The Organization Must Change Before Going Agile: An Interview with John Holmes and David Nielson


In this interview John Holmes and David Nielson talk about their upcoming presentation, what it takes for your organization to really go agile (and to stick with it), the role of technology in organizational changes, and the importance of marrying your agile and Scrum with change management.

John Holmes and David Nielson will be presenting a presentation titled "The Organization Must Change Before Going Agile" at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, which will take place June 1–6, 2014.


About "The Organization Must Change Before Going Agile":

Agile and Scrum have been wildly successful in many organizations, yet we still see significant failures within those same organizations when attempting to introduce agile to new teams. Some organizations never realize the benefits and improvements that agile offers. When beginning a physical exercise program, we are directed to consult our physician before beginning new physical activity. So, before you attempt your migration from traditional methods to agile and Scrum, you should evaluate your organization for its willingness and ability to adapt to the inevitable organizational changes. Otherwise, your agile deployment may be impossible from the outset. John Holmes and David Nielsen assist those who are embarking on a new transition or those who want to understand why their current deployment is not going as planned. To increase your ability to transition to agile, John and David share a streamlined, reliable, and successful implementation framework that is practical, repeatable, and behavior-based.


Cameron Philipp-Edmonds: Today we have John Holmes and David Nielson and they'll be speaking at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, which is June 1 through June 6. They will be giving a presentation titled, "The Organization Must Change Before Going Agile."

To give a little background, John Holmes is the lead trainer and agile/Scrum coach for a large commercial defense aerospace company that has successfully adopted the principles and practices of agile and Scrum globally. As a certified ScrumMaster, product owner and skilled agile framework consultant, John has taught more than 4000 colleagues a tailored lean-agile curriculum and has worked as a lean-agile consultant, coach, and advisor.

David Nielson brings more than three decades of corporate Fortune 500 private consulting experience and organizational change management, leadership development, and training. David has helped guide large scale change initiatives and business strategy driven by ERP, mergers, restructuring, and the need for cultural change. He has been a frequent speaker at PMI, Project World, Chief Executive Network, and Management Resources Association.

Did we catch everything guys?

John Holmes: Sounds good.

David Nielson: Yes.

Cameron: Since you guys are doing a session titled "The Organization Must Change Before Going Agile" which covers the possible roadblocks of agile and readying yourself and your company for an agile transition, I'd like to ask some related questions. First question is what are some common reasons for the transition to agile and Scrum to fail?

David Nielson: John, I'll let you take that one.

John Holmes: I wouldn't say its necessarily common reasons; it's very similar to what are the reasons that people want to do agile in the first place. It really depends on the organization; it depends on what their goals are. Some of the prevalent reasons that are out there, sometimes lack of support from executive levels or management levels.

Sometimes we don't really sell the team on the need to do agile. I had a recent group that we were working with for 6 months. We went it to do some agile triage, and their feedback to us was "no one really ever told us why we were doing this," and the reason that they were doing it was to fend off re-compete or competition from other software and sustainment vendors. There are a number of reasons that it occurs.

The most powerful way to prevent it is to actually have some type of change management protocol or methodology that you go into ahead of time to review the organization and see if they are ready to go. It's very similar to before you start an exercise regimen, consult your physician. Sometimes having some inside knowledge about the organization can really fend off some of these reasons that we failed to deploy agile properly.

Cameron: Is there anything specific when a company takes a step back to reflect on its health and its ability to take on agile that they should be looking for?

John Holmes: Part of it would be the similarities. In many cases we have small agile groups that are champions at a grass roots level. You might have one or two teams that do it very well. The organization starts to take notice. We start to go to agile at scale or larger scale level having multiple teams but they don't get the same support. They don't get the same training, they don't have the same champions, they don't have the same type of coaching that goes along with that. They fail to realize that in many cases these teams were doing, as I like to say, agile things, as they were maturing, before they started to show some of the great productivity that led to other teams being forced is some cases to adopt it.

Cameron: You talked about the ability to get coaching and whatnot. A lot of times companies will look for some certifications or seminars or something to get a better knowledge or understanding of Scrum. If a smaller company has limited resources, where should a company look to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of Scrum?

John Holmes: In my case, I started off, after doing Scrum and agile for three years, I finally went and got my certification. Then I was empowered by my organization, also the university that I worked for, to be part of the agile community, so I was the spokesperson who went out to gain the knowledge and then transfer that knowledge back to other teams.

We had internal coaching seminars; we had internal training seminars. Everything we did we could do in-house because the fact that in many cases the barrier to sending everybody to a training session, the cost of that was too great for a small organization. Even for a large organization, a lot of these certification courses are $1,400-$1,500 plus travel so what we did was basically create our own internal coaching and training resources so that we had a small finite group of people that could be called on at any time to go and help these teams.

Cameron: Sometimes with agile, people don't really like documentation as much because it slows the process down, but other people are huge advocates of documentation so that they learn from their steps and of course that leads you to the idea of learning from books and having a mentor, you think that will also help smaller companies with limited resources?

