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I must confess I’m quite a hermit in terms of my exposition to the news and avoid most of it (maybe I should write about that too), trusting that when something is serious enough somebody will let me know – I will inevitably stumble upon it. If it feels like I should know more about it, I’ll search for the information and use my intuition and common sense and the internet to find trustful news or scientific articles on the said subject.
What I’ve unearthed is that (at the small cost of being slightly delayed in relation to the rest of the world) I gained a much clearer vision of the underlying movements of things, of the patterns. It made me more contemplative and less reactive, since fear, among other things, is not constantly being pumped into my system. In other words, my worldview is more mine, less contaminated.
One of the recent events that was hard to miss is the existence of this new pandemic that is assailing the world.
I don’t want to be insensitive nor dismissive about the state of affairs. I pay my respects to everybody doing anything either to help the people already infected or to protect the others from getting so. But what I’ll focus on is not necessarily its characteristics, symptoms or the numbers it has. The world has seen worse and it didn’t have the technology we are lucky to have either to handle it or to cope.
It is very intriguing that a recent experience of mine has so many points in common with these circumstances, when looked at from the right perspective. From the crisis perspective.
This is no ordinary situation
At Angry Ventures, besides other things, one of my main responsibilities is
to facilitate software development projects. For this reason, understanding
people’s strengths and weaknesses, their motivations, what makes them laugh or
upset, their values and how can I bring them together, is crucially important to
me. My mind is always processing this kind of information.
Finding ways for keeping people around me happy and relaxed but focused and productive is a process I have always running on the background. This is especially accurate in troublesome times.
We recently had a project that was set up to be completed in record time. We had to specify user research, design and implement from scratch an entire website for a major brand in 11 weeks. When the first lines of code were written, there was a little over a month and a half to go (with Christmas holidays and the réveillon in between).
The MVP was set and sprints were filled with the stories necessary to make it happen before the deadline. Everyone was aware of the circumstances and we started working at a hasty pace. But by the end of the first couple of sprints (our work week), we had already a slight delay, and the stuff we were handling was not even the most complex part of the project yet. Besides, it is at the beginning of any project that the uncertainty is higher.
This was starting to make me anxious, but I was trying to keep the team focused and worried only about solving the coding problems and leaving the managing ones for me. Until one day I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking: “this won’t work”.
“By now I cannot predict how much the cumulative delay is going to be, but one thing is sure, we cannot accommodate more than a few days, considering the roadmap. And the deadline cannot possibly move. The deadline is the day the new image of the whole company is going to air on TV, social media, outdoors, everywhere. The website has to be ready by that date. This is no ordinary situation, so it cannot have an ordinary approach.”
Observation/ Contemplation/ Information
At the very beginning of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the world’s eyes were set on China. People were still figuring out the shedding times, demographics and other statistics but we could, on a daily basis, witness the extremity of the measures taken by the Chinese government to deal with the situation. And just by the look of that, people knew it was no ordinary one.
Some complain that information was being withheld; numbers were not accurate and delayed. Regardless of the truth, the Chinese were on the front line. They were observing and studying, gathering and processing all the information possible in order to make their decisions, even if that information was not being shared at the pace the rest of the world expected.
And if by now some people start to argue that China’s response was actually
good (at least from the numbers standpoint), that happened due to their
reaction to the information they were gathering.
The red flag
For many reasons, the Chinese response as a whole is not a model for the world. That’s also valid for the point I’m trying to make in this post, so I’m going to depart from it. This is not the red flag I’m talking about.
Let’s take a look at some of what happened in Portugal. The first reported case of a coronavirus infection happened on March 1st. Following this and the dialog that had been happening on the subject, one of the measures taken by the government was the interruption of classes, so thousands of students ceased to attend school.
On the exact
day the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic hundreds of youngsters could be found on the
beach taking advantage of the good weather and free
What followed was a complete backlash of news and opinion articles that culminated with the declaration of the emergency state by the Portuguese
I’m not saying that this event alone caused everything that followed, but
it was indeed a huge red flag that made several things obvious:
- Isolated measures alone were not enough
- Better information and clear communication was needed
- A sense of urgency that could make everyone comply and act accordingly with the seriousness of the situation was lacking
The importance of
transparency, clear communication and involvement
Even though the team was aware of the challenge and the pace was above average the red flag I had seen was that this most probably would not be enough. The planned sprints were full, I had stumbled upon a few stories that had hidden dependencies and we were lightly behind schedule. Only I had that data, though. The rest of the team was predominantly focused in getting their tasks from the “to do” column to the “done” one.
