Adopting Agile Methodology to Enhance Unified Communications Across Our Health System

NYU Langone Health recently launched a workforce digital experience (WDX) program with the goal to provide our staff with the right technology to support collaboration, productivity, and satisfaction in the workspace.

The WDX initiative refocuses our technology programs to better support and connect with the institution’s onsite and remote workers. To do this, we deployed integrated collaboration tools that enable a true hybrid working environment; rebuilt our offices to accommodate the dynamic mutability of in-person work; continued to educate our users and promote adoption of our digital productivity tools, and solicited periodic feedback to enable the continuous enhancement of our workplace solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic and near-overnight transformation of the way we work and communicate drove the WDX initiative up our priority list in the spring of 2020, and our teams were asked to rapidly deliver solutions meeting the novel needs of our 45,000+ workforce.

Our team — Unified Communications (UC) — which oversees video conferencing and collaboration tools, was charged with ensuring that our workforce had the right tools, training, and support to communicate and collaborate effectively, regardless of location. As a team, we understood that a ‘product mindset’ would help us release better solutions more quickly, and to be more responsive to our users and their rapidly changing environment. To truly adopt a product mindset, however, we knew that we needed to change how our team operated, and thus we began our journey to become agile.

What is agile? At its root, agile product management means taking an iterative approach to doing something, such as software development or military hardware. The agile manifesto advocates for individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. By adopting these principles for our work, even though we weren’t developing software per se, we were able to coalesce around a new way of working. This was especially helpful given that our team was freshly formed, was working remotely, and caught in the ongoing disruptions, hazards, restrictions and special urgencies that the pandemic wrought upon our healthcare setting. The principles behind the agile manifesto helped to dismantle some of the barriers that had previously blocked our team — particularly the principles of simplicity and of maximizing the amount of work not done.

When an agile coach was offered to our team, good-natured skepticism abounded within the group. Would the actual work that needed to be done be lost in the shuffle of stand-ups, card sorting, and lingo? Would we end up spending more time learning agile techniques and trying to perfect them than actually completing tasks? While a little tricky at first, our modified agile framework resulted in increased transparency, honesty, productivity, prioritization and freedom.

We started simply — documenting all of our active and planned work, previously tracked in spreadsheets, emails, and other disconnected sources, on a shared “sprint board” in a digital project management software used for managing tasks and requirements. We began meeting every morning to discuss status in a daily stand-up. The immediate effect? Transparency! Instead of waiting for a weekly hour-long meeting to learn that there was an issue — or better yet, that something had been completed and we could move on — our daily ritual brought visibility to the work. We started to overcome hurdles more quickly and had a clearer sense of who was doing what and how we would define a task as truly ‘done’. Whenever one of us questioned whether something had been accounted for, we checked the board and communicated to our coach when something was missing.

Instead of scrambling through meeting minutes and email updates, we had a central source of truth to which everyone contributed and referenced. During this phase, we focused less on the more nuanced agile concepts and instead got a handle on all of the things that had been floating around the team for months. Our coach helped to neutralize some of the anxiety surrounding adherence to formal agile techniques and gave us space to adapt to a new way of working.

Once the team had settled into a routine of daily stand-ups and requirement documentation, we worked other agile ceremonies and techniques into our repertoire. We began sizing tasks to understand the complexity of our work, which helped us to recognize which projects could be broken down into more digestible chunks, and more accurately predict when a deliverable might be completed. By breaking down the work in this way, we also established a shared understanding of what needed to be done, and what to prioritize to deliver the highest value for our users as quickly as possible. We dedicated more time to documenting acceptance criteria within tasks, and helped hold one another accountable if things became muddied.

We also hosted biweekly demos to share our accomplishments with other Workforce Digital Experience teams, and our coach helped us to facilitate retrospective activities. Our retrospectives offered us an opportunity to reflect and agree upon ways to improve the way we were working together as a team in a supportive and uplifting setting.

While these techniques improved team unity and project delivery, it wasn’t without its challenges. Some agile principles ran contrary to our traditional style of work. Our team had to adjust to self-organization and team-driven scheduling and prioritization. Our coach shared the tenets of agile with our leadership and walked them through the new process to help bring clarity to this new way of working and garner their support. Welcoming changing requirements, even late in the game, was also something we had to get used to, but over time, we found this flexibility helpful when faced with unexpected developments. And while initially folks felt like agile meant more meetings, we’ve been able to reduce our overall number of meetings because the time we did spend together was structured and well documented in a shared space, visible to all.

Ultimately, everyone involved had to keep an open mind and trust the process. As we began to see results and quality work was achieved more quickly, hesitance regarding our modified agile approach waned. The cyclical nature of agile helped us to build on and gradually improve our process, learning from mishaps and tweaking our approach. As a result of adopting an agile approach, we’ve seen tangible improvements to our products and our users’ experiences. We’ve made monthly improvements to our product offerings, communicated about these feature enhancements more effectively, and better documented future product needs. We’ve more meaningfully engaged with our users through trainings, demonstrations and surveys. We’ve developed better ways to track and monitor the consumption of our products and responded accordingly. All of these changes and improvements were supported by our transition to an agile methodology and the space and freedom the methodology afforded us.

By adopting an agile methodology for managing the UC program and more of a product mindset for supporting UC systems and tools, our IT team has been able to successfully bring more sophisticated, collaborative tools to end users, while also giving us the time and mental space required to think about the bigger picture that is the unified communications product strategy. As a team, the approach brought greater visibility to the work being done, promoted team cohesion and accountability, and enabled the team to better recognize and celebrate its successes. Ultimately, an agile approach has meaningfully improved our team’s cohesion and ability to deliver a better digital experience to our staff through enhanced communication and collaboration products.

Arvind Rampurada, Associate Director — Workplace Technology

Alicia Farina, Business Analyst, IT Strategy and Planning

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