Executives Taking a Back Seat in Agile: An Interview with Steve Davi


In this interview, Steve Davi talks about how executives can actually harm a company's agile transition. He covers how executives can and should take on a different role when agile is being adopted and explains how employees can help executives get engaged in the right way.

Josiah Renaudin: Today I'm joined by Steve Davi, the senior vice president of Synacor. Steve, thank you very much for joining us.

Steve Davi: Thank you.

Josiah Renaudin: First, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Steve Davi: Sure. I've been doing professional software development for thirty years now. I've been doing agile since 2006, about eight years now. I've implemented agile in two different organizations. I've seen it work and fail in both of those organizations. I've seen executive support and influence being kind of the result of both of those. Both under my direction and the direction of others and so on.

I've also attended many agile conferences and user groups, and heard a lot of different success and horror stories about what's going on in the industry related to agile.

Josiah Renaudin: Now your talk, “Executives’ Influence on Agile: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” really digs into how executives can harm agile adoption. Why do you think executives can be so bullish when it comes to opening the migration into an agile framework?

Steve Davi: I think there's a lot of reasons. Executives either fall into one of three categories generally. Either they're used to a commanding control structure because that's all they've ever done. That's all they've ever experienced within a company. That's all they've ever done in terms of leadership, or they really have a strong passion about what's going on with their business. They feel like their way is the right way and they're the leader in this space, and they really are the one that has the vision, or they're just used to being involved in all aspects of the company.

When it's a smaller size company, they're usually touching a lot of different aspects of it. Any one of those cases causing them to just get involved in details that they really should leave to their Scrum teams, and really should, instead of being the ones that are always driving it, let other people in the organization take the lead for a little bit and drive that.

In some cases, the executives might realize, "Okay, I need to let the Scrum teams drive what's going on for awhile," but they don't necessarily see a need to change it. They might have a process that's focused more on features and schedules as opposed to on quality. They really like the fact that it's focused on features and schedules because that helps them win business. They might not necessarily see the need to change what's going on as well, too.

Josiah Renaudin: You just mentioned being able to take the lead. Can you describe the lead, follow, or get out of the way attitude that you've often run into?

Steve Davi: Yeah. If you look at a lot of executives, I think they kind of rose to their position because they were the person that saw an opportunity or problem and went after it. They grabbed it and grabbed ownership and expected everyone else to just follow them in terms of moving forward with it.

I think in a lot of ways, the executives are the ones that really feel the need to lead. They feel like, "I'm in a position where I'm being paid and expected to lead people and that's what I'm going to do.

However, if you look at what's going on in the industry today, a lot of the people who are winning are the ones that are learning really fast. That means you've got to get out the way of your teams. You've got to let them experiment, let them learn, and then share their knowledge as opposed to everything coming from the top down. It very much is a shift in terms of from being a top-down leadership to a bottom-up leadership.

Josiah Renaudin: Now executives, of course, they're more accustomed to being in charge. Do you have any advice for them as they move into a more passive role in the agile framework? How can they comfortably step back and trust their employees to get the job done?

Steve Davi: It's a matter of trust. A lot of people say that phrase and use that phrase, but basically they need to trust the teams to do what's right. Well, how do they verify that and how do they set it up so the teams do what's right?

I think for them to set it up, where the teams do the things that are right from the beginning, they need to make sure they've got alignment across the teams. Instead of explaining how we need to get something done, they need to explain the problem and why. They need to basically set the direction, "We need to cross the river," not "We need to build a bridge," because the team might find that the best way of crossing the river might not be building a bridge. It might be building a really cool boat.

They need to just make sure they create that alignment that enables this autonomy within the organization. Then from there, there's ways in which they can just monitor teams, and make sure they're making progress and going the right direction.

Define the KPIs for the teams. Attend the demos on a regular basis. Get the customers and the stake holders involved with what's going on. They just basically need to set up this environment with high autonomy and high alignment, so that they get this collaborate culture and they'll find the organization becomes innovative after that.

Josiah Renaudin: What do you see as the most critical action that a executive can do after they step out of the leadership role? They're leaving the rest of their team to lead the agile project. What can the executive do that's the most important to support that agile transition?

Steve Davi: They key is to realize that they're not stepping out of a leadership position, they're just leading at a different level. They're letting the teams lead at the level in terms of execution, but the executives then are leading at the level of “define the vision, define the boundaries and constraints for the teams.” Giving them support, removing impediments, making sure they've got a culture of openness and trust, then holding the teams accountable for executing on it.

It's not a matter of them not leading, it's just a matter of them leading at a level that really empowers the teams.

Josiah Renaudin: We just talked about what a boss can do to still lead but take a different role. What can the people working below the executives do to push their boss into a move passive agile role, or at least a different agile roll?

Steve Davi: They key is, I think, not having them be passive because you really want them engaged, but you want them engaged in the right way. You want to catch them when they're redirecting the team, or when they're interrupting the sprints.

Telling them that's bad behavior, you don't want to do that. You do want them running demos, helping product owners understand the market and the competition, engaging and energizing the people that are working on this stuff. Removing constraints, pushing for constant improvement … just different ways to ensure that the teams are really executing on what they need to.

I find that the best way to get executives to move in that direction is through data. Whether you want to call it the trendy terms of evidence based management, or lean thinking or whether you want to call it science; basically you just need to make sure that you show the executives data on why we need to change. Why this direction is moving, or why the teams are being productive in terms of how they're working and just really help them understand that things are getting better, or operating the way that they want it to.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. Now more than anything, what message do you want your audience in Orlando to walk away with?

Steve Davi: Two main things. Agile isn't just about software development, it touches on every group in the organization whether it's product management, sales, HR, operations, whatever. That might mean a shift in culture for the company. Agile isn't just about sprinting, it isn't just about going through what people typically view in terms of scrum with the various sprints. There's other work that needs to be done and a lot of that work needs to be done at the executive level to make those teams successful.

Josiah Renaudin: Well I really do appreciate your time, Steve. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you have to say about executives and agile.

Steve Davi: Excellent. Thank you very much.

Steve DaviSVP of engineering Steve Davi is responsible for overall software product development as Synacor continues to innovate and launch new products. Prior to Synacor, Steve served as CTO for SeaChange International, responsible for its overall software technology architecture and software engineering teams. Passionate about agile software development, he helped move the entire SeaChange software engineering organization to agile and now applies his efforts at Synacor. Steve is focusing on the impact of management in agile at all levels of the organization—from frontline management (energize people) to portfolio level (shape business strategy/epics) to decision making (instill evidence-based management).

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