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How teams can embrace Agile collaboration in the hybrid work era

collaboration
(Image credit: Image Credit: Rawpixel.com / Pixabay)

For all the ongoing discussion around the big return to offices, the reality is that most businesses are continuing to operate remotely, at least in some capacity, for the foreseeable future. This new reality of an entirely dispersed workforce threatens one of the most important principles of an Agile approach: collaboration.

Recent research revealed that 75 percent of employees felt team collaboration has suffered the most since transitioning to remote work. The loss of teamwork and cooperation has even dramatically impacted business activities; almost half of C-suite respondents reported that their company was forced to delay major launches, campaigns or initiatives as a result of this massive shift to remote work.

The impact is just as pronounced, or still unresolved, in the more hybrid era we are now embarking on as clusters of teams return to the office. The same issues still arise – even after more than a year of experience with virtual meetings! It is all too familiar for conversations in our virtual meetings not to flow as naturally as in-person groups, especially when the group is large.

This is where smaller groups and Agile practices, such as those popularized by Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) teams, can help.

Drawing on agile principles

The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001 as an alternative to documentation-driven, heavyweight software processes. It is not anti-methodology, but rather a set of values that can restore a balance.

Two Agile Principles specifically reference the importance of collaboration:

  • the need for daily contact between business people and developers
  • the superiority of face-to-face communication

This frequent and “high-bandwidth” interaction is critical to fostering engagement, innovation and connection across teams. When collaboration breaks down between individuals, within teams or at a much larger scale, the result is clearly negative.

The problems with our current efforts at collaboration are well documented. For example, researchers from Stanford say we’re under cognitive overload during virtual meetings, based on what we see too much of (eye contact and ourselves) and not enough of (non-verbal communications). When body language is obscured, social cues are too, including signs of who should speak when. The more people in the meeting, the more challenging the dynamic becomes.

How can technology executives respond to the hit collaboration has taken from the unprecedented scale of remote work? And how can Agile teams adapt their practices and tools to support human interaction and effectively work together, whether in real-time or asynchronously? 

Smaller groups can mean big innovation

If you want to generate big results during collaborative meetings, such as brainstorming, design or ideation sessions, strategic planning, or any team meeting where all voices are especially needed, small groups can be an effective way to enhance collaboration and promote connection with team members.

Jeff Bezos encouraged smaller, more effective teams at Amazon with a simple rule of thumb: If the size of the group included more people than could adequately be fed by two pizzas, too many people were involved. Clearly, the model has led to significant success, making Amazon a compelling case study of how effectively smaller teams can work.

Fascinating new research studied team size through countless scientific papers, patents, and software projects and found that small teams were more likely to produce disruptive innovations: “Whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities.”

Faced with the challenges of a hybrid context, the potential of these small, agile teams can be bolstered when they are equipped with the most relevant and useful tools to facilitate collaboration.

Leveraging virtual whiteboards to drive collaboration

Virtual whiteboards support collaboration by providing a space for Agile teams to engage together both visually and verbally in real-time. Combined with video conferencing, online whiteboards can enhance team interactions. At the same time, visuals help organize complex processes and strategies that would otherwise be difficult to manage.

In particular, when teams aren’t colocated, the shared virtual space acts as a single source of truth to reference throughout sprints or long-term projects, allowing teams to stay aligned. They provide remote collaborators with all the benefits of a physical whiteboard, as well as advantages that are not possible in a traditional conference room. Every team member contributes simultaneously, meaning everyone’s ideas are considered in the larger discussion.

Particularly valuable to Agile teams is the capability of virtual whiteboards to provide both a big picture overview and, alongside, tactical action items. At its core, Agile relies on self-organized teams working closely with business leaders to best deliver results rapidly and efficiently. While this approach results in well-documented increases in productivity, it also opens up the possibility for teams to lose sight of the big picture as they focus on the iteration. Teams using virtual whiteboards can apply the power of visuals to creating a shared source of truth where they can clarify high-level plans and strategies, enabling dispersed teams to stay on track and react appropriately when changes to strategy, processes or initiatives occur.

Facilitating collaboration in the next ‘normal’

As Agile teams continue to search for remote work solutions to foster collaboration, maintaining open communication channels and interactions between teams is essential. That’s where facilitation plays a vital role.

By leveraging virtual whiteboards, leaders can move teams away from the risk of groupthink toward the inclusion of diverse perspectives. For example, when group collaboration begins as a discussion, some participants may not speak up as actively or frequently, resulting in unique ideas and experience being excluded as they were never shared. Instead, facilitators can leverage structured brainstorming to increase the likelihood that all participants will have an equal opportunity to provide input. 

This can be done by providing time and space for individual ideation, to then be followed by group processes.

While it's often necessary to bring large groups of individuals together, the dynamics of the group’s size, combined with the complexities of hybrid environments, tend to work against the goals of effective ideation and collaboration. Dividing into small groups for interactive work can also help create an inclusive space for all voices, combine the power of both real-time and asynchronous work, while also increasing engagement and innovative thinking. 

Agile team interactions can easily transfer to the virtual world, particularly as organizations invest in solutions such as virtual whiteboards that foster engagement, collaboration and productivity.

And when teams return to the office, these applications, combined with smaller groups, careful planning and deliberate facilitation, can enhance Agile practices, reduce distractions and bolster a team's communication and execution.

Bryan Stallings, coach and facilitator, Lucid

Bryan Stallings is Expert Agile practitioner, coach and facilitator at Lucid, which provides a suite of collaboration tools including Lucidspark and Lucidchart.