This post was co-written by Lexi Gorse and Will Sather.
As most know, the world around us has gone through drastic changes in the last few years, and the last 12 months have only seen more developments when it comes to working environments. Although VMware Tanzu Labs has applied a remote-first approach with its workforce, the world we live in requires some teams to not only be remote, but also office-friendly, working in a hybrid model. As engineers at Tanzu Labs who just completed a project transforming a 20-plus-year-old legacy application, we reflect on the benefits and challenges we faced in a hybrid environment while working through our modernization techniques.
One role of Tanzu Labs practitioners is to work with our clients to modernize existing applications, which often entails breaking down and understanding a system using the SWIFT method. The SWIFT method, developed by Tanzu Labs, is primarily used to help teams plan just enough to start modernizing software systems and determine “how the system wants to behave.” From there, developers can surface a notional architecture of the application system and its necessary capabilities, which is helpful for the business to start outlining the upcoming work. For more information, Tanzu Labs has outlined many resources, lessons, and blog posts in the SWIFT Practices learning path on the VMware Tanzu Developer Center.
Historically, the SWIFT Method looked like hundreds of stickies on a white board, with pictures being taken at the end of the session; whereas the transition to fully remote sessions shifted these exercises to virtual boards, virtual meeting rooms, and only a single channel of communication. As the world drastically changed in 2020, the Tanzu team explored How to Conduct a Remote Event Storming Session and what these processes look like when fully remote. However, this post was geared more towards fully remote teams during the “early” days of the pandemic, and not the hybrid model that is needed by many today. This remote-only approach was necessary in early 2020, but many things have changed since then and the way we work now needs to evolve as well.
Hybrid SWIFT model
The reality of needing to accommodate both an in-person and remote workforce has come to the forefront of organizations’ minds and thus, is changing how we approach the projects we work on. As the world continues to transition and change because of the pandemic, Tanzu Labs holds the opinion that teams can have a remote-first mindset, but also utilize short, meaningful, in-person collaboration. To summarize what Edward Hieatt, senior vice president, VMware Tanzu Labs, says in his CIO article, a project can greatly benefit from in-person collaboration, especially during the beginning of a project when the team needs to start and build a culture of trust, identify the team goals and expectations, and form a plan for modernization (often starting with the SWIFT method).
We live in a reality where in-person collaboration is extremely valuable, however, we still recognize the benefits a remote-first workforce provides. Although sometimes these concepts are at odds with one another, a hybrid model has actually brought to life the idea of “the best of both worlds” for many teams by allowing them to realize the benefits of a remote world while bonding, earning trust, and developing personal relationships in person. For example, when opinions collided or conversation got heated during the exercises our team collaborated on, it was easy to realign around the water cooler and get everyone on the same page, simply by having some hallway conversations. Even though those weren’t visible to the remote team members, the team as a whole collectively benefited.
Benefits to SWIFT in a hybrid model
Given the distributed hybrid team, we were introduced to some of the benefits and challenges of running SWIFT in a hybrid model, which allowed us the opportunity to reflect and recommend areas for improvement in the future.
Due to location and time zone constraints, some members who otherwise were unable to attend in person delivered value because we enabled remote-friendly participation. Furthermore, when questions surfaced that needed timely answers, the team could quickly add a new person to the remote call in order to answer the necessary questions and thereby accelerate the exercises. This made SWIFT more efficient by always having the right people in the room without wasting the other team’s time in all-day meetings.
Online collaboration tools
Our team utilized the online whiteboard tool Miro to organize and facilitate all of the exercises, which helped us be more effective. Regardless of the virtual, collaborative whiteboard tool being used, this resource provided our team a deliverable that was stored and accessible to anyone for reference. This deliverable remained even after the active engagement completed and we rolled off. An online whiteboard was useful to share out with non-participating members looking for transparency and updates on the progress of the exercises.
Note: Check out an example of the SWIFT Method on a Miro board.
Challenges and areas of improvement
Here are some challenges that we encountered while conducting hybrid SWIFT exercises:
- Decreased online engagement
- Lack of facilitation enablement
- Eliminating distractions
- Frequent feedback
Decreased online engagement
Like in many meetings in a remote-first world, we noticed that remote participation in our exercises lacked focus at times. We learned that being on camera does not necessarily imply that a participant is engaged and focused, and vice-versa. Even if participants were actively listening, we found it difficult to provide an appropriate space for them to share ideas, ask questions, or join the in-person conversation. In retrospect, some ways we could have improved hybrid collaboration are:
- Before the SWIFT exercises begin, each participating team member should set individual goals for the sessions. This should give everyone a reason to be present and engaged. We believe that this purpose encourages team members to pay attention and discourages passive listening.
