Meet the Coach: Andrea Tomasini

Andrea Tomasini is a strategic coach, one of the founders of agile42, and one of the few Scrum experts who are both Certified Scrum Coach and Certified Scrum Trainer by the Scrum Alliance. He’s also a prolific public speaker, talking often at technical and managerial conferences. In October he will deliver the keynote at the annual Manage Agile conference in Berlin, titled “Stop scaling… Start growing an Agile Organization”.

Can you summarize for us the career path that led to founding agile42?

Well, that is a pretty long story… once upon a time, I was thinking that mechanical engineering would have provided me with a good basis to start a successful job and make a wonderful career. Well half way through university, I decided to turn toward Electronic Engineering, which looked more promising, and finally I moved toward Software Engineering. I started working on shared projects with the University and some local companies, and then grew in one of those till the point where I was leading a large development team.

I have always been fascinated by how fast software engineers could mess up very simple things such as “working agreements” and informal processes. I have also experienced over and over again how hard it was to get highly skilled and specialized people to think in a non-analytical way for social and group problem solving. I always felt like the human factor was missing, and that working with well defined processes in a creative and problem solving world, wasn’t really a good idea.

So I started looking at different ways and approaches, System Thinking (with Peter Senge at the Sloan School of Business), Process Reengineering with Michael Hammer and even CMM from the Software Engineering Institute seemed to fall short of solving the problems which really mattered… Clients are people and they often don’t know what they need. Even if they can articulate what they want, it doesn’t mean they are always right! So how could we communicate better? How could we find way to cope with that level of uncertainty without actually ending up blaming it on the clients?

A bit of light on these questions was shed in my ever-enquirying mind, when I started reading about Lean Product Development. I was immediately attracted by the innovative idea of involving the client in the product development and seeing the process of creating something new. I saw this more as an exercise of creating knowledge – with a by-product – than as something mechanical. The admission that delivering fast helps to learn fast, and that trying to get things right from the beginning is foolish at best (since that is the moment in which we know the least about the problem that we are trying to solve), really hit home for me. Then, i looked into agile methods and experienced many ways of organizing teams and working towards integrating different organizations. From my experience, a lean approach focusing on simple metrics to measure delivery of value and related indicators such as lead time, throughput rates and variation rates have proven much more effective than the attempt of squeezing or tailoring a defined process into another organization.

It felt way to often like trying to fit the “glass slipper” on the foot of a lady other than Cinderella. While people seem to be willing to fit it, as they have been fascinated by the beauty and the clarity of how the slipper looked, they still had to cramp their feet to even try to get into it… with incredible and sometimes unbearable pain. So after some years in the capacity of CTO, trying to integrate different parts of the organization in a more seamless way of working and being constantly hindered by politics and changing priorities, I decided to move on.

Luckily I have been able to find other people that like me are passionate about helping others: to work more effectively, to be more engaged, and to have more fun in their everyday working life. This common passion and the idea of sharing it with the rest of the world allowed us to formulate a vision which brought us to found agile42.

You probably always need to explain the name?

The name was quite a challenge, we all loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (by Douglas Adams) and we needed to have “42″ in the name. The meanings are multiple: – 42 is the length of a Marathon in Kilometers, signifying that even working agile, we need to think at the long term goals, and not just at the short sprint level… – 42 is obviously the “Ultimate answer to life, the universe… and everything”, which turned out to be pretty useless as people realized that after 7,5 Million years, the original question went forgotten! So as we wanted to focus on coaching from the very beginning, we appreciate the value of the “questions” more than the answers themselves. We truly believe that through questioning and other coaching techniques we can help people to initiate a change which they will own, and by doing so, will nurture indefinitely.

So that’s it and at about the end of 2005 the idea of agile42 was born…

What is an “Agile Transition” for a large company or organization? Is it ever possible to change mentality and the company culture?

Not an easy question at all… First things first: we like the term “Transition” as opposed to “Transformation” because it helps valorize where we start from, and projects the idea of an evolution rather than a complete radical change. It even sounds less dramatic to some extent. Moreover as we have learned through many years of experience, changing has to do with people and culture much more than it has to do with processes and tools.

