Andrew Beaney - How Agile can enhance collaboration in a post-pandemic world
Andrew Beaney is managing consultant at Box UK, an award winning enterprise software development company based in Wales, UK.
In this episode, Andrew describes a project for a leading UK university which Box UK started working on just before the Covid pandemic hit and in which agile methodologies turned out to be extremely beneficial to the client's team. Kanban was chosen as the most suitable methodology for the project, with regular retrospectives and asynchronous communication being key factors of success, in particular the latter due to the pandemic and most people working from home.
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“Even if you take some of the concepts about collaboration, about iteration, about feedback, and even if you just sort of sprinkle them into current processes, the chances are you're going to improve those processes.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. Our guest today is Andrew Beaney, managing consultant at the award-winning enterprise software development company Box UK. As an Agile coach and practitioner, Andrew has seen Agile methodologies greatly help businesses improve collaboration, especially during the pandemic, when flexibility and agility have so often been vital to success. In today's episode, he's going to describe a project they did just before Covid, which really showcases this advantage of going Agile. Welcome Andrew, it's great to have you on the show, anything we should add to this introduction?
Andrew Beaney: Oh, thanks for having me, great to be on the podcast. I guess my background, I was a physicist by trade, I did about 15 years in the UK defense sector, first in a government agency and then in a large defense contractor. So, my initial career was very much around the sort of areas of traditional project management or touching those areas, I was in R&D for a long time, and then I moved to Box UK as a digital agency. I had-- within my career in the defense sector, I’d tried to introduce Agile into some areas about 10 or 12 years ago and move to an Agile agency in 2013 as a business analyst and a product owner and that's really when my Agile journey sort of took flight as a scrum product owner and since then, I’ve been involved with Scrum, Kanban, various aspects of Lean, across a number of different projects and a number of different sectors.
Tim Butara: Oh, that's super fascinating, I’m sure we're in for a really great conversation, maybe one that also gives valuable insights to people that aren't from technical background and maybe have to adopt Agile. So, yeah, I’m really happy we have you here on the show today.
Andrew Beaney: Thank you.
Tim Butara: So, can you first give us some extra background and context for the specific project that we'll be talking about in the first half of this episode?
Andrew Beaney: Sure, so the project was for a client that's a leading UK university, and they-- as most universities are, it's not just about teaching, there's also research and helping move a sector forward, and helping businesses with innovation and growth. And this particular university had a couple of business development innovation services teams that they wanted to merge, the teams had worked relatively separately for quite a long time.
So, the challenge was to bring the teams together and to get them to work together as seamlessly and as collaboratively as possible to really get the most out of the people and the teams that were there. And the leader in the client organization had previously come across Agile through other channels and had taken an interest in it but saw the aspects of Agile, saw elements of collaboration and iteration and feedback and those sort of base values and base principles as being a really, potentially really good route to building a team and helping a team work together and come together to become more than the sum of their parts - which is really the goal of every team leader, isn't it?
So, we had done some work with that client before in other areas and we started off with just some introductory Agile training to introduce concepts, introduce the basic values, doing it through exercises and through games and things like, to really sort of cement the principles and allow people to sort of live, put themselves into a situation where they could live those values for a little while.
So, after that initial day of Agile training and Agile exercises, we settled on Kanban as the most likely route and the most likely technique to help people come together as a team, because it promotes transparency, it makes work visible, it shows where bottlenecks occur. And the key thing about Kanban which I really love is that you can start exactly where you are and just apply a Kanban way of looking at things to what you're doing now. You can start from there, and the change that you can promote is evolutionary and people have a much better chance of keeping up with that change, which is really important, you know, because we're not just talking about changing a supplier or changing a bit of kit or something like that; we're talking about changing people's behaviors, and changing people's practices and some people will take to that really quickly and really keenly, others will need more convincing. And to be able to do it in an evolutionary way step by step, where you're bringing people with you is really important and yeah, I mean, from that point of view, Kanban was a really good way forward and it worked really well.
Tim Butara: Yeah it really seems like the perfect choice, especially-- I mean, I think that when we talked about this initially, you mentioned that you completed the project before the lockdowns in March actually hit. So it was kind of a prophetic thing, you know, it's kind of, this will come in much more in handy later but you obviously weren't aware of that while you were making it, and I think that you know the choice of Kanban as kind of the perfect tool for this particular client because of everything that it offers turned out to be even more beneficial than with the arrival of Covid, because, you know it kind of prepared them for accepting change and kind of going with it and I think probably this was another aspect where they had an easier job because of your work together.
