Agile thinking became the key to business survival during the COVID-19 crisis. Companies that could adapt quickly and creatively in the face of complex and unpredictable challenges proved that breaking with convention often can lead to a giant leap forward.
It has been 20 years since a group of software industry thought leaders created the Agile Manifesto to prioritize customer satisfaction and shorten the excessively long software development cycles of the day. In the 1990s, the timeframe between identifying customers’ needs and feature requests and delivering the final product took so long that often those needs had changed before the software was released.
The manifesto’s values and principles ultimately ushered in a customer-centric era of software development by emphasizing:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
Agile has since expanded beyond software development—it now applies to the entire enterprise and encompasses a wide variety of disciplines, including marketing, sales and customer care.
Leaders who embrace the concepts of the Agile Manifesto are said to have an “agile mindset.” In his book, “The Agile Mindset,” author Gil Broza, founder of agile training company 3P Vantage, describes the values of an agile mindset as:
- People come first, before product and before process.
- Adaptation encompasses the readiness, ability and willingness to respond to change. The change may apply to people, process or product.
- Early and frequent value delivery. Workers should focus relentlessly on doing valuable work and making a difference so their customers see an early and frequent return on investment.
- Customer collaboration. The producers of the work ought to collaborate with their customers with the goal of truly delighting them. It is a spirit of partnership, not of vendor-buyer or winner-loser.
Contact center leaders moving into the post-COVID business world will find the pace of change accelerating as companies and communities rebuild around emerging consumer behaviors and expectations, as well as shifting technology priorities, employee work preferences and leadership skills. Amid these complex and dynamic conditions, agile thinking can help companies and contact centers move past the conventional fears that excessively prolong the planning and development process so that positive change can take place.
Create a Culture That Nurtures Agile Thinking
How can contact centers stay nimble while navigating unfamiliar terrain? The following are a few practices that enable agile thinking and a people-first mindset.
Support an Open Culture
Encourage an open culture where all employees feel empowered to freely share their suggestions, knowledge and concerns. Inviting frontline contact center agents to participate on cross-functional project teams in an environment where they can poke holes in assumptions without fear can help to surface customer-specific needs and issues sooner.
Empower Frontline Agents to Own the Customer’s Issue
To deliver a high-quality service experience, contact centers must empower agents to use their expertise and judgment to decide in the customer’s best interest.
Give agents the ability and confidence to take responsibility for customers’ issues by providing access to internal experts across the organization, as well as knowledge bases and tools to resolve issues quickly. Ensure that information is accessible by all and not siloed within departments.
Seek Feedback from Those Closest to the Customer
In agile organizations, the culture is aligned with customer-centric values and the understanding that trust, transparency and two-way communication among leaders and employees is critical to success. Feedback from frontline agents is valued and sought out. Leaders view employee feedback as a learning opportunity—a chance to challenge conventional thinking and upgrade old school approaches and models.
Speed Up Decision-Making
In traditional organizations, decisions are made in a painfully slow, top-down process that must flow through multiple layers of bureaucracy before reaching the front line.
Agile operations, on the other hand, push the decision-making to leaders who are closer to the work. Managers, supervisors and team leaders gather input from their teams, internal experts and other functions involved, and are empowered to make decisions that align with the company’s mission and goals—and therefore can act with speed in the best interest of their team members and customers.
Hold Daily Stand-ups for Contact Center Teams
Holding daily stand-ups (aka daily scrums, huddles, status meetings) is a fundamental practice for agile teams. Many contact center leaders affirm the value of daily preshift team huddles to update agents on changes to products or policies, and to bring up any issues that need to be addressed. Stand-ups typically last no more than 15 minutes while the team is standing (hence the name), and it serves as a quick status check, not a discussion.
Each team member answers three questions:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What will I do today?
- What obstacles are keeping me from doing my job properly?
In a work-from-home environment, daily stand-ups often take place via messaging apps or quick video calls.
Deliver High-Quality Communication
Employees want more frequent, high-quality communication from senior leaders. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review’s annual Glassdoor Culture 500, an index and research project that draws on more than 1.4 million employee reviews to track and analyze culture in leading companies, communication is the most important differentiator among companies that saw a significant boost in their culture values score and those that suffered a dramatic decline.
MIT SMR reports that the top 50 companies excelled at transparent leadership, effective top team (senior leadership) communication, and clearly communicating strategy throughout the organization, and they fared well in employees’ general assessment of transparency throughout the company. In addition, the top 50 also did a much better job in addressing issues related to employee welfare by putting in polices for work-life balance, health (mental and physical) and safety.
Move from Managing to Enabling
Finally, in agile companies, leadership is not viewed as a hierarchy-based structure. Instead, leaders take on a support role—guiding and assisting employees to develop skills and gain the experience to make sound decisions. Leaders are visible, accessible and engaged with their teams—they take on the role of enabler, rather than manager. Leaders of agile organizations also focus on developing their own EQ (emotional intelligence) skills, and demonstrate empathy, compassion and understanding for their team’s wellbeing.
Faster Decision-Making in an Unpredictable Future
No one could accuse most pre-COVID contact centers of being too quick to change, especially when adopting new processes and technology. But many companies spent the last year discovering that they can adapt quickly and absorb change. The opportunity is here to embrace agility and help customers, people and companies thrive in the post-pandemic world.