Blog by Dr. Arndt Pechstein

  • Dr. Arndt Pechstein

Why Becoming Agile was Never as Easy as Now

Rules, Heuristics and Agile Values for Leaders & Teams Working Remotely


Disruption by Design or Disaster? Leading the Digital Transformation

For several weeks now, we find ourselves in a global lockdown. Not only are most services in public life restricted. Most organizations have also closed their offices and employees and leaders alike are working from home. This forces them to work entirely remotely separated from their colleagues, teams, and customers. The disruption and slowdown (let alone the costs) this causes to most companies could have been minimized if not even avoided by better resilience and digital strategies. If you doubt this, I challenge you to answer the following question: in your organization, who has driven the digital transformation your entire company is experiencing now first hand? (1) CEO, (2) CDO, (3) COVID-19


If your answer is (1) or (2), you belong to an elite and maybe just want to browse through the headings below to take some inspiration for the things you already do very well. If your answer is (3), however, I recommend two things: First, read this and my previous article on crisis response & adaptation to change, and second, make innovation, preparation for disruption and building for resilience a priority NOW.


One thing is for sure, our world will change. The way we live, work, travel and consume will change. But this is a huge opportunity. If we face this new situation with curiosity and a can-do attitude, changes will turn into successes. Merck’s Worlds of Curiosity shows in a gamified way how curiosity impacts our working world positively. If done correctly, productivity of home office employees increases by 30-45%. It is obvious that this can only be realized with new mindsets, approaches and workflows.

This article shall support you with exactly that, now that the dust has settled. It is aimed at helping organizations to continuously improve performance and increase both work satisfaction and customer value. Keeping these rules in mind will help you to optimize your workflows, communication and meetings and will make them both more effective and more efficient. In this article, I will focus on two aspects:

  • A checklist to make your virtual meetings relevant, meaningful and effective

  • Leadership heuristics for good (crisis) management 


Catalyzing Agility: A Checklist for Relevant, Meaningful and Effective Virtual Team Work

Agile is not a collection of fancy tools, it is first and foremost a mindset. It manifests itself in values, mindsets, and behaviors. It is of uttermost importance that both teams and leaders know about and consciously drive these values and behaviors in order to lead the transition to an agile and future-proof organization. This article describes what teams and leaders can do to catalyze their productivity and leverage the COVID-19 lockdown as agile transformation accelerator. 


In the first section, I will list the essentials for effective and efficient remote work and explain why these guidelines are important. Incorporating them will help you establish an agile work culture. In each section, I will indicate which of the five agile values (respect, openness (trust), focus, commitment, courage) you reinforce by following the guidelines.


1.      Relevancy & Focus

Start with defining and communicating the purpose of the meeting. This defines whom you should invite (and whom not), what you will do and how much time you will need. Clearly define the intended outcomes of the meeting and structure your agenda with that in mind. That said, have an agenda and enforce it keeping dedicated time boxes. The meeting invite should be focused on people who are necessary to take decisions or who can contribute to the meeting. Avoid perpetuating your “cc-culture” in the virtual space. Now is a good opportunity to overcome this bad habit for good.

Why is it important: Without clear purpose and objectives your meetings will hardly be an effective time invest. Having the right people participating increases engagement and improves the quality and speed of your outcomes. The agenda will help you to manage and structure the time, content and expectations and to make your processes lean and efficient.

Agile values you reinforce: Focus through relevancy and clear objectives; Commitment through defined outcomes and agenda setting


2.      Preparation

Make sure all tools and technologies are running smoothly and have been communicated in advance. Ensure a basic fluency in the use and etiquette of tool use by everyone attending. If needed run a test session or prepare a video tutorial or step-by-step guide in advance. Have a backup plan to react to technological hiccups.

Why is it important: There is nothing more frustrating than tackling tech issues in a set meeting losing valuable time. Prior preparation and a tool fluency in the team allows you to focus on what you want to accomplish. While not everybody needs to master the tools, all attendees should know the basics such as how to (un)mute, share screen or access team tools (e.g. for voting, chatting or raising their hand to speak). Certainly, you cannot account for all factors; bandwidth might come as a surprise to you. But make sure you control and prepare what is predictable. Onboarding everyone will also reduce the fear of working with new tools and spark a feeling of togetherness. And managing the tech factor well is an aspect not to be underestimated when it comes to leaving the meeting with a positive feeling.

Agile values you reinforce: Focus through working technology


3.      Discipline

Establish an etiquette to ensure high quality meetings. Punctuality and preparation are important. Be in time, focused and prepared. Respect your own and everybody else’s time. Make it a habit that all microphones are off except for the mic of the person speaking or presenting. When you speak, be clear and always get to the point. Be mindful of the time you take and the value you create.

Why is it important: Time is very valuable, even more so if we are challenged by social-distancing and virtual daily lives. Being in time, entering prepared and being focused on what happens allows the team to meet the set agenda and to get things done. It also signals to everyone that you are respecting everyone. In a similar way, reflecting all your contributions with regard to time requirement and value-add creates team coherence and collective value creation. To avoid annoying background noises, interferences and unnecessary repetitions, muting all but one microphone is an easy but highly effective measure.

