Titansoft’s TOP SECRET Method – The foundation of Agile teams when facing VUCA chaos

Since we first learned about and embarked on our Agile transformation journey in 2014, Titansoft has been honoured by various organisations for our people-focused and, at times, unconventional approaches in the way we work.

For instance, we were named as the Best Tech Company to Work For in 2017 by Singapore Computer Society, the Best Companies to Work For in Asia in 2018 and 2019 by HR Asia, along with the People Developer Certificate in 2016 and People Quality Class with People Certificate in 2019 awarded by the Singapore Government.

Our practices are influenced by the adoption of Agile and Scrum methodologies, most of all Transparency, Inspect and Adapt as those who are familiar with the 5 core values and 3 pillars of Scrum would know.

Drawing Inspiration from Thought Leaders

Inspiration exists everywhere. It can come from another organisation’s playbook based on a well-developed, tried-and-tested management model, and sometimes it can be as simple as something someone said which provokes “what ifs”.

One of the earliest thought-provoking quotes we came across was from the book Fearless Change written by Linda Rising which she shared in the Agile Singapore 2014 Conference:

“People are not so much resistant to change itself as they are to being changed.”

– Linda Rising, Fearless Change

It was the same year we embarked on our Agile transformation, and it guided us about doing it. The key is to have an Agile mindset when undergoing organisational changes, and we need to involve all team members to make sure everyone stays in the loop and always keep the reason behind the transformation in mind — so we won’t be lost in the details.

Rather than getting caught up in the methodology and frameworks, what truly matters and plays a crucial role in whether an organisational transformation would work is the people. In 2017, I attended a Problem Solving Leadership training conducted by Gerald Weinberg and it was how I got to know this quote from the book The Secrets of Consulting:

“No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.”

– Gerald Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting

It complemented a direction we had already been steadily moving towards, that of a people-focused approach. As we worked together in teams with each of us having a different point of view, we need to remove our biases, put ourselves into different perspectives as well as take care of everyone’s emotions and feelings when having a conversation or discussion. 

The Satir Iceberg Model comes into play here — when we make sense of the underlying feelings, perceptions, and expectations from other members, we are then able to understand their behaviour, thoughts and feelings without being judgmental. 

With these, we have learnt that when working as teams in the office, the best communication takes place with quality face-to-face conversation in front of a whiteboard; where participants speak positively and are encouraged to share their opinions in meetings with definite objectives and well-defined practical results. This forms a general guideline implemented across all teams in Titansoft.  

In reference to the Satir Change Model, there are the old status quo, foreign elements, resistance, chaos phases, injection of transforming ideas followed by practice and integration before moving to the new status quo. In the context of our Agile transformation, the old status quo was our waterfall model of development, followed by the introduction of Agile and Scrum methodology, as well as a period of resistance and chaos, proceeded by improved performance as we practised and integrated what we learnt from various sources, finally becoming the Agile organisation we are today.

Titansoft’ SECRET Method

Insights we gained from our Agile transformation can be summarised into 6 parts:

Safety First – physical safety, psychological safety, environmental safety, project and product safety.

Emergent Leadership – especially important during the period of chaos. Since without it teams would be passively waiting for response from the management instead of actively proposing ideas and solutions as well as executing them as a self-managed entity.

Courage and Curiosity – looking for opportunities and doing things differently

Responding to Changes – difficulties and uncertainties are natural parts in the implementation of new ideas. We need to actively respond to changes based on the situation, not just stick to the initial plan blindly.

Emotional and Mental Well-being – taking care of the team also means taking care of each member’s emotional and mental wellness, it’s especially important in a software company as the people are our greatest assets.

Transparent Information Sharing – transparency is a core value of Agile and Scrum.

SECRET Method Applied in the COVID-19 Crisis

In 2020, we were facing the challenges brought by COVID-19. At the beginning everyone underwent a period of resistance as we experienced chaos, and thereafter we started learning about working from home and new terms such as lockdown, quarantine, “social distancing” as well as “Circuit Breaker” (CB) and “Stay Home Notice” (SHN) coined in Singapore.

The word “crisis” in Chinese is written as 危机.

危 (wei1) means danger, and 机(ji1) means opportunity. When faced with a dangerous situation, think about what we can do differently and turn it into an opportunity.

During this post-COVID-19 “New Normal”, we have applied the SECRET Method from our Agile transformation to good effect.

  1. Safety First

As mentioned earlier, this translates into safety in all aspects — physical safety, psychological safety, environmental safety, project and product safety.

Our top priority was obviously the physical safety of our employees as we were one of the first companies in Singapore to make a shift to fully “Work From Home” (WFH) for all our employees. Even prior to that, when we first suspected that the situation would become worse, we conducted WFH drills in order to smooth out any issues that might arise, to strengthen our tech infrastructure in addition to increasing VPN servers and bandwidth.

It is fortunate that since all Titaners use company-issued laptops, we can essentially work anywhere. These preparations meant that when the situation worsened in March 2020, we were able to activate our Business Continuity Plan smoothly with minimal worries and interruptions to our work.

All in all, what is important is to keep learning and collaborating with each other going forward; so we can make everything meaningful and valuable in getting work done.

