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


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?

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