Agile values you reinforce: Respect & Trust through dedication and commitment; Focus through presence, preparedness and clarity


4.      Human Factors

If your bandwidth allows, switch your videos on. There is nothing more intransparent and sterile than a 90 min call with people you don’t see. Make it a habit to use check-ins and check-outs at the beginning and end of each meeting, respectively. Use short warm-ups or energizers to motivate and engage the team. In the Digital Warm-up Guide by Norman Nemitz and Rebekka Alpermann you will certainly find inspirations. Dedicated events for feedback (see below) will help to manage team dynamics and continuously improve the way you work together.

Why is it important: Working remotely comes at the expense of not being with or seeing people regularly. You don’t have messy talk or “watercooler” moments, these valuable informal and serendipitous moments of feeling in community, feeling acknowledged or coming up with creative ideas. Break the sterility of online communication. Smile together, maybe share those funny socks you’re just wearing at home or the dog behind you. Having face-2-face contact through video and including social formats and breaks in your schedule is proven to increase team identity, trust, creativity and ultimately affects performance positively. Likewise, emotions, reactions even focus on the topic are not that obvious online. Frustration can build up unnoticed risking to create toxic team dynamics. The video camera counteracts that to some extend but can by no means simulate a real-world meeting setting. Honesty, transparency as well as open feedback are key to successful virtual teams

Agile values you reinforce: Openness & Trust through identification and team spirit; Commitment through responsibility and sense of belonging

5.      Efficiency through Curation & Moderation

Don’t let your meetings just happen. Make them a success. Define roles before. You should have a moderator making sure the agenda is followed and time is kept. If meetings are bigger it’s a good idea to have another person curating the chat and the signaling functions (e.g. raise hand). Have someone else documenting important take-aways and key decisions being made. Sometimes, it might come in handy to have someone paying particular attention to team dynamics to reflect and suggest breaks or ways to intervene if energy goes up or down. 

Why is it important: What should already be done in the physical world gains even more importance online. Moderation, focus and documentation of key results make a fundamental difference in the efficiency of your remote meetings. Not only having clear objectives but also making sure to reach them is never a bad thing, but becomes vital when everybody sits at home. Not only does this secure better outcomes, it also leaves you and your teams with more satisfaction and engagement and a better time management. Nobody likes to sit in meetings. Not in the real world and even less so if you have your little daughter waiting to play with you once you are done.

Agile values you reinforce: Focus through moderation and agenda coherence; Commitment through responsibility and sense of belonging


6.      Effectiveness through Right Tools

When it comes to effectiveness, inviting the right attendees takes you already far. Choosing the right approaches catapults you even further. Depending on the nature of your meeting you should consider various tools and artefacts. Team exchanges (e.g. daily standups, see below) win big time with KanBan boards or other means to visualize progress, dependencies and barriers. If you plan an ideation or co-creation session make sure you use a virtual whiteboard. This will allow everybody to visualize and interact in real-time. Using polling or voting features allows you to focus attention and receive feedback quickly.

Why is it important: Working digitally only reduces the tangibility and may lead to less transparency and loss of speed, quality or engagement. None of this is acceptable in the physical world but it becomes disastrous when we work remotely. A regular exchange on project progress, priorities, dependencies and bottlenecks as well as shared and short-feedbacked experiences of content creation are essential for long-term team effectiveness. Just as a 30 min powerpoint presentation (with a 20 slide backup) in a team meeting is more often than not ill-advised, just talking as sole communication means or only having one-way communication is something you want to avoid.

Agile values you reinforce: Openness & Engagement through participation and transparency; Courage through shared experiences and co-creation; Focus & Commitment through visualization of objectives and progress


7.      Closing of Meeting

Make sure every meeting is concluded with a clear result or decisions being taken. Summarize the main take-aways and next steps and make sure there is a common understanding and alignment. Invest the last few minutes in a check-out and most importantly, leave with a smile ;)

Why is it important: Usually, the most important things happen after the meeting has ended. Successful project work and value delivery largely depend on the stringency and coherence of the meeting results. Decisiveness and courage are fundamental especially in management meetings as the organization depends on quick action. Summaries also help to onboard or relay relevant information to others and to make progress over time measurable.

Agile values you reinforce: Commitment & Focus through clarity and decisiveness

Yes, some things are quite different from what you are used to. But before trying to argue why you should maybe not adopt a new behavior, shortly reflect how much you (really) enjoyed the ‘pre-corona’ meeting culture in your organization. Chances are, you smile now and often wished this to be redesigned. The good news is, now you are provided exactly this opportunity for sustainable improvement. Your hacks and habits now are a great investment in the future of your company. Be experimental, be bold and be disciplined. It will establish a new mindset, empower the people and ultimately lead to higher effectiveness and efficiency.