- Give more online voting opportunities to ensure everyone participating has their voice heard. Some options could include the popcorn method or randomly choosing people.
- Do a better job of checking in with remote participants and provide space to allow them to interject. We found it difficult for this to happen naturally in a large group setting with combined in-person and remote participants.
- Begin the exercises with icebreakers and/or games. Whether it’s a fun Miro game, an online brain teaser, or an icebreaker, starting off the day/meeting with a get-to-know-you activity strengthens a team. This gives the opportunity to extend the in-person benefits of growing cultural trust to those also on the remote call while providing a welcoming space for all team members.
- Ensure the team is provided with sufficient breaks from the exercises. Staring at a computer and participating online can be more exhausting, so it’s critical to consistently take breaks.
Lack of facilitation enablement
One goal of Tanzu Labs is to enable its clients to effectively continue its practices, ceremonies, and workshops after projects and engagements are complete. In our team’s hybrid environment, we found it difficult to give enablement opportunities to other team members interested in learning to facilitate SWIFT. Although the SWIFT method is often facilitated by one or two people, it is beneficial to have team members willing to learn the ins and outs of SWIFT.
If our facilitators were aware of the team members wanting to learn, it may have been easy to delegate a certain portion of the exercises. This would have helped keep our team members engaged and contributing, along with enabling team members to grow as practitioners and our clients to eventually facilitate their own flows. While we did spend some time after the conclusion of our hybrid week coaching, we should have been more proactive prior to the facilitation of these exercises.
Here are some ways to mitigate these challenges:
- Before the exercises begin, consider planning which team member will facilitate each “flow” or “thin slice,” so that everyone is on the same page. Also consider having those facilitators be team members that are in person and remote.
- Consider holding informational session(s) about SWIFT before the exercises to give space for team members to learn, ask questions, and gauge interest in small facilitation roles.
- Have a dialogue with the team members to understand any concerns they may have had facilitating these exercises in front of stakeholders.
While running the SWIFT exercises, we encountered a number of distractions that, at times, made it challenging to effectively participate. To give a few examples, there were instances of other projects being worked on in the background, as well as messages and emails being checked both by in-person and remote participants. This led to individuals losing track of the conversation, along with creating a domino effect of others losing focus as well. We also noticed side conversations would occur every once in a while in the larger, in-person room. This made it challenging for those participating remotely to hear the single channel of communication.
Some ideas for eliminating distractions and creating a higher level of focus are:
- While in person, consider having pairs share a computer. This will eliminate the impulse to check both email or private messages. It will also encourage participation and conversation with activities such as idea generation.
- Set a working agreement among the participants of the meeting beforehand. Having a set of ground rules that everyone agrees to will enable the team to recognize everyone’s role in the exercises.
- As mentioned before, breaks are helpful to drive remote engagement, but they are also helpful to alleviate the distractions that arise during exercises. Breaks give everyone time to check their messages and get caught up on the things happening outside of the exercises.
The fourth and final challenge our team faced was that we needed to get feedback more frequently to determine if we were on track. We did not have a way to measure if we were doing the right activities and providing value because we did not actively set time aside for the client to reflect.
- One way to address this would be to conduct a retrospective at the end of each day’s session. This could range from a simple sanity check to a longer feedback session, all of which would help future sessions.
Continue to iterate
At Tanzu Labs, we continually help organizations ease the transition with remote and hybrid development. Over the past few years, we have iterated on our processes throughout the transitions between in-person, remote, and now hybrid work. We recognize that there is more to making a fully remote approach successful when some team members are in person. Our biggest takeaway from facilitating the SWIFT Method in a hybrid environment is that a team must do what is best for themselves, for there is no one-size-fits-all solution so long as the team is iterating on constant, constructive feedback. By reaping the benefits of virtual meetings and online collaboration tools and mitigating the challenges of engagement, focus, and distractions, a hybrid approach to SWIFT can be quite effective as a modernization technique.
Learn more about the types of workshops Tanzu Labs runs by visiting our Tanzu Practices page.