Andrew Beaney: I think that's right. There's the aspect of preparing people for change as you say and de-risking, it is such an impersonal word, de-risking; but allowing people to be less scared of a change and giving them confidence about, yeah they can make a, they can make a shift, they can, you know, they can make a change if they need to. But Kanban in itself as a framework promotes the kind of communications that you would need when you suddenly have to be dispersed as a team. You know, you can be working quite nicely as a co-located team, you have this change sort of forced upon you, and if you don't-- if what you're doing is instinctive or that there isn't a framework within which you work and everybody accepts, it's much more difficult to make that transition, that change.
Kanban gives you a light framework within which to sort of position and frame and make explicit the communications that you need to make happen. You think about, well, what are processes for generally? Processes really are there to enable people to do what they need to do in a way that they don't have to worry about what to do next, so that they can concentrate on what they're actually doing. So, you know, again, Kanban I think has worked really well for that - it’s light, it's powerful and again the evolutionary nature of it was really useful.
Tim Butara: So yeah, you mentioned, we just talked about Kanban and kind of the main benefits of it were the improved communication, increased transparency and kind of being better prepared for any future uncertainties and disruptions. But what were some other aspects of Agile strategies, of Agile methodologies that proved really effective in this particular project?
Andrew Beaney: I think the-- we go back to the core values of collaboration, iteration and feedback, and you know, it wasn't just Kanban that we were talking about, we introduced another concept I think is relatively simple but really powerful and that's regular retrospectives where you are able to feedback your experiences, your outcomes to improve your processes.
I’m sure many listeners will be very familiar with retrospectives, but I think it's hard to underrate how important they are in, not just in Agile working but if, you know, if you can get that that sort of constructive look back and constructive feedback into any sort of process it's going to help. We associate it with Agile, but I’m sure you can apply it to many other areas. And it ties in well again with the evolutionary nature of Kanban, that you can take stock after a couple of weeks ,a month, however long you choose, and be quite open and quite candid about what has worked, what hasn't yet worked, what might not work.
And from that point of view, it was important for the leader of the teams to set up an environment where people felt safe to talk about those things. And my client worked really hard on that and was very effective in achieving that and really set that environment up sort of internally to allow people to have that safe space.
Tim Butara: And that's key. And also it proved to be even more key as with the choice of Kanban then when the Covid pandemic hit and we saw this huge emphasis on the good experience of employees, and I think that the adoption of Agile just kind of guarantees that by default, it guarantees a better experience for employees if it's implemented in the right way, but if the client kind of had a desire to go with Agile that probably means that they kind of already had the right mindset for it.
Andrew Beaney: Yeah, and again, it's-- part of it is getting that mindset within the team and agreeing on that as a good way forward, but they had early successes with it and they made sure to celebrate those successes as well as just look for improvements. And from a change management point of view, again, that's a really important aspect, you know, if you're being asked to make a change you need to know that change is going to be effective and it's going to help you out personally and it did.
Tim Butara: Great. And, yeah, you mentioned in the beginning that you actually started being interested in Agile even before you started working in tech specifically, so, in the industry that you were previously working in. And I kind of see a correlation with this project now, because this is another project that's not really specifically about software development but this is where we typically encounter Agile, you know, Agile project management in software development. So, do you think that this could become like a new trend, that we’ll be seeing Agile use more and more for project management for any kind of projects, not just in software?
Andrew Beaney: Yeah I think so, I think there's a kind of a spectrum that you could talk about Agile as well, you can have a full Agile implementation in process terms, anyway, full Agile implementation like a sort of a you know a Scrum methodology for software development and that's quite a well-defined framework that you can follow and adapt to your team and lots and lots of people are doing that around the world for software.
But even if you take, at the other end of the spectrum, even if you take some of the concepts about collaboration, about iteration, about feedback and even if you just sort of sprinkle them into current processes the chances are you're going to improve those processes. I'm a firm believer that that collaborative working and generating shared understanding is going to help in many different situations that you wouldn't necessarily think of the word Agile, but you can almost like sneak in some of those techniques to be able to help a team, help a situation, and then you can, if it's appropriate, you can grow it from there.
You know, you don't necessarily have to, you know, have to go cold turkey on one process and immediately switch to a, you know, a hard adoption of a particular methodology. You can apply certain principles and apply certain ways of working gradually - again, in an evolutionary way that brings people along with you. We've seen in a pandemic of course there can be massive jolts that that push people towards large changes and, you know, we've seen how organizations can cope with that, but again, there are certain aspects - collaboration, feedback, I believe they're always going to help in many different circumstances without even mentioning the word Agile sometimes.
