, and they’re doing more, and they can take accountability for what they are doing.

Overall I believe that as time goes on, companies begin to take these methodologies; it’s not just project management. It can be even used for your personal life – organizing the home, organizing family, organizing a family reunion, you know because of the way how it encourages the inherent human need. Even though nowadays we’re all isolated, it encourages the human need for social interaction. Let’s say you know it gives a reflection of patting yourself on the back, so it promotes a psychological part of it that is in there somewhere.

Vanathy: Absolutely, because if it can improve self-accountability and if it can encourage teams to communicate, it is great. Even though we are all quarantined, and a lot of cities are on lockdown, I think technology has always been able to give us a hand and bridge that sort of a gap.

Today you are in another side of the globe, and I’m talking to you from India. We are doing this through technology. So if Agile can benefit a lot to work remotely, and sort of kickstart a lot of business that are struggling at this point, that would be great and thank you so much for your time, Morris.

Morris: Ok perfect, Thank you Vanathy, and everybody should definitely try out zoho.com/remotely. Especially zoho.com/sprints to get an idea of what this product does. Take care and bye for now.

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