It seems like a long time ago, but before the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything, Accenture and the Agile community were talking about (and arguing in favor of) greater physical proximity as a way of accelerating agile development.
Back then, many organizations were talking about Agile, but not that many were developing it. Since then, Agile adoption has accelerated and now more than seven in ten (71%) of large organizations say they use Agile in some form. Part of Accenture’s original approach to boosting Agile was to bring multi-disciplinary teams together in a single physical location. The concept was to put business and IT together to foster a ready exchange of ideas, rapid iteration, and the freedom to fail (and succeed) quickly – all core principles of Agile.
Early experiments with proximity
In our early experiments with proximity, however, we found that proximity, while solving some problems, created others. These included a tendency towards cumbersome operating structures, limited leverage of offshore/nearshore development pools (thus leaving money on the table) and a proliferation of two-speed models, with mainframe developers using offshored resources while front-end people relying upon local developers. We were working out solutions and have helped some of our clients develop remote Agile capabilities such as multi-site daily meetings and remote visualization of burn-down charts using touch screens and remote access.
Collaborative tech helped distributed work environments
Then the pandemic came along and changed everything. Almost overnight, people were forced into distributed work environments. The pandemic pushed them apart, but rapidly evolving collaborative technologies pulled them back together. The speed with which these applications have been adopted is astonishing; some business-focused apps such as Zoom saw their daily meeting participants double in just three months. Suddenly, proximity – or the lack of proximity – was no longer an issue. A major cultural shift occurred, opening the way to new, effective behaviors. We had to find new ways to make Agile work in a virtual environment and do so right away.
As it turned out, the constraints imposed by physical distance were relatively easy to overcome. Agile technologies have evolved to run seamlessly no matter where developers are located. Talent and skill, rather than physical proximity, are what count.
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Agile technologies have evolved to run seamlessly no matter where developers are located.
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That’s not to say that what’s becoming known as “virtual proximity” is easy to achieve; it isn’t. To make Agile development work in the absence of physical proximity, organizations need to have four things in place:
1. A multi-local operating model
Instead of centralization, virtual proximity works best from multiple operating hubs. This setup can attract more talent, as it retains some cultural cohesiveness. This enables colleague engagement and networking and can also permit physical meetings on occasion. Staffing is determined by skills needed, as operating hubs have access to what is essentially a global talent pool. Virtual proximity also fosters strong, seamless connections between business and IT stakeholders, helping keep the ultimate focus of development on the customer, where it belongs.
2. A seamless liquid technology infrastructure
The most basic component of such an infrastructure is a true cloud environment, one that enables a continuous delivery development chain. Cloud serves as the foundation for the use of new tools such as Mural or tools to emulate physical presence. And, of course, the organization needs to invest in the bandwidth to support virtual proximity.
3. New work practices and mindsets
Keeping everything moving forward at once from multiple locations is a complex undertaking. Organizations need to be able to choreograph the operation development process, putting appropriate tools and processes to work in such multi-local set up. Key elements include:
- The right pace. Agile calls for an accelerated workflow and two-week rather than two-month project deadlines, as well as simplified governance, a culture of decentralized decision-making and investments in automation – all making it easier to see the progress of the project.
- Good visibility. This visibility spans work product, plans, vision and objectives, all readily accessible via dashboards and file-sharing. Agreed-upon KPIs measure progress and identify motivation/engagement level/improvement areas for all team members.
- Coordination. This is typically accomplished across the organization; through virtual daily meetings at team level, up to planning and feedback sessions and quarterly strategy reviews at higher level.
- The right approach. We use output-based “epic” outsourcing, breaking development down into the three levels of epic, story, and task.
- The proximity catch. Because people are and remain social animals, virtual proximity requires to maintain ways of connecting, building connections and team mindsets without physical proximity, doubling the focus on such “soft” topics.
4. New ways of managing talent
Organizations are experimenting various talent performance models in which some employees (primarily those who are introverted and analytical) find it easier to perform better while working remotely. For others, performance and motivation deteriorates with time and distance, so interventions are needed. Virtual performance management needs to take drastically different approaches and skills.
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Such tools have been implemented across Accenture’s 520,000 people workforce and more specifically across our more than 60 IT delivery centers: they have significantly accelerated delivery of value-added solutions. To achieve that, we have teamed with numerous outside partners to design and implement massive change for our own organization.
Now we are partnering with clients to build these new virtual proximity models using a vendor-neutral, multi-sourced approach and have turned it into a structured approach to change operating models of our client to unite historical opponents: Agile and distance. In a matter of months, we have piloted with our clients a new approach to deliver Agile across distributed teams in an effective, industrialized manner.
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