Tim Butara: Yeah, those are very good points, and also with the kind of increasing pace of digital innovation, I think it's inevitable that there will be some crossover, you know, with Agile methodologies and they will start seeping into kind of the traditional way of doing things. And as you mentioned, previously, it's already-- we're seeing some things that maybe originated in Agile but are now used on a wider scale and I mean, let's admit it, I think the pandemic and the remote nature of work and the huge digitalization are also are also somewhat at fault here because right now it really pays to be Agile, it really pays to-- you can't even work properly without adopting some strategies like more efficient collaboration and more asynchronous communication which we'll get to in a little bit, so, yeah.
Andrew Beaney: Yeah.
Tim Butara: Okay, I already made a transition now, so, let's move to async communication. What’s your view on this? Like, I’ve just mentioned that it's something that inevitably comes with the distributed nature of our work, but what would you say are some of the main challenges here and maybe also, on the other end of the spectrum, some of the benefits that come with async communication?
Andrew Beaney: Yeah, I think this is - for me, anyway - a developing subject, it's not a definitive solution yet. And, you know, on one side, I’ve heard a lot of advocates of asynchronous communication, asynchronous working, they found it very very beneficial in their in their contacts, you know, so long before the pandemic you had, for example, product companies that had dispersed teams and they've grown up with asynchronous communication and asynchronous Agile working and it's worked for them and that's really quite a sort of a fascinating branch on the Agile tree, if you like, but there are different contexts as well.
So, for example, you know as Box UK, as an agency, we have a different context to an out and out product company in that a product company essentially controls their own roadmap, controls their own backlog, whereas an agency has to have a level of responsiveness to a client. And it's that level of responsiveness as well, the more responsiveness you need, then I would say potentially the more collaboration that you would need in a given circumstance. Within the pandemic, I mean, we've got to keep in mind all of the challenges that this pandemic has thrown up to people. So, we need people to have space in between the homeschooling, the caring for relatives and all of the other sort of things that promote anxiety and, you know, distract from work in a pandemic. We've got to allow people to have a space to do the deep work that they need to do.
So, you know, the last thing you want when you're home schooling and when you're, you know, when you're caring for people is another sort of being on your phone calling you to a meeting that you think ‘oh, do I really have to go to this?’ But what I’ve also seen, and I think the key for me is that there is a balance in this, what I’ve also seen kind of implied in a lot of conference talks and things like that, is this assumption that people only ever do their best work when they're on their own doing deep work. And I’m not sure that's always the case.
You know, you talk about software delivery and the quality of software delivery is often about the quality of the team and how that team works together, as much as it is the quality of the individuals. So the balance there is to maintain that team aspect, to maintain those connections and maintain those relationships, as well as aspects of collaborative problem solving where as individuals you may have a number of takes on a different problem, but when you come together as a team that can often have a really sort of penny drop moment where you wouldn't necessarily have that if you carried on just working asynchronously as individuals. Now, you know, asynchronous communications involves communications so it's not as cut and dry as that, but for me, that there has to be a balance between synchronous communication and synchronous collaboration when you need it, but also the team having the awareness to be able to switch that off for a while and go asynchronous to allow them space to do what they need to do.
I guess the thing to watch for me in terms of asynchronous communication is if you're falling back into the sort of the bad old days of just document sharing, and just relying on reading, you know, a piece of asynchronous communication, whether it's a document or, you know, a flow chart or whatever it is. In the bad old days, you’d just read that and you wouldn't be able to close that feedback loop to check your understanding. And that's one of the real strengths of collaborative working, is that those feedback loops are really short, you can essentially do that in real time. When you're communicating asynchronously, those feedback loops are necessarily longer - which is okay, you've just got to make sure that they are closed at some point. And you maybe have to be a little bit more deliberate when you're doing asynchronous communication to make sure that those feedback loops really are closed and that you really are getting that shared understanding. And I think that you have to be a little bit more deliberate with that rather than just in a workshop or a facilitated meeting where it's a little bit more natural to close those feedback loops.
Tim Butara: Yeah, those are some really great points, I think this will also be useful for anybody who's maybe having some challenges with properly implementing async communication. You know, to know that there has to be this balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication, it's not just that it's one or the other, it's not that async is a replacement of synchronous communication - no, it's for different types of work, for different purposes and in different situations, in different contexts, and you should be kind of familiar with both and be able to work in both ways.
Andrew Beaney: I mean, for me, it's quite a familiar pattern, it's when you're trying to communicate something, what are you trying to achieve with that communication? Look at what you're trying to achieve and use the methods appropriate for that. So, the thing that I try and promote within Box UK is, if something is left unsaid, chances are it needs to be said. And it's better to, in some ways, just to make sure and just to check that people do understand something, rather than just let it go, you know. But also being deliberate in communication - if you have something that you think is important, don't just transmit it, don't just sort of put it out there, look for feedback to see if people have received what you've said, have understood and have a similar understanding to yours on that, to make sure that the communication is effective. And that goes across synchronous and asynchronous methods. And I think that that's kind of a general, being deliberate in your communication is really important, it’s a skill and it can be learned, but it also requires a deliberate effort on the part of people within those teams.
