Offering increased flexibility to employees and greater choice to employers, we’ve seen distributed working grow in popularity in recent years – only to be accelerated even further by COVID-19.
I was very pleased then to recently take part in a discussion with Elin Lloyd Jones, Head of Innovation and Business Engagement at Cardiff University, where we explored her own team’s journey to distributed working.
Looking in particular at the role Agile practices have played in the team’s success, we touched on a number of topics relevant to those looking to strengthen their own distributed strategies. Some of the key themes to come out of the discussion are explored below, and you can also watch the full recording on demand here.
Elin initially became interested in adopting Agile when she took the lead in forming a new Innovation and Business Engagement team from two previously separate business development and innovation project management teams. The challenge was to bring together these two sets of individuals who had been working independently on individual, self-directed projects, and create a new team focused on delivering against the wider university strategy.
With its focus on visibility, teamwork and continuous improvement, Agile stood out as a good fit in supporting these aims. While the approach originated in the world of software development, Agile can be applied in all kinds of situations – and indeed, several teams from across Cardiff University had already benefited from the approach, through coaching delivered by Box UK.
Elin was impressed by the positive feedback on the process she received from these teams, so I started working with her and the team to define key challenges and objectives within her own team, and collaboratively develop a programme of activity that would upskill the new team in Agile ways of working.
In the online discussion Elin highlighted how valuable initial interactive workshops were in bringing the team together:
“Having a sustained programme of activity that wasn’t necessarily project-related, but more about training and development opportunities for the team, it really helped us to get out of the office to explore those new concepts, get to know each other better away from traditional pressures, and really helped with team-building.”
The sessions concentrated on principles such as collaboration, iteration and feedback – vital skills needed not just to be Agile, but to ensure success when any new team is coming together and establishing shared goals.
Continuous improvement was another key feature covered in the workshops. Elin was passionate about the team spending time outside of the training sessions thinking about how they could apply the principles to their working environment, and led the drive to ensure the new ways of working were embedded successfully:
“In a way you can go into training thinking ‘this is all going to fail’, and that you’ll just carry on as usual. The next day, I was really determined that that wasn’t the way we were. This was about bringing the whole group together to look at new or better ways of doing things. And to try things out and experiment; if they didn’t work, we could let those go and move on to the next thing, or where they did work we could embrace and tailor them for our own situation. So it provoked a lot of thought, discussion and an iteration in between those sessions.”
Elin also spoke about how having a 12+ month programme of activity gave the team the time needed to bed in these things, while running retrospectives and making changes demonstrated a big commitment to the team that the approach was going to be managed and nurtured over the long-term.
Change management was something that came up throughout the conversation, as Elin understood that getting the team on board would be crucial to success. It was vital to address the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question, taking the time to listen to everybody and to understand and address their concerns.
Thanks to everybody on the team being very open-minded and willing to give things a go, good progress was made over the initial weeks and months. The focus was on getting the team to proactively learn by doing; facilitated exercises were run very quickly following the training sessions for example, and structures put in place to rapidly test and review new ways of working.
As Elin summarised in the discussion:
“I was very keen that this is something the team has to do together, so I had to step back and not just think about what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for each and every other member of the team. And it’s taken longer for some people to get on board. For example, a Kanban board was set up and some people could see instantly how that would be used, while others saw it as just another thing on top of the CRM, and the monthly reports, and the quarterly report and so on.
And so it’s taken a bit of time and we’re constantly iterating and refining it, and we’re by no means at the end of our journey. But it’s been extremely helpful; I’m getting those things out of it that I wanted to get out of it, and hopefully my team members are also getting benefits from the approach.”
Elin and her team had been working in this way for a year before lockdown forced many organisations to move to distributed setups. This meant their approach was fairly mature, and during this time Elin had also invested in laptops for the team so that they could join meetings from wherever they were. Additionally, having initially used a very large whiteboard to manage their Kanban board, they now had this set up in Microsoft Teams.
“It was almost literally a case of ‘right, not coming in tomorrow’. So everyone just packed their laptop and went home. And we logged in for our ‘new normal’ team standup the next day, and everyone was kind of up and running. And so in that sense, it was pretty seamless.
I know from colleagues’ experiences in other parts of the organisation, that wasn’t the universal experience… I can’t take any credit for seeing that this was going to happen. I just had a strong sense that this was the way that we probably should be working.”
