Agile Profile is a monthly feature highlighting leaders in Agile government. This month’s post is a variation on this format as we interview Kevin Callahan, experienced Scrum Master and Enterprise Agile coach, who now offers valuable insight to any agency seeking advice on Agile processes.
Agile Coach for State of Maine, Dept. of Education
What does Agile mean to you?
I refer to Angela Harms’ informal definition:
“Agile means the courage to face reality head-on without a bunch of blame and angst around it. And to adapt as you discover things about the world. Flexibility, open-heartedness, constant improvement. Listening to each other, making things better all the time because of doing those things.”
I believe that agility is less a process and more a way of looking at and being in the world, and how we move through it. Agile practice and principles give us a forum to examine results against our intent and discern the inevitable gaps, then run safe-to-fail experiments toward closing those gaps.
Finally, Agile is firmly and unequivocally people-centric. The processes and frameworks are secondary to people. People are not resources; we are human beings that bring to the conversation complexity, messiness, and untapped potential. I love agile because it is inclusive; not only humanistic — it brings a powerful set of tools to the conversation of how do leaders and organizations thrive in a business context that borders on chaos.
What did you do to get buy-in from your department/agency?
Make sure that we all have the same clearly articulated goals that we’re together moving toward. Making implicit assumptions explicit so we can have a conversation about whether they support our goals or not. Buy-in is a diplomatic and collaborative process combining private and shared conversations, giving people the opportunity to go through their own process of understanding a new way of doing things, and most importantly, why we might try it this way.
Did you see positive results immediately or did it take time?
Sustained change requires immediate and regular ongoing positive feedback. However, the quick wins are not major strategic pivots (and if they are, I brace for major fallout), though we can draw a line between the two. I often refer to the metaphor of an orchard; you can plant all the trees you want, prune, feed, water them — but it is still going to take time for them to mature and bear fruit. Even without that immediate end result, we can see measurable progress and understand how our efforts and investments are contributing toward that end goal.
What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
I once heard David Cooperrider say “every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it is currently getting.” Our organizational systems are the way they are for a lot of reasons, and some of them are very deeply held and difficult to change. The best approach I’ve found is to be able to make explicit current beliefs and assumptions, and compare them against meaningful shared goals. Changing people or organizations is beyond my control, though I can certainly ask powerful questions and facilitate the conversations so individuals can choose a different path toward a future they want to be a part of creating.
Do you follow a specific framework like Scrum or Kanban?
Yes, though the decision is highly context-dependent.
The complexity of what any organization or leader is facing today is nearly incomprehensible, and it’s only getting more so. To pretend that I, or anyone, has some magic bullet prescription, I believe is misguided at best. To have a conversation about solutions, which Scrum and Kanban are, without a deeper understanding of both context and desired outcome, is a good example of the type of simplistic thinking that breaks down in complexity. If we can’t admit together that we simply don’t know yet, we’re in for a much harder journey.
Do you have a designated project (or product) owner? Is this position full-time, part-time, or a combination depending on the project?
Product ownership is one of the most critical variables in successful projects. And counting Product Owners is a bit of a red herring. The more important question is: what gains do we believe we achieve by NOT having a dedicated Product Owner? If we truly understand Little’s Law, which Kanban is largely built on, and we understand the ways in which any project is a queue, quite suddenly we find ourselves in a different conversation; one about quality and delivery time rather than splitting roles and counting hours.
Again, the decision is very sensitive to context and complexity. Are there times when a Product Owner could take on multiple projects and be truly effective? Absolutely. Are there times when the organization will have to make a difficult decision whether to either not do a project or do so with diluted product ownership? Always. Though to make a blanket should/shouldn’t statement is silly; ask the questions and have the conversations and be willing to look head-on at the results without blame.
What aspect of Agile have you either gotten better at with time or has been the most valuable to your team?
Connecting people to a sense of purpose. Simon Sinek codified this as Starting With Why; Stephen Covey as a Bigger Yes; Dan and Chip Heath as a Destination Postcard. Quite simply if we don’t deeply understand and agree with the reasons for our work and who we need to be to do it, we will struggle to make the best decisions, behave effectively, and find ourselves mired in unnecessary conflict, which not only wastes tremendous effort, but also largely prevents us from getting through meaningful productive conflict.
There is a growing body of work about the critical importance of purpose, whether that be interpreted as strategy, sense of identity, desired future state, daily progress, or a mix of all of these. The question for me is less about how important this is as to how to facilitate it on a daily basis.