Once the Singapore Government relaxed the COVID-19 restrictions, we ensured workplace safety by setting up a self check-in temperature monitoring station, contactless door systems, readjusted our work areas to maintain the necessary social distancing; and we also introduced measures such as separating teams into group A and B to minimise cross-interaction. Employees were encouraged only to enter office when there is a need to.

In reflection, we had one of the fastest responses to the COVID-19 across industries, and we owe it to our experience in working with an Agile mindset — anticipating and even welcoming change as an opportunity to try new experiments.

This can be summarised with a quote from Klaus Schwab:

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.”

– Klaus Schwab

We need to be Agile, so we can respond faster to changes posted by the external environment. 

2. Emergent Leadership

Having a culture of self-management within teams means that innovation is able to flow and spread upwards, instead of a restrictive top-down flow of management-mandated practices.

Teams proactively provided information, resources and ideas to the company as we faced brand-new challenges brought by COVID-19. Even at a very early stage back in February 2020, we were able to envision possible scenarios and come up with game plans — everyone threw out their ideas for tools we could adopt and we experimented together. Within a week, we were able to make a decision and set up various tools for different occasion.

Titaners took it upon themselves to share their experiences with new tools with different circles, and we started a weekly sync-up between the management teams across all offices since February 2020 to ensure everyone is kept apprised of the situation on all fronts.

Daily monitoring of the external situation also took place, especially as a B2B services provider since we needed to stay up-to-date with the changing climate in our clients’ locales.

3. Courage and Curiosity

Throughout this period, we thought about what we could do differently and these are some of the questions we explored:

  • Be a JIRA user or be a JIRA Business Partner?

Before COVID-19, we were already a JIRA user and our experience with it during COVID-19 led us to wonder — what if we became a JIRA Business Partner? Eventually, we took steps and, by the end of 2020, became an Atlassian Silver Solution Partner.

Now, we are not just a JIRA user, but a consulting service that had transformed our knowledge and experience into an element of our business and offers it to the industry.

  • WFH or Work From Anywhere?
  • WFH mandated by government CB or WFH as the New Normal?

Before we fully WFH, we believed that face-to-face communication in the office was a necessity; now we are exploring ideas not just WFH, but “Work From Anywhere”.

With different countries having varying situations, Titaners were working under very different situational contexts. For Titaners in Taiwan, a country with relatively low rate of COVID-19 cases and government restrictions are relatively lax, we took a very different approach as compared to in our Singapore headquarters.

We grouped teams and moved them to areas with lower population density, converting hotels and guesthouses into temporary workspaces. This new experience led us to conclude that an Agile mindset could even extend to our physical environment, with which it’s possible for us to “Work From Anywhere”.

Even thought there were no government-enforced lockdowns in Taiwan, we still carry out monthly WFH drills to ensure that we are ready and able to WFH anytime the situation changes. Or as we call it, training our muscles for remote working.

4. Responding to Changes

Due to the way we work that involve plenty of discussions and interaction among teams, we have always assumed that remote working was something that could not possibly work for us. As a software company, we were all about “low tech, high touch”.

During the COVID-19 period, however, we have had to leverage a series of “high-tech” tools such as Zoom for meetings, Metro Retro with its in-built templates for retrospective meetings, JIRA’s confluence for project management, meeting minutes and knowledge management, in addition to Slack and Skype for instant messaging.

We have come to settle into each tool, utilising their features for our unique way of working such as making use of Zoom Breakout Rooms to create a virtual department structure that reflects our physical workspace in the office.

5. Emotional and Mental Well-being

Since early March 2020 as we rolled out WFH, we started carrying out pulse surveys for Titaners to understand how they felt about WFH. The main concern we gathered was lacking of social interaction with colleagues, and that had become one of the focuses we addressed with a series of virtual activities planned throughout the year to better support out teams during WFH.

We increased intentional communication by allocating HR buddies to each department, and HR reached out periodically to initiate one-on-one check-ins with Titaners and department managers. We also conducted frequent company-wide events since April, including:

  • Virtual fitness classes conducted in-house by Titaners;
  • An internal “Home Desk Setup Competition” showcasing home workstations;
  • An appreciation event in May where Titaners received a budget to order in and enjoy dinner together with their families;
  • A “Secret Angel” office social delivery game;
  • The #TogetherWeGrow activity to promote mental wellness by growing edible plants;
  • A surprise mooncake and cocktail delivery to all Titaners in celebration of Mid-autumn Festival;
  • And various virtual games during our monthly virtual T.Party and throughout the WFH period.

Other than physical safety, we believed that emotional and mental wellness are equally important during the enforced period of social isolation.

6. Transparent Information Sharing

Before COVID-19, the Sociocracy framework was already well-integrated into our way of working. In the past 2 years, we had a habit of conducting regular town hall meetings every month, and have used it as an opportunity to share open, honest updates on the company’s status and direction.

During 2020, it came in handy by presenting us with open channels for 2-way communications. Employee survey results were heartening — 91% felt that updates were transparent while 95% felt that updates were timely.

Concluding Thoughts

The SECRET Method plays an important part in our Titansoft Operation Plan (TOP) — these 6 lessons have served us well since our Agile transformation back in 2014, and have continued to be applicable during the COVID-19 situation in 2020.

As Linda Rising shared during her 2019 visit for Agile Summit in Taiwan, Agile is about small experiments and that is the belief underlying our approaches — with small experiments, we are able to learn and grow greatly.

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