Elin also talked about providing additional support to help team members adjust to this new situation:
“The biggest change was that people were at home and actually perhaps gaining in terms of missing their daily commute and so on, but then there were costs on the other side in terms of looking after dependents, childcare, and so on. So, that nine to five day structure sort of disappeared, in a sense, and I think it was very important at the outset to shift from a focus on outputs and presenteeism and nine to fivers, and instead focus on outcomes.”
Elin has been working with team members on what those outcomes should be, by understanding what motivates individuals, thinking about what their work and home environment looks like, and asking what the team actually wants and needs to achieve.
She also emphasised the importance of acknowledging that things might initially take longer than usual, and that there may be a new rhythm of peaks and troughs. This can be mitigated by having regular conversations with people to understand what the pressures are, and what their workload is like, while specific Agile techniques have also helped Elin:
“It’s getting back to that Kanban board and that helicopter view of everything that’s going on within the team, and being able to prioritise or deprioritise things accordingly… it’s having, from a team leadership point of view, visibility of everything that’s going on and being able to temper that with expectations, and has been extremely helpful.”
At the same time, with people more able to work flexibly whenever is convenient for them, it’s important to make sure that people’s wellbeing is protected. For Elin, this meant encouraging people to switch off their laptops and resist checking in all the time, to avoid the real risk that exists around the fatigue of being on all the time.
Elin also spoke about a particular challenge she’s seen since lockdown, of potentially missing out on a lot of the knowledge that is naturally picked up in an office environment. While acknowledging that the Kanban board doesn’t fix this completely, Elin did reference that some of the discussions it prompts help to plug the gaps, and without that visible and transparent discussion you may miss opportunities to work more effectively and efficiently:
“I thought one of the key things was to maintain contact. And so we had a daily standup that was regular for the first four months; already we’ve sort of rationalised that a bit. We now have a weekly standup which is very focused on the board, on priorities, on work, and so on. And then we have a Monday morning coffee break and a Thursday afternoon team tea break. The idea then is that we can still get the more informal stuff in those sessions and we can really focus in. So that’s been particularly helpful.”
These discussions also encourage team members to ‘jump in’ and help on tasks and projects without being directed. They can see the links between their work and what other people are doing; it helps clarify different objectives, and enables the team to do things more efficiently and in a more supportive way.
Additionally, stakeholder mapping has proven valuable to build an understanding within the team of who the stakeholders are, what different levels of interaction or engagement are needed, and what may be most appropriate at different times. Elin spoke about her desire to introduce this into other university settings, along with other key Agile principles:
“This isn’t just doing it for the sake of just doing it, but it’s about how we create that visibility of our work, not just among ourselves, but among our stakeholders. How do we take responsibility when things don’t go quite to plan, learn from them? And how do we apply that learning in the next project that we take on. It’s really to continuously improve by using these methods, and adopting new ones.”
As Elin and her team have been advised that they are unlikely to return to the office until next August, they are facing over a year of distributed working.
“Our strategy’s been refreshed, and one of the key components of that will be looking at staff and student wellbeing. And within that, there’s a whole range of issues looking at outcomes, and how you manage people in this distributed way. And so I’m looking forward to being able to feed in a lot of the learning that we’ve done along the way as well into that process.”
When asked about potential advice for others looking follow Elin’s example, the themes of leadership, buy-in and incremental improvement all came through, as they had done throughout the discussion:
“I know I’ve talked about it all in success terms, in a sense, but I don’t want to pretend that it hasn’t taken an awful lot of effort, and it does need sustained effort as well. It does need commitment from someone to drive it, as well as help bring everyone along on the same journey. It’s not something you can do a quick fix on…
It’s been really valuable to us as a group of people and working on this has made us into a better team, but that would be my final takeaway. It does take effort, but it’s effort that really pays back.”
I would also recommend that anyone looking to make improvements to their strategy run a retrospective of their current processes and methods of communication, looking at what is working well, and what needs to be improved. This provides a starting point for a discussion about quick wins, the right long-term direction for the team, and any cultural aspects that need to be considered – and is a highly achievable next step whether or not teams are starting from a distributed position.
Our thanks again to Elin for sharing her story with us. If you’d like to learn more, take a look at the full recording which is available to watch on demand, or read our Cardiff University Agile Coaching case study.