We all know that when it comes to vote for change, everyone is on board, till the they have to change… We also know that culture has a strong inertial pull and most of it is happening whether we want it or not, as we often hear: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So how can we help a company to identify what they want to become as well as what culture would best support their business goals? How can we understand what is the predominant culture today, and plan a smooth transition toward that target culture that will work as a cradle to consolidate the right structure and organization to achieve the business goals? And finally how in this process can we make sure that people will be treated respectfully and will feel fulfilled in their profession, and will act as enablers rather than resisting the change?

The answer to all these very specific questions, is what we call an organizational transition, and specifically we try to add as many Lean and Agile ingredients to the pot, as possible. I have been a promoter of “being agile vs doing agile” for a very long time now, and there isn’t any better way of making people understand that agile and lean are simply different way of thinking about value, the client, the knowledge and the problem solving, and are not even specifically limited to software development.

More often than not, organizations come to us because they want “to do the agile thing” in their development department, so that their productivity will increase. This is the reality we are dealing with every day, the adoption of “agile methods” is not a change of practices and tools, as much as it is a change of the way of thinking about everything. The best way to learn this different way of thinking is by internalizing the principles behind it, which is what we try to teach during our training sessions. The difficult thing though is that to be able to internalize the principles deeply, you need to practice them. So simply put, agile and lean are simple in principle, but not easy in practice.

So company culture is not a secondary goal of an Agile transition but rather the main target?

The company culture is a very important thing, it is what makes a company different, unique and many times successful, because it entails “the way we do things around here”. It is the embedded codex that is transferred to every new employee joining the company, and it takes quite a long time before people get used to it, comply to it, understand it, internalize it, and finally live it as their own way of doing things. This very individual process is often the blocker of many change management initiatives. Organizations are pushing changes through their ranks, often disrespecting the individuals needs and values, forcing them to step into unknown areas, and losing trust and confidence in the process. In some cases this can even be a very disorienting experience.

So often, people in large corporations have learned to “cope” with the change, by complying very quickly, keep on living their own way, and waiting for the next change to happen, because it will happen, as the results of the first one won’t be as good as expected. The truth is that we will never know, because every organizational design in principle sounds and seems fit to fulfill the purpose, but miserably fails in the implementation. What really fails though is the way we are driving the change, and not the change in itself. In our many years of experience in helping small startup, medium enterprises and large corporations, we have came to value some fundamental driving principles, that are today embedded in what we call the Enterprise Transition Framework (ETF). It is not really a product, as many think, and no, you can’t buy it, because changing is an individual journey and everyone needs to go through it. This is why we talk about growing agile organizations, instead of scaling agile delivery, or implementing agile scaled models, or even doing agile.

Video from the presentation of “Stop scaling… Start growing an agile organization” at Scan Agile 2015 in Helsinki

One of the core of agility lies in the capability of continuously improving based on empirically validated knowledge. Simply put, try and fail or succeed, and learn from it. So an agile organization is an organization that grows around a core of values and principles which are supportive of a continuous improvement attitude. To achieve this attitude, we need a culture that is suited for collaboration, shared responsibility, servant leadership, maybe innovation, experimentation and is allowing failures to happen as one of the best way to learn fast. This culture needs to be grown and fostered, and then the agile and lean tools will provide the values they are supposed to and contribute to support the organization and the people to continuously evolve to more and more optimal ways of delivering value by learning how to solve ever new and challenging customer problems.

So yes, it is possible to change the culture and the mentality of people, it is actually the ultimate goal of coaching to be able to change the behaviour of a person for the better, indefinitely. Long lasting and sustainable change is at the center of the ETF, and needs to be supported by a culture which needs to be designed and nurtured, and can’t be left to chance. Understanding this is the very first step toward starting to draw a strategy (for this we have created the Agile Strategy Map) to transition the organization towards the most appropriate culture to fulfill the goals it is aiming at.

The concept of “fitness for purpose” which is very strong in the Kanban community is a good metaphor to understand why the organization is nothing more than an instrument to achieve whatever purpose a company wants to fulfill. We need to learn to be more resilient to change, which is one of the reasons why many companies are moving toward a more lean and agile approach today. The change in the market rules, the globalization, the time to market expectations are all factors which are emerging in every market, and push corporations to their limit, sometimes it is too late when they realize that they needed to change faster.