Well-structured virtual meetings are evidently one aspect of successful remote work. Another existential factor, however, is the quality of leadership, especially in times of crisis. It concerns the question whether the management is capable of supporting the people and lead the organization through unpredictable times. Thus, the second part of this article outlines leaderships heuristics serving as decision support in a VUCA world.

Leadership Heuristics: Leading Uncertainty Successfully

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of decision making and may help us to come to a decision faster when it is impossible (for time or complexity reasons) to analyze or even know all information. Heuristics do not guarantee the result to be optimal or perfect. But they increase the probability of solving a problem sufficiently for reaching an immediate, short-term goal. Thus, where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristics can be used to speed up the process of finding a fast and satisfactory solution.


As leaders, we often find us navigating through uncertain terrain with unpredictable consequences due to the complex nature of our organization. The heuristics below will help leaders to maneuver more confidently and successfully through an accelerating world:


#1: Adapt to Change Over Following a Plan - “A plan is useless, planning is not.”

Prepare for the unexpected. Don’t expect everything to follow your plans. While planning is crucial to focus and align your actions, make sure you have feedback and adaptation mechanisms as well as resilience strategies in place. Agile processes, a healthy organization culture and diversification of approaches (and business models) help you to adapt faster and grow through crises and disruptions.


#2: Stop Starting, Start Finishing - “Multitasking kills efficiency.”

In times of crisis, many leaders tend to raise a large number of projects to emergency level or the fast lane. While this may be justified for certain things, make sure you do not overload and clog your system with too many things in the pipeline at the same time. Match your capacity with your work-in-progress and track it. Make sure, things are finished before opening a new task. KanBan boards are an effective and powerful way to create project transparency regarding progress, urgency, bottlenecks and dependencies.


#3: Pareto over Perfection - “Better done than perfect.”

The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the inputs. Accordingly, in many cases striving for 100% perfection (which you will usually never reach anyways) is highly inefficient, will delay your progress and make you burn unnecessary time and resources. Go for 80% (good-enough) solutions. What is more, in a VUCA world you can impossibly have all information. You need to be able to deal with ambiguity and act and respond timely. Especially in organizational change and innovation, leaders should encourage fast decision making and progress. Strive for continuous improvement and not for perfection. Involving users in early testing and working with iterative and incremental approaches de-risks and speeds up the process toward value creation. Agile methods like design thinking, lean startup and scrum are made for iterative and incremental experimentation and validation.


#4: Focus on Value Creation - “Think of value creation, not valuation.”

The more important work of increasing their value to people is often neglected in the frenzied money-making process. And yet, no other strategic activity is more important to business growth than creating (new) value for people. Analyze all your processes and eliminate anything that doesn’t contribute to value creation (lean thinking). And what is valid for your customers also holds true for your employees. You will only attract and retain talents if you mange to create value for them in an appreciative environment where they can grow, create and find a purpose.


#5: Be present, authentic, empathetic and positive - “Leadership is an attitude, not a routine.”

In the virtual world, your teams might need you even more than in the office, let alone in moments of crisis. Make sure you are present and approachable. Certainly, your agenda will be over-crowded. And yet, prioritize and engage in regular face-to-face meetings. Show interest in what moves (or blocks) them. Leading doesn’t mean you know it all. You impossibly can and that is ok. Be transparent. Let them know that you are in that together. Admit uncertainties but communicate confidence that together you will overcome challenges and throwbacks. Especially in times of crisis leaders have to inspire and motivate by being positive and courageous.

COVID-19 has forced most of us to rethink old behaviors and abandon old patterns. It has accelerated digitalization and the use of remote tools. It challenges leaders to think and act differently. While the corona-crisis certainly demands time for alignment and learning, it is not the reason why things slowed down. It is rather a symptom of engrained but moribund routines that didn’t even serve their purpose in the physical world. Now is the time to establish effective ways of working. Seize the opportunity to turn the disruption into something meaningful. Use it as an unprecedented opportunity for innovation and organizational effectiveness.

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This text is a collaboration project for the Merck Curiosity Initiative #alwayscurious. As a science and technology company, Merck fosters the idea of curiosity as starting point for innovation and progress. It has designed the Worlds of Curiosity (for German version click here). Besides topics like future urban life and leisure, Merck has also developed a vision for the future of work. Worlds of Curiosity shows how curiosity could change our working world in the future. The current situation should be seen as an opportunity to make these changes a reality. What are your experiences? And which World of Curiosity is the world you would want to live in? Share your thoughts with us. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States & Canada.

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About the author: Dr. Arndt Pechstein is a neuroscientist, agile & ExO coach, and management consultant. He is an energetic blend of a scientist, serial entrepreneur, and business coach. He holds a PhD in neuroscience, a diploma in biochemistry & biotechnology, and has specialist backgrounds in Agile & Design Thinking, Exponential Organizations, Circular Economy, and Biomimicry. As founder and managing partner of the boutique consultancy phi360, Initiator of the Hybrid Thinking approach and chairman of the Biomimicry Academy, he advises companies and organizations on crisis management, agile transition, organizational development, and bio-inspired & disruptive innovation. Arndt’s mission is shaping a just, sustainable, and desirable future.