John Holmes: Yeah, I believe so. There seems to be this false notion that the documentation in agile is not as important. I found that to be the opposite. The fact that many times we do more documentation through the sharing of information of what works well for teams on the East coast and send that back to our teams on the West coast to keep very good logs of our retrospectives so that we can look at different types of trends and decide on the type of training or outside expertise such as what David provides, to come in and say, hey, sometimes we need a fresh set of eyes.

David told me years ago sometimes it’s hard to be a prophet in your own land, so we invoke and use outside resources to get a different view on it sometimes. Sometimes you have to take a step back.

Cameron: In your opinion, and David I'd like to hear from you too on this. Is it hard to start introducing agile or to stick with Agile practices once you've had them implemented?

David Nielson: I think those are fairly interconnected notions. In other words, from an implementation perspective, if you start out properly with the right framework and laying the right groundwork, the ideal situation is that if you are fully committed to any change, in this case agile and Scrum, your implementation methodology and approach should have as one of its core objectives, sustainability.

The return on investment for implementing any organizational change comes from the ability of the organization not only to implement it on time and within budget but to create it in a way that is sustainable. The challenge that we have in a lot of organizations is that the culture, while it's subtle, it's a very powerful force. Usually in many instances, it's a force against change, so whether you're looking at agile and Scrum, or Lean Six Sigma, or the integration of merged companies, culture eats change for breakfast.

The challenge that we have is how do we first of all, establish clear business case for what the change is? In this case, what're the really solid business cases, and John alluded to this, for why we want agile and Scrum to be a part of how we do business.

Secondly, we need to assess the organization to find out what are the barriers up front that we can identify and then manage, and all of that relates to then building the right culture so that if you are implementing agile and Scrum, you are implementing it into a culture that will sustain the change that you’ve invested in.

At the end of the day, this becomes a very financial equation, that is, that you are investing a lot to change the way people do things. The return on investment is that, a year later, two years later, those changes are still in place. People they may be evolving, but people are using skill sets they've learned and the organization is realizing the benefits.

Cameron: And David, this leads me to a follow-up question. You have more than three decades of managing organizational changes and leadership development and training. In those three decades, technology has come a really long way. There's no right or wrong answer to this question, but do you think that technology has helped or hindered the ability for organizational changes to not only be implemented but for them to stay in process.

David Nielson: I think the simple answer is that it helped because there has been over my career, in some organizations, the fascination with technology that wasn't supported by value, and what I mean by that is in certain cases, organizations may have been very enamored of the latest, greatest thing. I call it the bright shiny object syndrome. There's something new out there; it looks hot, it looks sexy, but if it’s not well researched in terms of the understanding of how it actually provides value to the bottom line of the business, then implementing the latest, greatest is not always the best idea.

I think in general technology has been a wonderful tool, but one of my favorite expressions, whether it's hardware, software, new process design, whatever. Any tool can be effective, but a fool with a tool is still a fool. It's not necessarily the tool and its capabilities, it's the application of the tool, so we're back to what are the right behaviors in utilizing technology, what is the culture we're trying to build, so again, I would say technology has definitely helped with the efficiency of an awful lot of organizations and businesses, but the challenge still is how do you get it implemented in a sustainable way.

Cameron: Great answer. John, as a trainer and Scrum coach, you have taught thousands of people a lean-agile curriculum. Are there specific traits or attributes that some people have that make them more susceptible to being successful to agile methods and learning and understanding Scrum?

John Holmes: Yeah, I think it really comes down to having an open mind. When you talk about agile, there are some bad definitions of agile, and there are people that I've worked with and trained that came in to the course and said we've done agile in a different area and it just didn't work very well, and as they go through the training they start realizing we did agile "things", but we really didn't do agile. We didn't stick to the daily stand-up. We didn't do retrospectives. Our planning sessions were not as you're teaching us.

I think if people have an open mind to maybe even re-learning the same thing that they've learned in the past but in a different way that they can become more successful. One of the things that we've had to do in our industry is to tailor our agile processes to meet the demands of our different customers that are out there.

One of the very first things that I put on a graphic in my class, is that I have this great picture of somebody driving up a mountain road here in Colorado, and there's a white line, a yellow line and a white line, basically saying now keep the car between the white lines and you can over the yellow line and break the rules a little bit as long as it's within the intent of what we're trying to achieve with agile.

To just touch on the technology part of it, one of the things that we talk about in agile is face-to-face communication which isn't always possible, so I think when using technology, if we stay with a synchronous mode of communication and not just use things like e-mail and Sharepoint and Doors and other things out there that point people to things to have those discussions that teams are going to be more successful than those that try to run a program or run an agile organization just through e-mail and tools.

Cameron: Talk about tailoring the methods of learning to different people, to different companies to learn agile. Are there some teams and some people who are not really capable of learning agile, or can anyone and any team learn and use agile?