Tim Butara: Okay, I’ll jump back to Agile for a little bit, but now in this final part of the call, we won’t focus on the specific project that we talked about before but we'll maybe go a little bit wider. And first I’ll start with a question that maybe looks into the future a little bit - at a world where we can say safely that it's a post-Covid world because right now it's still a Covid world basically - what are some key tenets of Agile that, you know, will be able to enable businesses of any size to work more effectively in this post-Covid future?
Andrew Beaney: I think it’s a lot about what we've talked about already, making sure that communication is happening and is effective, one of the first things to go when you're forced into a sort of a dispersed working pattern is your communication, unless you have a structure behind communication. So, things like daily stand-ups, things like demos, things like retrospectives, they provide a structure within which teams can communicate, you know, within the team and to other stakeholders. So, having those structures and putting those structures in place will help people communicate when they need to and communicate what they need to get across.
Going back to Kanban, I think it's fantastic in the way that it makes things visible, it makes work visible it makes bottlenecks visible, and again, it's a framework around which you can identify issues, identify risks even when you are remote and dispersed you've got that almost like a campfire to gather around. You know, you also have structures and frameworks within which you can continue with your collaboration when you've gone remote.
One of the-- it's a good point actually that a speaker at a recent conference came up with: when the Agile manifesto was initially introduced, I think it was 2001, very few of these modern communications and collaboration tools existed. So, the whole manifesto was of its time and built with, you know, with face-to-face communications in mind kind of because it had to be. The principles still apply; we have a wider range of tools that are still developing and there's some really good stuff out there that is still on an improvement curve as well, so it's still getting better; but, you know, the principles still apply, the principles of collaborative working of iterating, what you're doing, seeking feedback and improvement, they still apply.
Tim Butara: It’s nice to have such evergreen principles that kind of stand up to the test of time and to the test of significant technological innovations and changes in the digital industry, so yeah, it's kind of future proof in this way.
Yeah and in a similar vein, maybe before we wrap up the call, what would be your main advice to business owners and decision makers who are maybe having trouble with successfully implementing Agile in their business?
Andrew Beaney: Yeah there's, I don't think there's a silver bullet to that, there's a few things I think. The project that we talked about, there were clear goals, there were clear things that the leadership and the team wanted to achieve and you know having that vision of those goals at front of mind is really important. At an implementation level I think it's really important for leaders to be able to provide that safe space for collaboration, for learning, for honesty. But there's a kind of a flip side where, you know, the team also has a responsibility to be constructive within that sort of feedback and those communications, and look to-- everybody should be looking to support and help their teammates as opposed to the kind of, the more destructive kind of communications that you can get in some environments.
And again, if you're in one of those less conducive environments, it can be tricky to transition and again leaders may need to go out on a bit of a limb organizationally to provide that protection for their team and provide that safe space for that collaboration, for that accountability and transparency. Leading on to servant leadership where the leader, they're empowering people to get better rather than directing them, and again, that can be a change for leaders as well. Yeah, that’s a journey that some people need to go on personally at the same time.
But also, I’m going to come back to some old-fashioned change management here. Always the base question at some point or another, sooner or later, everybody involved will ask themselves: what's in it for me? And if they can't answer that question, they're not going to be anything like as enthusiastic or committed to a change, and that's going to have, you know, that's going to show in how a team responds. So again, there's this, an onus on leadership to keep that vision sold, as it were, and not just to talk about organizational benefits, but how it's going to make people's lives easier, how they're going to be able to concentrate on the things that they feel that they ought to be concentrating on and want to concentrate on, and how, you know, in many respects they're going to get extra help to do that. And again, that's quite an old-school change management thing, but again it's one of those sort of evergreen principles, isn't it?
Tim Butara: Yeah, but it's a great piece of advice and I think it's a perfect note to finish on this very interesting conversation. Just before we do, if people want to reach out to you or to learn more about you, what's the best place for them to reach you?
Andrew Beaney: All right. So, I’m on LinkedIn, Andrew Beaney, you can find me there. I’m on Instagram, if you search for the Travelling Post-it, that’s me. Then-- I guess I should rename that to the Remote Post-it, I haven't yet. I’m on Twitter - @A_beanie; or you can go to the Box UK website, boxuk.com, and get in touch via there.
Tim Butara: Okay awesome. I’ll make sure to include all the info when I publish the episode, and yeah thanks again for this really great chat,iIt's been a real pleasure. And to our listeners, that's all for this episode, have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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