Illustration of a man sewing a face mask while talking with friends on the computer

We’re many weeks into the COVID-19 crisis and, I don’t know about you, but things still feel chaotic to me. Part of it is trying to work from home while also homeschooling a 6-year old and 9-year old. Part of it is trying to keep up with all the recommendations and requirements from our public health officials. The big reason things feel chaotic to me, though, is all the uncertainty.

At times like these, our impulse is to impose order – even if that order exists only in our heads. We need ways of understanding the unsettling things we observe. Tools for mentally organizing what we read in the news. A framework, if you will. Some people may look to religious texts for this, but as a Certified Scrum Master and nerd, I’ve been thinking about the Agile Manifesto.

Corny? Maybe. But hear me out and see if you don’t find a little comfort in it, too. Because sure: you could choose to view the recent changes to our lives as upheaval. I prefer to view them as iteration.

At its core, agile methodologies are about adapting. Workflow not working? Improve it. Year-long project plan gone off the rails? Plan for shorter increments. If the Agile Manifesto were written today, I bet it would go something like this:

We are uncovering more resilient ways of working and living as a global community. Through this shared experience we have come to value:

  • Personal relationships over processes.
  • Authenticity and accountability over polish and promises.
  • Collaboration over competition.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

ICYMI, here’s the original

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Personal relationships over processes

Processes and workflows are brittle. Interfere with any one piece, and the whole system breaks down. Think about the supply chain issues we may soon face, as meat processing plants struggle to stay open while keeping their workers safe. See also: the chain of approvals when you file an expense report. Chances are, there are at least two people standing between you and your reimbursement. (Do you even know who they are? I for one, do not.) And, chances are, they are the only people authorized to approve it. If one person is sidelined with an illness, you’re left carrying hundreds of extra dollars on your credit card.

Relationships, on the other hand, are enduring. They are anti-fragile in that they can actually become stronger under stress. Although we don’t generally think about relationships in such a technical way, we’ve instinctively emphasized them lately, both personally and professionally. We’re reaching out, checking in, empathizing, and supporting like no time I can remember. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it might be the human connections that we’ve built and will benefit from for years to come.

Authenticity and accountability over polish and promises

For the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, it’s really, truly ok to not be ok. We’re all processing day after day of bad news, and for many of us, it’s more than our emotional metabolism can keep up with. There’s no stigma attached to being real about how you’re feeling, how you’re struggling to stay focused, and how much work you can deliver. (At least, there shouldn’t be any stigma attached. If your boss is badgering you about your level of productivity at a time like this, you might need a new boss.)

We’re also remembering, after years of seeing curated versions of others’ lives in our social media feeds, how messy life actually is. Kids are making “impromptu cameos” during our Zoom meetings, and our teammates see the dirty breakfast dishes stacked on the counter behind us. Yeah, it’s less than ideal. But so what? Substance matters more than appearance.

Now is no time for promises we can’t fulfill or a polished image that hides our imperfections. The more open we are with each other, the better we can support each other.

Collaboration over competition

We’re facing a problem that is bigger than any one person, organization, or country. Nonetheless, we all have our roles to play. As communities, we’re teaming up to sew masks for local clinics and fetch groceries for elderly neighbors so as to limit their risk of exposure. Atlassian joined forces with partner companies and the Australian government to build a mobile app for sharing virus-related updates, which was delivered in just seven days. Even Apple and Google, fierce rivals in the marketplace on a normal day, are working together on technology designed to track and curb the spread of the virus by tracing who an infected person recently had contact with.

Despite the circumstances, it’s refreshing to see so much cooperation – among erstwhile competitors, no less. Maybe it’s too much to hope today’s togetherness will stick around when things go back to “normal”. But I’m crossing my fingers anyway.

Responding to change over following a plan

This is the line in the Agile Manifesto that started tickling my brain in the first place. No matter your industry, age, location, or favorite Beatles album, we’re all getting a crash-course in adapting to change right now. Knowledge workers and the companies who employ us are embracing (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) remote work. Parents are learning how to be substitute teachers. Even hairstylists have gone virtual!

Of course, those who can’t work at all right now face the toughest challenge: adapting to life on a much smaller budget. As much as we want to open businesses and schools back up, we’re being forced to take a wait-and-see approach. Planning on short time horizons is very “agile” of us, too. Balancing physical health with mental and economic health is no easy task. Responsiveness is key.

One model predicts the pandemic will peak soon, another predicts a much later date. Everyone wants to know when we can get back to something that resembles our regularly-scheduled lives, but the fact is, we just don’t know. The reminder that we humans aren’t in charge of as much as we think we are is deeply discomforting. Humbling, too. Perhaps a positive outcome of COVID-19 is that next time we’ll be better prepared, both logistically and mentally.

Everything I need to know about coping with crisis...