John Holmes: I would say that anybody can use it. Anybody can learn it. It's having the desire to do it, and the individual rationale for doing it. Some people are just opposed to change. Especially when you've worked for an organization for a long time, change can be fearful, but what I like to do, in some cases, and I just read it in a book, someone else used a term that I used called "stealth agile," where we're doing things we start off with a team using a methodology similar to David's that we say this team is not really ready for change.

We need to give them some small victories, so we'll start off with just having some daily stand-ups, just helpful types of sessions, doing a demonstration at the end of two weeks. We would call it show-and-tell to say here's what I accomplished. Starting to use the agile principles and practices but not naming it agile until a certain point and they're ready. We've found that to be effective as well.

Cameron: Now you guys are giving this great presentation at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West. Is there one thing or one main take-away you would like attendees of your presentation to take away from the conference, from your presentation?

David Nielson: As John and I work together John has clear expertise in agile and Scrum, and how to really make it work in a variety of processes and so forth. I'm a neophyte on understanding all the detailed intricacies of agile but I'm learning a lot very quickly. My expertise is, of course, how do you get it implemented in a sustainable way, and so, I think the partnership of what John and I are trying to create and what we want people to walk away with is that it's really important for you to have the skill sets and understand the technical and tactical elements of agile and Scrum.

To do so while ignoring some of the cultural aspects, some of the behavioral aspects of what it takes to succeed, can put your effort in peril. We want people to run away with the idea that it isn't change management or agile and Scrum. It's both and. It's focusing on solid change management practices and tactics to get the right behavior change at the right time and the right location to do it in a way that’s sustainable through solid sponsorship of the change, a compelling business case, and providing the training necessary to create adoption, combined with understanding the tactics and the structure of agile and Scrum.

John and I want people to walk away with the fact that there's a very logical way to marry these two disciplines. John, your thoughts?

John Holmes: When I first came into agile and Scrum, I heard of iteration zero, and I used to hate that because it sounded like it only happened once. We re-named it pre-planning and we can invoke pre-planning any time that we go, so, as you go into changing your culture and your environment into more of an agile and Scrum environment, you have to do some pre-planning, you have to do some evaluation of the people that you're working with. You might do it through surveys. You might do it through individual interviews. You might just get their opinion on agile and Scrum, but you definitely want to get them involved early, get their buy-in, get some working agreements, and then decide, have a plan to go forward.

Each one of these plans has to be tailored to the people who you're working with. Some are just ready to go. I had one program that was so ready to go, within 30 days after unleashing agile and allowing them to formally do it. They produced some numbers that were just unheard of and unseen, both in our company and to our customers.

We've had other teams that have taken 3, 4, 5, 6 months to get there. Each one has to be treated a little differently, and there needs to be on-going coaching, training, support in the review of the changed plan. How is it working? What should we do? It's not about just bringing in David or myself up front. It's about an on-going evaluation, an on-going survey of the team that says how are we doing and what do we need to do better?

Cameron: Is there anything else you guys would like to say to the delegates of Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014 before they attend the conference and before they attend your presentation?

David Nielson: I would just say we hope that as many people as possible can attend. We are going to have a great, exciting, dynamic session. It's very interactive. Both John and I are of the style that it's not nearly as interesting to just load people into a room and have someone talk at them. We want to get people involved; it's going to be very interactive. We're going to have fun with this, so we encourage everyone to be there and we look forward to seeing everybody.

John Holmes: David and I really want to, one of the things we talked about, way back when, when I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first two minutes of the movie were probably the most exciting two minutes I've ever seen in a movie, and that's what we're trying to do in this session, to get people excited about it, start talking about some of the issues, start talking about some of the problems, and have people leave with some potential solutions, based on what their needs are.

We are really going to be doing some agile-like things, using Post-It Notes and some surveys. The hardest part was to cram it in to less than a two-hour session, but we're looking forward to it. Las Vegas is an exciting place to be. This is my favorite conference out of all the conferences because of the people that come to this conference, so we're really looking forward to it.

Cameron: Thank you so much. Once again, this was John Holmes and David Nielson, and they will be speaking at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, and their presentation is titled "The Organization Must Change Before Going to Agile." Thank you so much, John and David.

John Holmes: Thank you.

David Nielson: Thank you.


John HolmesJohn Holmes is the lead trainer and agile/Scrum coach for a large commercial defense aerospace company that has successfully adopted the principles and practices of agile and Scrum globally. As a certified ScrumMaster, Product Owner, and Scaled Agile Framework Consultant, John has taught more than 4,000 colleagues a tailored lean-agile curriculum and has worked as a lean-agile consultant, coach, and adviser.



David NielsonDavid Nielson brings more than three decades of corporate, Fortune 500, and private consulting experience in organizational change management, leadership development, and training. David has helped guide large-scale change initiatives and business strategy driven by ERP, mergers, restructuring, and the need for cultural change. He has been a frequent speaker at PMI, Project World, Chief Executive Network, and Management Resources Association.



Podcast Music: "Han Solo" (Captain Stu) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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