A global pandemic: the litmus test for an agile team

Oren Ezra

Since its entrance into our lives around 3 months ago, COVID-19 has turned everyone’s lives upside down, permanently changed industries, and redefined what makes a resilient company.

For all of the horror this pandemic has spread, it has highlighted the aspects of team culture that allow some to prosper, while others are left behind.

Success can look a lot like reacting  

It is easy to feel like you’ve built a digitally-forward, reactive team when you follow your own roadmap, executing initiatives that were developed internally and received signed off approval months ago.

But creating an incredible product, unfortunately, does not exist in a vacuum. The real test comes after your product has met the outside world, and your team needs to adjust.

During the 1918 Spanish flu, when crowds were encouraged to stay home as much as possible, people assumed that this would be the time for the telephone to prove its irreplaceable value. But instead, telephone operators were just as susceptible to the flu as anyone else, and were largely unable to work. As a result, telephone companies pleaded with the public to refrain from making unnecessary calls. Two years later the automatic telephone was developed.

Industries are not expected to foresee these kinds of events, but with the right team culture and structure, sudden shifts can be used as an opportunity to adjust, test, and learn about your market. In history, some of the most impactful digital transformations had less to do with what was created and more to do with how teams reacted.

Building a team prepared for the unexpected

When building a team with agility in mind, the right structure and culture need to be in place to leverage your team’s ability to sense and quickly respond. Empowering your team with the tools that allow them to react quickly when they sense a change in the market, buyer activity, or customer needs can be a strong competitive advantage.

At monday.com, maintaining a startup mentality has been a core priority while growing and spreading. One of the most central parts to maintaining that is our ability to react quickly to changing priorities or unexpected events.

In the process of building our teams, we’ve learned that there are two key guiding principles for leaders to follow in order to help their teams handle unplanned turn of events.

1. Empower teams to make autonomous decisions

One of the most important factors of agile response is speed—and speed’s kryptonite is hierarchy.

This isn’t news to many managers. They may hang posters around the office that read: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do…” But implementing this philosophy is where most companies get stuck. Giving autonomous veto power to team managers can feel like a big risk, but it’s one that pays dividends far into the future.

The best way to ensure your trust doesn’t take you in the wrong direction?

Align everyone around one goal

Autonomy is only effective when you have a clear direction. And when you’re trying to make a sudden and vast shift, it’s difficult to make a real impact without the commitment of everyone involved.

Securing organization-wide commitment  

In our case, direct communication from our founders and all leadership in the company clarified where we should be investing our time. By defining that we were making a company-wide shift in priority, we were able to come together under the shared goal of reacting to COVID-19, with confidence that no resources should be allocated to initiatives that don’t serve that goal. By uniting the entire company, we decreased internal confusion and conflicting interests and dedicated the resources necessary to make a change.

Developing an agile mindset

According to a survey by Mckinsey & Company, “the most important factors for success are the extent to which innovation is integrated in corporate strategy and to which company leaders support and engage with innovation efforts.” That means you don’t need an innovation division, you need an innovative mindset which requires trust in managers to use their own judgment.

Trusting your team 

Empowering leaders to make autonomous decisions requires clarity on broad goals—such as a sharpened focus on a singular mission, a “north star metric” that you know you are always working towards, and clearly defined KPIs. Even in times of crisis, you can define a main, large-scale goal and align your team around it. Let them figure out how to get there.

Once armed with these big picture goals, managers can then use their own sense of judgment to make daily choices. Without that autonomy managers are left scrambling, searching for answers instead of problem-solving.  This becomes even more evident when teams are distributed and find themselves unable to track down the decision-maker in the office for a quick approval. When every decision involves a 30-minute video conference call, moving initiatives up the ladder can take weeks and significantly affect the impact teams can make.

2. Search for the truth, not what you want to hear

After you’ve rallied your team around a clear goal and trusted your team leaders to make the important calls– you have to accept that your first reaction may not always hit the nail on the head. In order to find what really works, you have to be ready to accept the reality of the situation  – even if it means you won’t like what you need to do.

 How do you find out the truth? We’ve found that you must:

Prepare to accept the results you receive 

After conducting numerous tests and investing significant resources, it can be hard to see the results for what they are. If your initial reaction doesn’t resonate the way you had expected, it’s not a failure but a call to dig deeper and try again. Even if they don’t say what you wanted to hear, test-based data will give you incredible insights into the wants and needs of your buyers– it’s your responsibility to act on them.

Have a plan Q

Plan A and Plan B are a must, but you have to be ready to test, re-test, and test again all of the possible variables on your quest to find what your market is looking for.

For us, our plan A looked a little like this: with a clear goal from leadership around remote work, we immediately began to invest significant resources to react quickly. Each team decided how they could do its part in our reaction to COVID-19—they defined their role, assigned responsibility, and got going.

We rallied around our creative initiatives, debated over the value we could give users during the difficult time, made a radical shift in messaging, marketing channel mix, product roadmap, sales approach, and set up brand new AB tests for pretty much everything new.

We also created a bank of useful templates that support remote work and WFH (You can find many of them here). For example, this template will assist in creating an efficient work plan while working from home:
WFH Work Plan Template

Try WFH Work Plan Template

Follow the data

As much as we would love to share that our buyers reacted exactly as we had hoped, our radical shift didn’t land exactly how we had expected. Customers saw and appreciated our efforts and acknowledged the support we offered and the content we created to help them during this difficult time. But in the end, despite the unprecedented circumstances, companies were facing the same old pains— lack of transparency, undefined accountability, and more— they were just being accentuated by the circumstances of remote work.

We had to accept the truth: our messaging needed to shift — but not in the drastic way we had expected. By conducting a number of tests across different teams, we were able to make data-based decisions and quickly integrate our old messaging with aspects of what we had learned in order to focus our resources on what worked, not necessarily where we spent the most effort. Although our messaging came full circle, the adaptiveness and responsiveness of every team resulted in incredible leaps in our product— like the launch of 20 WFH apps, a shift in our entire product roadmap, and an expansion of our HR processes.

Applying crisis logic post-corona 

A global pandemic is an extreme example of something that occurs on a more minor scale all the time. Buyers’ needs and expectations are constantly changing, and no one is expected to anticipate the next big thing. However, companies can take an active role in empowering their leaders and implementing a company culture and structure that can adapt to the unexpected– allowing their workforce to react quickly, creativity and flexibility to whatever might come.

Oren Ezra
Oren is a a business and technology-savvy marketing and product executive. Oren currently serves as the Head of Enterprise Marketing at monday.com.
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