Business Agility: Getting Started

Home The Savvy PM Blog Business Agility: Getting Started
Man walking to Agile billboard image. Business agility

Agile is now part of the general business lexicon.  On the news, non-technology leaders keep mentioning the need to be “agile” or “pivot.”  Even leaders of traditional industries, like football, use the terminology to describe their approach to their complex business problems.

Agile is not magic, nor is it hard to learn.  This article shares two foundational principles that are empowering people and making work visible. 

Build High-Performing Teams by Chartering

Empowered, self-organizing teams are a cornerstone of business agility.  Teams are a basic unit for executing and accomplishing work in all organizations.  We can unlock the teams’ innovative energy by creating a safe, collaborative environment.   

The wonders of high-performing teams are well documented.  People are motivated, energized, and enjoy each other’s company.  Factors contributing to high-performing teams are emotional safety, shared-values, and members playing to their strengths.   

Bruce Tuckman defined a 5-stage model describing the stages of team development.  When forming, members do not have a strong sense of mission or group identity.  Creating a team charter accelerates the process of group development.  This requires the team to articulate, document, and agree to group expectations, which builds a platform for trust.

During the forming stage, the servant-leader may need to remind the team of their agreements.  I worked with a team that wanted a “collaborative,” “trusting,” and “respectful” environment.  At our first meeting, I observed people holding side conversations or scrolling on their smartphones.  I then challenged them.  Were these behaviors consistent with team norms?

Norms can address any aspect of the teams’ communal life; including everything from:

  • Seemingly mundane concerns such as who cleans the coffee pot or the refrigerator,
  • Core hours and expectations for responding to emails and phone calls, to
  • Managing conflict and making decisions.

Manage the Big Picture with Planning Boards

Planning boards visually depicts the organization’s future activities or work.  It is a flexible tool that can be adapted to multiple needs:

  • Describing the strategic roadmap for the next several years by showing major milestones, key events, and how teams and projects support those efforts; and
  • Coordinating a program or strategic initiative and by aligning teams to the common goal.

Visual tools help us quickly comprehend complex information.  Building a physical planning board on the wall creates a strong focal point.  Online tools such as Mural and Miro are good alternatives for virtual teams. 

Organizations can configure their program board to meet their unique needs.  A typical structure is:

  • Planning Horizon.  The top row shows the planning time horizon.  Program boards that extend many years into the future may reflect progressive planning practices where shorter durations (months) are used in the near-term, and longer ones as the horizon extends (quarters/years);
  • Coordination Points.  Major milestones or significant events are shown in the second row.  These events create focal points, such as product launch, major conference, or key deliverable;
  • Projects & Teams.  Subsequent rows depict projects, programs, operational organizations participating in the initiative;
  • Deliverables & Activities.  Cards depict major deliverables or activities for each group.  The cards can be color-coded to show the type of work, initiative, or criticality;
  • Dependencies.  Sting or lines show the interdependencies between milestones, deliverables, and activities.

Planning boards can serve as the backdrop for periodic prioritization and coordination meetings.  Seeing the upcoming milestones, key deliverables, and inter-dependencies allows us to identify risks, issues, and possible opportunities.  Strategic roadmaps can be reviewed and updated quarterly with customers and senior management.  Program offices will check their boards more regularly to ensure coordination of efforts across all workstreams. 

Manage Work with Task Boards

Task or Kanban boards are a tool to manage the flow of work.  Kanban was initially developed to more efficiently manage inventory in Toyota car assembly plants.  They are now widely used by organizations using lean-agile management practices. 

Teams using the boards report increased productivity, accountability, and collaboration.  Completed work increases because teams focus on limiting the work-in-process. 

Kanban can be used throughout the organization.  Both project and operational teams can use the boards to manage their daily work.  The work items needed to operationalize the product roadmap can be controlled in Kanban flow.  They also scale to support enterprise portfolio management

The easiest and best way to create a Kanban board is to take a large wall and start marking off columns with painter’s tape and using Post-It Notes® to track the work.  Physical boards create a tactile relationship with the work and can easily be adjusted.  There are many online tools ranging from basic (Trello and Microsoft Planner) to sophisticated (Jira and LeanKit). 

When creating a task board, start simply, create 3-columns:

  • To Do: A prioritized list of all of the work that needs to be done;
  • Doing: The work that is currently being worked on; and
  • Done:  The work that has been completed.

The ranked ordering of the work is critical because it forces explicit trade-offs.  Deciding which item is the most valuable or provides the greatest benefit requires making difficult choices.  When “everything is a priority,” there is much activity but little accomplished.

The items at the top of the backlog should be small and well defined.  I recommend decomposing the work into things that can be finished in less than a week, where shorter is better.  If we decompose 1-month activity into 4 or 6 smaller deliverables, it is easier to track progress.

Limiting the number of items in the Doing column to 2-3 per person reduces multitasking and maximizes throughput.  Controlling work-in-progress increases finished work by decreasing multitasking. 

Check Progress with Stand-Up Meetings

The stand-up meeting is an efficient and effective team management practice.  Members quickly update status, confirm priorities, coordinate work, and identify issues.  The meetings are time-boxed and should last no longer than 15-minutes. 

The meetings can be customized to the organizations’ needs.  Teams generally hold the stand-up meeting daily.  Leadership briefings or groups with less dynamic work might meet weekly or monthly. 

Hold the meetings in front of the task board.  Participants review their work and answer the following questions:

  • What have I completed since we last met?
  • What am I working on?  Or, what will I be working on next?
  • What is blocking or impeding my progress?

List Issues on the “meet after” board.  Following the meeting, those impacted by the problem or can contribute to the solution get together.  Everyone else returns to work, which helps maximize the team’s productivity. 

Agility is a mindset that rests on the foundation of empowered, self-organizing teams that focus on delivering value to their customers.  Building teams, creating transparency, and managing workflow are crucial building blocks for business agility.  All organizations, from high-tech to non-profits, will benefit from these basic yet essential practices.   

© 2020, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

To learn more about our training and consulting services, or to subscribe to our Newsletter, visit our website:

Related Project Management Essentials articles:

Image courtesy of: