Q: Can you summarize for us your career path and how you came to be an Agile coach?
I’ve worked in product development for over 15 years, continually looking for the best way to help software development teams develop awesome software. I’ve re-structured countless production teams, and scaled productivity many times, project and program managed projects and teams to deliver on time and on budget. I finally found myself as a product manager for a startup in Munich.
At Christmas time, after months of frustration, I wrote a memo to the COO/CEO explaining why IT was such a problem and outlining in detail what I saw was wrong and why we needed to improve IT. I was called in over the Christmas break and informed that the CTO was moving on to another startup (a decision made before my less-than-diplomatic memo) and that, since I had such a big mouth, I would now be leading the IT group.
And so began my agile journey…
I learned a lot of things of things about tact and diplomacy (how to have some for a start) and recognized that the IT group could not improve without some help. Searching for process improvement specialists, we came across an agile coaching firm, and the rest as they say is history. To be fair, we felt we were a long way from being in a good enough position to become agile. So agile, though a distant goal, was not considered an option at this early stage. However after talking to Andrea Tomasini, the founder and principal coach at agile42, we decided to move forward with them, and turned the IT group around. The only thing I did right was bring in the coaching firm and stay out of their way.
We started from a place in which we had painful releases every 3-4 months, with anywhere between 8-12 hours of downtime and innumerable hot fixes. Six months later, the engagement had a positive ROI. Eighteen months later, the group was the best performing department in the company, with a release every two weeks, with one hour of downtime, two if there were major database changes. Following the 2008 crisis, when the startup had to scale back, I chose to leave the company and was the only executive to do so, leaving behind a smoothly running IT group that delivered what was needed quickly and effectively. I later joined agile42, the agile coaching company we hired, to head up North America, launching my coaching career.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for Agile managers?
Fight the urge to intervene. Managing any team is hard and leading is often interpreted as stepping in and showing teams how it’s done. Actually leading teams is the opposite. It’s not about intervening, but about nurturing the latent skills of the team. Asking clarifying questions and creating an environment with lots of feedback mechanisms to help guide the teams.
Get used to uncertainty. There is a comfort in having a solid, well-defined plan in front of you. It’s easy to stand in front of stakeholders, and point at it and talk confidently about delivering to plan. But software development is riddled with uncertainty and the plan is little use in the long run. Getting used to a level of uncertainty takes time, and is hard to achieve. Once you’re there, you probably can’t remember why you ever thought well-defined, locked-down plans were helpful.
Only accept working software. The key to working in a rapidly changing environment is to have regular stops to review where things are. And what is reviewed is important. Partial delivery does nothing to mitigate the changing environment. Partially completed work still carries risk when things change. Only completed, working software has any value in these checkpoints. Insist on regular reviews of finished, integrated product. Activity has no value – we know the teams work hard. Only completed work counts.
Q: What is the main inspiration for what you do?
Making work rewarding. I believe work should be something you do because you love it. Being paid for what you love to do is much better than being paid for what you have to do, and makes leading teams an inspirational responsibility rather than a chore. Unfortunately, I think we have lost decades in which software has been managed or controlled rather than nurtured and inspired. Applying agile principles and seeing the dramatic difference in productivity and fun on truly agile teams is a powerful motivator; seeing the light return to someone’s eyes, and getting pulled aside to hear stories of how much more motivated and interesting work is.
Q: What have you seen lately that is interesting and new?
Managing agile teams and organizational leadership structures. The practices and application of Agile and Lean principles and values are important and continue to morph and grow. From the Lean Startup to agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban to DevOps and continuous delivery. But where I see the most new and interesting thought leadership is in agile management and agile leadership. It won’t be called that, but there are exciting developments for what it means to lead agile organizations. First, managing agile teams and agile product delivery requires different thinking to that of our traditional managers, epitomized by MBA-trained executives (speaking as an MBA graduate myself). Value delivery requires more than paying lip service to accountability and customer value. Second, leadership of the most creative and powerful organizations is increasingly moving away from hierarchical structures. What it will look like is still open to interpretation, but things are definitely changing.
Q: Favourite non-fiction book and why?
I’m going to go with two here. I read all the time, and revisit some books and use others to get a leg up in understanding. Here are the two I’m taking off my bookshelf the most at present.
Current reading for a leg up – Reinventing Organizations. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different company structures holds the key to the next generation of successful corporations. In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux takes us through the history of organizations and their leadership structures, painting a picture of where the most enlightened leaders and entrepreneurs are going. This book is one that challenges me to sit and think about how this changes how we work both within agile42 and with our clients.
The book I revisit the most – The Principles of Product Development Flow. Agile may be hitting mainstream, but still hasn’t begun to be explored. I liken it to the discoveries of the African continent in the 1800s. A good understanding of broader geography and some of the potential of the subcontinent, but no real detail. We knew about Victoria Falls and the Congo, but little else. Well, if agile is the African subcontinent, Don Reinertsen’s book is the closest to providing a detailed map of the interior and of how Agile and Lean might develop in years to come. Essential reading.