It was the first time I found myself in a condition in which I had to deconstruct and question everything, from roles to methodology, in order to cut all “waste”.
Some of the things coming to my mind were very unorthodox but after sharing
all this with Fernando we decided
to put all cards on the table and share “the data” with the rest of
Silence. We all look at each other for a bit. After a few more seconds, the team started coming up with ideas, some of them as unorthodox as mine and all of a sudden, the weight I was carrying felt a lot lighter. Not because it was smaller or gone, but because I was sharing it and everyone helped me with the load. In a moment of vulnerability, everyone recognized the urgency of the conditions.
Most of those ideas would not be easy to explain and implement (even if I
had come up with them by myself – or especially because of that) had I just arrived with the list of
changes to be made. They would have encountered resistance and doubt. It took transparency, clear
communication and involvement for the group to move towards the solutions. No
matter how unorthodox.
In his book “Leading change“, J. P. Kotter has a full chapter dedicated to explaining the importance of urgency in change management. One of the first paragraphs reads:
“Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed
cooperation. With complacency high, transformations usually go nowhere because
few people are even interested in working on the change problem.”
It was the sharing of the same sense of urgency that paved the way for the
implementation of exceptional measures either in the project I am talking about
or in any country sternly
dealing with the 2020 pandemics.
Complacency was high when people decided to go to the beach instead of
understanding the classes were canceled for social distancing purposes. And in my opinion, some (democratic) countries were not so swift
int their actions because they were either suffering from the ostrich effect, wishful thinking the disaster wouldn’t hit their yard, or waiting for the
patient zero or for some
kind of event, proximity or statistic that could be used to raise the sense of
urgency within the population. Most of the unpopular political actions are made
either in disguise or after enough popular support has been gathered for some
reason. Sadly, in this situation for some cases that was lethal. Timing is crucial.
In the Portuguese case, what followed the urgency felt by the population could be seen (as well as in other countries around the world), for example, in the empty, desert streets that not long before were filled with life in this sunny corner of the world.
The moment I saw the red flag in the project was not soon enough. Even though the team managed to gather the necessary urgency and we cut down on the MVP, worked extra hours every day for weeks in a row – including weekends (something that had never happened before at Angry Ventures), dumped the methodology for the sake of extra agility and even pulled an all-nighter the day before the deadline, we missed it by two days. When there’s not enough time, there’s not enough time, no matter what you do.
When you take a look at the response of some of the places with exceptional
results in their action handling the COVID-19 outbreak, like Taiwan or South Korea, one thing they have in common is the fact that they acted fast.
They not only clearly communicated the seriousness of the situation, building up the urgency needed to put into action the measures they saw fit, but they also did it quickly.
It is true that at the end of the day we missed the deadline. For a really small difference, but we did. The URL of the client was redirected to their Facebook page for this brief while (since the old website had the old image) and over the next days and weeks we rolled out some of the features that had been cut from the MVP. But I have to confess I never saw a team working in such a focused way. The project moved forward at an hallucinating speed. Everybody just knew what they needed to do, we had almost no bugs and the whole thing was just amazing to witness. It was honestly a bittersweet experience that has taught me a lot.
The same is true about the current pandemics in the world. It is still too soon to grasp the true size of the impact this virus is going to have in the global scheme of things but some of the bitter and some of the sweet is already in sight. The number of people it has already taken away, the impact it is having in the economy and in people’s freedoms are too bitter to bare.
On the sweeter side we are coming up with a vaccine for a dangerous disease in record time, we managed to build an hospital in less than two weeks, not to speak about the unintended but positive effects, for example, on the environment.
One thing I have understood from all this is that anything is possible whenever a team (whatever size, be it a software development team of four, an entire country or the humankind) shares a similar sense of urgency towards a certain topic. Then without much explanation, everybody roughly knows what to do to get the whole through the challenge. In most important topics that assail us, it is not capability that is lacking, it is timing, reliable information and urgency.