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Reflections on agile program management during the pandemic in Brazil

I’ve just returned from a long-term overseas assignment as Offshore Delivery Principal / Program Manager based in Brazil. It turned out to be very different to what I expected (I think the pandemic surprised all of us) and a much bigger growth opportunity than I ever imagined, which often happens when you get out of your comfort zone. I wanted to share the highlights of my experience and the four strategies that I relied on to achieve agile program management during the pandemic in Brazil.
 

The opportunities and challenges in Brazil

In July 2019 I had the opportunity with ThoughtWorks to travel from Brisbane, Australia to Sao Paulo, Brazil (nearly 14,000 km away) to create the role of Offshore Delivery Manager for our teams in Brazil supporting our clients in New York. I was hoping to mix work (new role, new region, new challenges) with pleasure (new culture, new sights, new experiences).

In October 2019 the leadership team decided to relocate the teams from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Recife, Brazil (over 2,600 km away). This would maximize access to our strong offshore talent in the Recife office and minimize the talent drain on our teams from the active start-up market in Sao Paulo. We developed the plan to transition over 30 roles from Sao Paulo to Recife, costed the travel expenses, and collaborated with the team members to achieve the outcomes by the end of 2020. 

By December 2019 the coronavirus had surfaced in Wuhan, China and our ThoughtWorks China colleagues started to respond while other countries took steps to protect themselves. Our New York team members and clients braced themselves as the U.S. started seeing new cases of coronavirus in January 2020 and our Brazil team members soon followed with the first coronavirus cases in Brazil in February 2020.
 
We were faced with a complex set of challenges in Brazil – the health pandemic, social inequalities, and political fragility. A Brazilian colleague described how she was feeling at the time: ”politically disgusted; emotionally exhausted & intellectually perplexed & that is Brazilian”. My new role in Brazil became a whole lot more challenging.
 

Agile strategies to respond to change

We had to move our delivery model to fully remote, reassess our plans to relocate to Recife, support our people as they faced health and political concerns, and protect our business’ viability.

We approached this unchartered territory in a similar way to our usual Agile software delivery approach – clarify goals, think creatively, communicate continuously, move cautiously, celebrate and learn collectively.
 

Creative Connection

Our software delivery teams moved from distributed work out of offices in Brazil, U.S.A. and Costa Rica to fully remote teams working from home. A few team members changed their work hours, some relocated to friends or family in other cities and many adopted strict self-isolation strategies. We encouraged more online social interactions and team building activities and heard from some teams that they felt more connected to their team members due to this intentional focus than they had when they worked together in our physical offices.
 

Creative Solutioning

Our onboarding of new team members in Brazil relied on laptops being physically provisioned from the client office in Sao Paulo to our ThoughtWorks offices in either Sao Paulo or Recife. With transport and travel sectors being heavily affected, we faced challenges both procuring and provisioning laptops. We experimented with repurposing laptops from a rolled-off person to a rolled-on person with remote wiping and configuration and found we could provision laptops faster this way than we were doing pre-pandemic. 


Managing Risks

Our teams had a number of people on temporary visas in both Brazil and the U.S.A. and we were unsure if the governments would extend visas or the people would want to stay away from their home country.  We invested in our people, added additional team members to at-risk teams and created shadow/pair roles for at-risk roles to support our people and ensure delivery stability. 
 

Evolutionary Plans

Our transition to Recife could not rely on the original plan of face-to-face handovers which made our handovers more difficult and team building more challenging. We invested in longer overlaps to allow extra time for successful handovers and focused on additional team building activities (e.g. after work socials via zoom)  to strengthen team culture.
 

People and Culture

Our people and teams came under increasing stress as the coronavirus became more prevalent for our team members and their families in Brazil. We held weekly remote all-hands meetings for people in Brazil, regular information sharing with our teams, included a 1-10 rating for “how are you feeling” check-ins in our 1:1 catchups and reviewed our regular fortnightly “temperature check” team surveys to detect any noticeable impact from the pandemic or remote working conditions. We were able to detect problems with people or teams early and provide individual support for people and additional capacity to teams.

Video conferencing

Key takeaways

Although the challenges were unprecedented, our approach was very consistent:

  1. Understand your key principles – understand the values you want to follow for each challenge and use them as guiding principles for every decision. We focused a lot on people and supporting them so they in turn could focus on delivering client outcomes.
  2. Develop a flexible and agile plan – we routinely plan for a period that we can safely predict which for software delivery is often a 3 month window. We found that for some of our decisions this reduced to a 1 month view or even less. We developed plans for the timeframe that we could best predict which avoided wasting time on planning that was unreliable.
  3. Monitor with a variety of metrics – once we had a plan then we monitored it closely, looking for signs that we were either on track or heading off track. We used a variety of data about delivery metrics, team health, and account viability. We treated a lot of our work as experiments believing we can’t guarantee the outcome but we can work to a plan and look for indicators and adjust – a bit like testing the ice as you walk across it.
  4. Mitigate to avoid problems and minimize impacts – with so many risks and issues around us we put in place a lot of mitigation to either avoid a problem or to set us up to be able to cope better if the situation arose. We created multiple ways to do things and increased our focus on pairing to share knowledge and mitigate risks.

In my case, I decided in March 2020 to stay in Brazil and moved from Sao Paulo to Recife to ride out the pandemic. However by June 2020 my concerns about increasing restrictions on international travel and the closing of national borders led to my return to Australia.

At the end of my year in Brazil, our teams and client had weathered the first wave of the pandemic with on-time delivery, healthy teams, and was well on track for the full transition from Sao Paulo to Recife.

I have returned with great memories of our achievements, great friendships built in Brazil and U.S.A.  and great plans to return to Brazil to visit friends, colleagues and the places I didn’t see in my 2020 adventure. I guess I need to start working on my agile plan for that!

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