Agile leadership in times of crisis

In 2000, a group of seventeen thought leaders came together to find better ways to develop software. It was called the Agile Manifesto, and it was based on four values: 1) prioritizing individuals and interactions over processes and tools; 2) working software over comprehensive documentation; 3) customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and 4) responding to change over following a plan. But is this methodology best suited for crisis management?

Let’s think about life today, in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic—an unpredictable challenge that humanity faces on a macro level. Does the standard six-month plan make sense right now? Not at all. And it’s for this reason that we see global leaders continually reevaluating the situation as more and more information comes to light. This is agile thinking. This is responding to change over following a plan

The focus is human-centric, with swift action taken under the direction of strong yet calm leaders who aim to evolve their plans of action over time. In addition to agile leadership, we see design thinking: a non-linear, iterative process consisting of five phases:

  • Empathize 
  • Define 
  • Ideate  
  • Prototype
  • Test

Now more than ever, it’s time to adopt these modern ways of thinking as leaders and as a collective body of citizens. COVID-19 is one of the many black swan events that has caught us on the wrong footing in the past two decadesand perhaps the most drastic. The world economy is at risk of major decline, and from Wuhan to New York, from Stockholm to Auckland, people are in fear. I envy the scientists working in Antarctica, who at the moment sit on the only continent unaffected by the virus. How can panic be tempered with a sense of security?

meeting computers

Agile leadership in business and government

More black swans await us in the future, and the only way to handle them effectively within organizations is by building a strong foundation of trust and efficiency along with an adaptable and resilient operating system. The organizations that are failing now are the ones that didn’t have a strong foundation of contingency plans to quickly respond to the crisis. The ones that have emerged stronger are the organizations that built cultures of trust, empathy, and effective communication with strong leadership at the helm, and with functional systems adept to adapt. They’ve been proactive with plans, but open to modifications.

A great example of this is healthcare company Novartis, who implemented a digital transformation initiative in using Microsoft Teams to enable an efficient remote working system. Global Head of People Solutions, Tripti Jha, said, “We had a two-year rollout for Microsoft Teams that was accelerated in two weeks.” The demand for change was imperative and urgent, and adaptation was not limited to tools, but to norms, culture, people, and behavior. 

But it’s not just companies who need agile leaders. On the government level, we see two shining examples in California Governor Gavin Newsom and in the Kerala Health Ministry in India. Newsom implemented a statewide quarantine far earlier than the rest of the US, resulting in a far lower contamination rate compared to other major states like New York. Likewise, Kerala’s ministry acted swiftly upon receiving the first reports of COVID-19 cases in India, and has since earned praise for its high patient recovery rates. 

What we can learn from volatile times

Standard ways of thinking are outdated. VUCA times demand adaptability and openness to constant change. Organizations who evolve short-term projects with usable prototypes at every stage, create storyboards for product and service development, and refrain from carving their ideas into stone are organizations built to be more resilient.

In design thinking, we aim as teams to continually deliver a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) at the end of every sprint. This allows teams to constantly improve while remaining prepared to offer something practical and tangible, and also to crowdsource ideas to build solutions together. But being prepared and adaptable is something we can also do on an individual level, particularly in today’s times.

My ‘Foundations of HR’ professor Shiva Roofeh put it best. She said we manage our lives with the best available tools that we have. Hence, this quarantine can serve as an opportunity to sharpen our tools and work towards making ourselves the best versions that we can be. This is the time to be resilient, creative, and inspired, and to learn from adversities. 

You can use design thinking in your own personal development by:

  • Defining your persona in detail (what do I think, see, feel, and do?)
  • Establishing the problem scenarios you’re currently facing
  • Asking: What are my assumptions and what are the value propositions I can offer myself?
  • Interview yourself to better discover yourself and your goals
  • Create storyboards for yourself to figure out your priorities
  • Take a product-development approach to yourself: How can you put your best foot forward? How can you promote yourself? 

The COVID-19 crisis is unique in that it has affected every corner of the planet. And while I hope that we don’t see challenges of this scale in the near future, it is certain that we will see challenges of all types—small and large—in our personal lives and at the workplace. It’s our job to be ready for them.

Being agile and implementing design thinking are tools we have in our arsenals to better prepare for uncertainty and volatility. Organizations that solve problems efficiently also better create cultures of trust, resiliency, transparency and innovation. Organizations that are chameleon-like – in essence, have the ability to adapt to ever-changing market conditions – are organizations that will serve as corporate leaders both now and in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly quickened this race towards modern leadership; how has your business equipped itself in the ever-changing workplace?


minu nair ieMinu Nair is from India, and has lived in Dubai for the past decade. She previously worked with Emirates Airlines and is now pursuing the Master in Talent Development & Human Resources at IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. She’s a blogger, a bathroom singer, and a travel enthusiast. Connect with her here.