We are being disrupted in many ways in today’s world. Many of my executive coaching clients are exhausted from long days of business continuity triage and having to learn and adapt quickly to managing in virtual teams.
I sat down with Nahia Orduna, Senior Manager in Analytics and Digital Integration at Vodafone. She has been leading virtual agile teams for two years and I asked her to share her experience. Nahia has won the WiT Data Leader of the Year Europe in 2019, is one of the leaders of Women in Big Data organization for the European region and has contributed to the World Economic Forum agenda on topics around careers in the digital workplace.
Henna Inam: For those who don’t understand Agile as a way of working, can you give us a brief overview?
Nahia Orduña: Agile is a mindset that empowers organizations and employees by creating high performing teams. The key benefits of the Agile way of working have been recognized as increased customer satisfaction, faster time to market, greater innovation and increased employee engagement. It was originally focused on software development, but has now been proven to benefit teams across organizations.
Inam: Many of us are working virtually now. What are the areas where we can apply Agile leadership to virtual environments?
Orduña: I would recommend you start with these four areas to lead in an agile virtual environment: create a safe environment to fail and learn fast, use collaboration tools, encourage continuous feedback and deepen your relationships. Agile leadership leads to a clear direction while enabling teams to adapt to changes: be it organizational changes, internal team changes or emerging industry trends. In uncertain times, it is more relevant than ever. I have been leading an agile team virtually for almost two years, and we have learned so much. This approach can benefit small businesses up to the CEO of a multinational organization.
Inam: How do you create a safe environment for agile teams?
Orduña: An agile team knows that it is not only allowed but encouraged to fail fast. This is a significant change compared to traditional team management and leaders need to create a culture where employees feel safe to experiment. I would advise you to celebrate and recognize failure, starting with top management setting an example. Jeff Bezos, CEO is always very open that failures are the key to Amazon’s success. When he was asked about the Fire Phone, he answered ‘We’re working on much bigger failures right now’. What can you do starting today? Many times, we share the “wins of the week”, but we would learn more about the “failures of the week”. You should also recognize team members who identify approaches which are not working. Empower your team and acknowledge that this is the way to experiment, learn, adapt and innovate, especially in the current environment.
Inam: What works to collaborate effectively on virtual teams?
Orduña: We now have great collaboration tools available, and we can work anywhere, anytime. Being virtual is not only about video calls. It is more efficient to minimize the number of calls and make use of kanban boards, chats and file sharing. My team at work has optimized our agile collaboration through Microsoft Teams. I am leading other virtual teams outside my company, where we use Slido to gather questions during All Hands, Mentimeter to engage audience during a presentation, Nureva for brainstorming sessions with post-it notes, Zoom to host calls or the Google Suite to share and edit files. I would recommend you test what works best for your team. It is essential to have a clear etiquette: be punctual in virtual meetings, mute yourself when you are not talking, participate, be focused and turn on your camera. When presenting, engage the audience, ask questions, use virtual polls and quizzes. And relax: if you are interrupted, or your home is not looking as professional your office, it is okay.
Inam: How do you get quick feedback if you are not in the same location?
Orduña: Traditionally, a team has a vision, a mission and some initiatives to achieve those goals in the next one or two years. This approach is not valid in this unprecedented uncertain situation. The agile mindset helps us to formulate initiatives in a flexible, iterative way, thanks to continuous feedback and reflection. For example, it is better to test different marketing campaigns over short periods, getting feedback every two weeks and applying it to the next sprint, rather than designing what could be potentially the perfect campaign over a long period with large up-front investment, and implementing it over the course of a month.
How can you do that? Set a clear vision and strategy. Then define program increments of six two-week sprints, plotting your high-level goals for each sprint. When each sprint arrives, you can divide your tasks in a virtual Kanban board, visualizing your workflow and limiting work-in-progress as far as possible to prioritize effectively. It is very different from the standard quarterly and annual cycles we are used to in business.
At the end of each sprint, document the benefits that your team has delivered to the business and share them with your stakeholders. Now you know if your team spent time on what brings value and can adapt accordingly. In our case, we have automated this very easily through Microsoft Teams: when a task is completed in the Kanban Board creates the benefit in a Sharepoint, for example.
There is an extra benefit to this approach. As each sprint brings precise tasks with clear accountability, what each team member is doing is understood, resulting in higher levels of transparency. A higher level of transparency creates more trust among the virtual team, which then allows the team members more freedom to work productively in the way that works best for them, no matter when or where. This is exactly the flexibility we need now, as we are working from home.
Inam: What do we need to learn about giving feedback and coaching our team members in an agile, virtual environment?
Orduña: It is important to create a culture of listening. I advise having a virtual board, where you can gather anonymous feedback from your team members. Any person can have a say on what we can start or stop doing, what are their current hopes and concerns, so you know every day where your team stands. If you address some of the issues quickly and explain why others cannot be addressed, you gain trust. It is the best way to show you care about your team. In the same way, you should coach and give feedback directly continuously. Another advantage of virtual teams is that it is easier to give direct feedback to one of your team members privately and solve any issue without impacting the team atmosphere.
Inam: How do you deepen your connection virtually?
Orduña: We do not go for lunch together, but we have discovered ways to build engagement. As a virtual team, we recommend using video in each interaction. We regularly set aside a 30-minute slot to have tea, and watch & discuss a TEDTalk unrelated to our work. We also have a parallel chat where we can discuss anytime what is happening in our lives in a more informal way. This is as if we were sitting next to each other in the office. I also encourage virtual short coffee breaks. In these uncertain times, we start our weekly team meeting giving a note on how we feel in the work atmosphere and personal atmosphere. For example, “I am at a 7 out of 10 in my work satisfaction as I am delivering my tasks. But I feel a 4 in my personal life because I am anxious about the current news”. We understand each other better, and we feel more connected in these times.
How about you? What’s working (and importantly for Agile, not working) for you to build agility in working with virtual teams?
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.