How to achieve business resilience in 2021

Look beyond systems to teams and people: Consider this advice on how software teams can become stronger and better prepared to handle challenges
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The challenges of 2020 have highlighted the competitive advantage of a well-oiled software delivery team: When COVID-19 hit and the workforce went remote, many engineering teams were forced to reckon with the number of manual processes they had in place. Suddenly, they needed to automate everything.

While we all have opinions on how to best bring automation to engineering teams, it’s clear that the most advanced, powerful automation tools need one crucial element to succeed: people.

For businesses, the first phase of the pandemic was about systems: updating and building the tech stack so the organization could operate remotely. The next phase will be about teams and people.

As we start 2021, we’d like to share some advice on how software teams can become stronger, more resilient, and better prepared to handle any challenge that comes their way.

Lessons of 2020: How to build a resilient team

This year, leaders will need to focus on building resilient teams and preventing individual burnout. One way to do this is by building larger teams. Our research data shows that between five and 20 code contributors is the right place to aim.

[ How does your team stack up? Read also: Digital transformation teams in 2021: 9 key roles. ]

Bigger teams are more flexible and can tackle new feature development, support healthy maintenance, and handle urgent issues without being swamped. If your ability to ship is affected by one person going on vacation or taking sick days, your team might be too small.

Of course, there’s also an upper limit that boosts the cost of communication and coordination, so strive to have enough developers to both maintain service and continue to innovate.

To build resilience, invite a friend to your project. Expand your pool of contributors. Our data proves that creating software is a collaborative team sport. Ambitious teams need both tools and people processes that can scale.

Creating software is a collaborative team sport. Ambitious teams need both tools and people processes that can scale.

Wartime mode will continue in 2021

To succeed, leaders will need to operate with a wartime mentality. That means prioritizing and keeping a ruthless focus on a short list of items. Long-term sustainability will rely on investing in people, platforms, and processes.

We may not know what the new normal in business looks like for some time. It’s okay to acknowledge that you can’t see through to the end of the tunnel; what matters is being confident that you’re going in the right direction. Create flexible models and goals, and when you set them, prioritize resources that will generate long-term value for your company. Focus on the first set of challenges in front of you, then the second set, and keep moving from there.

Global uncertainty will lead to ever-evolving shifts in software development

As 2020 taught us, our best-laid plans are meaningless in the face of rapid uncertainty and change. Engineering leaders should take this to heart and think about how to reduce the cost of making changes and rapidly adapt to new market realities.

Speed and quality are essential. The ability to create change and put it into the hands of the customers as quickly as possible will continue to be critical. Beyond that, the crystal ball is murky at best on how software delivery will evolve, so be prepared to adapt as that future unfolds.

2021 will be a year of rapid innovation

Unpredictable market trends and high anxiety means that there will be problems to solve and the energy to solve them.

Things will move fast, so don't spend your time in stealth mode – build in public. Don’t waste time striving for perfection; build something imperfect and get feedback on it as quickly as possible. Get in front of your potential customers, fix fast, and keep moving.

Laser-focused leaders will prevail

Some of today’s most innovative companies were born from uncertain times. The challenges we’ve had to overcome this year – think social distancing, inability to travel, and more – will only further fuel innovation.

Making effective decisions throughout your journey will require insight into the deepest elements of your business – all the way down to the workflow of your code and what’s impacting it.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

Jim Rose is the CEO of CircleCI, a continuous integration and delivery platform used by the world’s best engineering teams. Jim joined CircleCI through the acquisition of Distiller, an iOS- only continuous integration service. He was Distiller's co-founder and CEO.
Rob Zuber, CTO of CircleCI, is a 20-year veteran of software startups; a four-time founder, and three-time CTO. Since joining CircleCI, Rob has seen the company through its Series E funding and delivered on product innovation at scale while leading a team of 150+ engineers who are distributed around the globe.