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How to be Agile during the COVID-19 pandemic

This is the first time in all of human history where people around the world are coping with the same set of problems on such a massive scale – unemployment, critical illness, isolation and cancelled plans. Like everyone else, I had abundant plans for the spring. I was finally going to return to my home country after six years of living abroad. I was going to participate in conferences and learn to salsa. This past Easter weekend, I had completely different intentions rather than writing this article. Yet life is unpredictable and that’s why I love it.

Upon arriving in Canada five years ago, I learned the term “agile.” The dictionary definition is the ability to move quickly and easily. However, it assumes a particular meaning in the context of the style of work adopted in an organization: “a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.” Having innately understood that I possessed an agile mindset long before I learned this term, I was inspired to use agility not just at work but also in planning my personal life. I have since written articles about agile in personal planning, spoken in several events and conferences and am in the process of writing a book on the topic. Given the current pandemic, I strive more than ever to be agile, adaptable and flexible in both my work and my life as a whole.

How to be Agile during the COVID-19 pandemic

The defining characteristic of an agile mindset is how quickly one can adapt to new circumstances and reprioritize goals and activities under the current pandemic. From time to time during the retrospectives with my teams at work I ask two questions:

 “What can we control?” and “What can’t we control?”

We develop a list of obstacles and then identify whether we can control it or not. If there is something beyond our control, consider simply accepting it and adapt accordingly. For example, I cannot control the spread of COVID-19 (beyond my personal efforts at social distancing) nor the length of quarantine. The pragmatic choice is to accept that this is beyond my control and not waste energy concerning myself with it. Next, I consider the factors that I can control. There are so many things I am capable of controlling, so why not focus all of my energy on them?

  • I can control my emotions, my reactions and utilize mindfulness
  • I can control my attitude
  • I can continue maintaining my habits while working from home, such as waking up early, paying attention to my grooming and hygiene
  • I can limit the amount of upsetting news I am exposed to on a daily basis

The list can continue, but the idea is clear.

Another question I like to ask myself is “What challenges do I have?.  Challenges are distinct from blockers. “Blockers” are something completely beyond my ability to control. “Challenges” on the other hand, are obstacles which make attaining my goals difficult but by no means impossible. For instance, I engage in public speaking. I love it. Yet I have always engaged with a live, face to face audience and have never done it online. Hence, my goal is to continue speaking and delivering information via webinars, despite the challenge of an absent audience. Facing this challenge requires learning to be an engaging speaker without the advantage of eye contact and an interactive audience.

It is not enough, however, to merely identify challenges. It is important to create a step-wise plan on how to overcome them. So, the next question is: “How do I overcome the challenges facing me?” From the previous example, the challenge of delivering information on webinars is the inability to read the audience in real-time. One way to compensate for this is to thoroughly research my audience beforehand. Are they from a diverse array of backgrounds? Or are they from a relatively homogeneous background? This enables me to be aware of any sensitivities they may have when I prepare for humour, or whether they will understand the vernacular and adjust accordingly. The devil is in the details, and tailoring a presentation to your audience will pay off handsomely.

The next question I address is: “What tools do I already possess?” For instance, during public speaking, I employ charisma and emotional intelligence as tools to engage with the audience and determine the impact of my message in real-time. I also ensure that my effectiveness as a presenter is not limited by technology, hence I use software as visual aids and use a high-quality webcam and broadband connection.

The purpose is to continue delivering information without impediment and for the message to resonate with the audience. Connecting with the audience requires more than simply a camera and a broadband connection – it requires the human conviction.

When we encounter changes in the direction of a project, or even changes in the course of our lives, there are always some resources which are finite and other resources which we can obtain more through effective management and discipline.

Therefore, the next question is: “What resources do I have?’ The first resource that came to mind was Time. Like many, I used to work at the office and spent a couple of hours every day commuting. Now given COVID-19, I work from home and have an abundance of extra time at my disposal, a situation many of you likely share. Why not deploy this resource effectively? While I now miss my colleagues from our after-work meetings and social engagements, the silver lining is an extra couple of hours I can use every day! So why not be agile given these new circumstances and reorganize my daily routine?

Now for the final question – “what new opportunities do I have?” No matter what might happen in our lives, there are always new opportunities if one employs a proper attitude. Given the circumstances imposed by the pandemic and social distancing, I have the opportunity to develop technical savvy and to enhance my presentation ability through proficiency in webinars. Consider all of the new skillsets you now have to learn when many services are now closed to the public – do you cook more than before? Have you learned to cut your hair?

How to be Agile during the COVID-19 pandemic

Most of you know that working in an agile environment means having main ceremonies such as daily standups, planning, retrospective, reviews and refinements. I use these ceremonies for personal planning and for agility in life too.

First of all, keeping these ceremonies as a part of my daily routines keeps me disciplined. I believe that it is crucial to maintain discipline during the quarantine. As Eliud Kipchoge said: “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.”

Secondly, these ceremonies help me to stop and think about my goals, plans and vision for life.

I have written an article on how I do personal planning using agile ceremonies which can be seen here

Here I would like to focus on daily stand-ups. In the agile environment, teams hold a daily scrum meeting called the “daily scrum” or daily stand up. The purpose is to ensure that the entire team is made aware of impediments, what stories are to be done or not done, and what tasks are ready to be pulled from one team member’s to-do list and transferred to another team member. To succeed in this purpose each team member normally answers three questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Are there any impediments in your way?


How to be Agile during the COVID-19 pandemic

I also have personal standups with myself every morning. Though I am employing this method to my personal life rather than my work routine, I still start my morning routines with the same three questions:

  • What is important?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • What I am going to do today?

And, in the end, the lesson I’ve learned in our current situation is: everything I am able to do now, I need to do now. Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

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