The core to faster change lies in the speed at which an organization can reinvent itself to fulfill the new purpose. This itself doesn’t lie on the level of alignment towards a common goal, which if changing frequently isn’t providing a very stable bearing, but lies in a cohesive and explicit culture, which will reinforce a set of common values and principles which in turn will support a consistent and common behaviour. So it isn’t only possible to change the culture of an organization, but it is the only way to make sure that that very organization will be able to survive the ever more demanding market requirements. Looking at very successful companies on the market today, that have been on the market for 10 years or more, we can learn how much they needed to change and reinvent themselves in order to continue to excel, and we should be humble enough to look beyond practices, structures and tools. If we don’t understand culture, and we don’t learn to foster it, we won’t be able to grow and compete in tomorrows marketplace.

Sometimes “Agile” is treated like a recipe book for a new process to pick and implement. You seem willing to break this assumption anytime you have a chance…

Very true, as mentioned before, I do hate statements such as “doing agile”. To be even more specific “agile” is not even a methodology, but was the best way to “sell” it as it is what people at the time understood better. Agile it is more an umbrella encompassing a set of values and principles, which have been implemented into practices in different frameworks such as Scrum, eXtreme Programming, Feature Drive Development, Dynamic System Development Method, Lead Software Development and even Crystal Methods. All of which share very few practices, and have different focuses, but still share all values and principles which are in the Agile Manifesto since 2001. So to close it very bluntly, “either you are agile or you are not, and the fact that you are practicing Test Driven Development, or you are standing up in front of a whiteboard full of post-it’s, ain’t going to cut it!”.

The Agile world is growing and evolving, do you see a clear direction for future years?

This is an interesting question, yes the agile world is growing, and the agile community has a great responsibility in supporting that growth. Agile is mainstream, today almost every market sector started experimenting with agile and lean approaches, because they provide a stronger adaptability and a great foundation for continuous improvement.

As a consequence of agile growing, and its marketability expanding, we see more and more people and companies jumping on the agile “band wagon” because they see it as a business opportunity. This is nothing new, it happens all the time any idea is reaching a market understanding which is deep enough to justify an economical venture, so no surprise here. Where we need to pay attention, and keep on using our passion and dedication to the agile and lean way of thinking is in being supportive and tolerant of this phenomenon, and focus on being inclusive rather than exclusive.

Our own agile42 vision is about helping as many people and organizations out there to learn, understand and use agile and lean to their own advantages, because we want people to unleash their potential, because we want organizations to be successful, so everybody will be better off. We invest an immense amount of time in creating intellectual properties which are consumable by others, and focus on transporting the right agile mindset across, to people who might not be so lucky to be coached by one of our excellent coaches (no pun intended, just self pride).

We create tools such as: Agile Strategy Map, Coaching Structure, Business Value Game, Enterprise Transition Framework and even the new Team Coaching Framework which are available under a Creative Common license. All we ask people to do is to use them, and provide feedback out of their experience so that we can improve the tools and have a wider impact on the community. We also developed a lot of games such as: LEGO Extreme Scrum Game, LEGO Cynefin Game, Kanban Pizza Game, and more so that people can learn about new powerful frameworks in a playful and safe to fail environment which is the ideal way of learning by failing fast and repeatedly.

So where is the future going, I can’t really tell, but the clear trend is toward bringing agile beyond practices, more and more large corporations are expanding their agility beyond the teams and there are very few tools in that space, and it is a whole area where new frameworks need to be developed. Recently there has been a big fuzz on the media about Zappos adopting Holacracy which is nothing more than one attempt of filling exactly that space, how does an agile organization work? Why do we stick to the traditional form of organization which have been working in the past, but where the market challenges were completely different from what they are today? So the future of agile is to be able to grow in that space, and support organizational culture and growth beyond processes and tools, scaling delivery is not the challenge, there are more than enough models out there, that work.

The real challenge is to grow an agile culture which will make an organization resilient to changes, and very quick to adapt to whatever else the future will reserve us.