The Path to Organizational Agility: An Interview with Ahmed Sidky


Ahmed Sidky explains that by looking at agile as a culture or way of life and not just a series of practices, organizations of any size can experience the benefits of agile company-wide. Learn how, by adopting some keystone habits, you can start "living the agile mindset."

Noel: Hello! This is Noel Wurst from TechWell and I am speaking today with Ahmed Sidky, who is going to be speaking at the Better Software/Agile Development Conference East in Boston, Massachusetts on Tuesday, November 12th. His session is called "Keystone Habits of Organizational Agility." How are you doing this morning, Ahmed?

Ahmed: Good. How're you doing?

Noel: Doing great. Doing just fine. I'm always really curious to learn our speakers and anybody who I interview's definitions of agile and things like that that can be interpreted so many different ways. So, when I saw “organizational agility,” I was curious as to how you define that, and how that could be best described.

Ahmed: Sure. Let me start with, to build on my definition of organizational agility, I think it's important to define agile real quickly. Basically, a lot of people look at agile as a process, a methodology, whatnot. I define agile as ... It's a mindset that is based on the idea of learning and discovering, and that mindset in the software world, because you can apply that mindset in many different domains, but in the software world it is defined through four values which are from the manifesto grounded in twelve principles, which are again from the manifesto, and then the key is they're manifested in many, many, many different practices.

So agile is a mindset; therefore, for me, organizational agility or enterprise agility is really a culture based on the values and principles of agile and then supported by the organizational ecosystem. Just like it's grounded in principles, agile, this is really grounded in the organizational ecosystem, which is the leadership, the strategy, the structure, the processes, and the people of an organization, and then manifested through the personal and organizational habits which is how work really gets done around the company. And if all of that is in line with the readiness of an organization to respond to constant change; therefore, an organization is agile or there's organizational agility.

Noel: That does not sound easy, but nobody's ever said that agile was easy. I was kind of curious, is there a right time for an organization to take this on or is it, are the benefits so great that it's worth the efforts, you should start as early as you can because in the long run the longer you're organizationally agile the better?

Ahmed: I think there's two parts to that question. What is the right time to start your journey to organizational agility, and honestly I couldn't find a better time than now, or yesterday, because where the industry is going it's an unprecedented rate of change that we are all experiencing. Competition is global. The need for innovation is constant and not just innovation of products, but innovation of how we get things done because we're faced with new challenges everyday. So an organization that is not aspiring towards agility is going to be a stagnant, irrelevant organization in a matter of years.

The other thing around that piece is because the amount of technology is increasing in astronomical numbers and proportions to what we're used to, we are quickly moving from an industrial age to a knowledge age and while an industrial age agility isn't really what's needed but more stability, predictability, reliability. In a knowledge age where there's constant change and uncertainty, agility is what's needed. If an organization doesn't have those factors of technology, uncertainty, competition, and change, then, yeah, maybe agility isn't for them, but if any organization has those factors then organizational agility is ... It's not even a “nice to have” from my point of view, it's a “must have” because they're in the knowledge workspace, but they're not working as knowledge workers.

The other part of the questions is, what are the preconditions or are we ready for that journey to agility? It's like when I first had my first baby. You're never ready, but it's something that you've got to do. You've got to step into that role of being a father or a mother and it's a journey. It's part of that assembly line mentality, that old mentality, is I've got to prepare before I get started and that's actually part of what we're trying to resolve with the new agile mindset and organizational agility is you'll never be ready, but it's how to navigate those constraints and achieve them as values as quickly as you can. That's what agility is about so I encourage people to start the journey to agility and it's going to be a continuous journey. There is no end state.

Noel: That's really great. I've never heard anyone make the connection as far as raising a child to becoming agile, but it's true. I have two of my own and I didn't think we were ready and I'm pretty proud of the job that I've done. I was so not ready, yet they're doing just fine. We're doing great.

Ahmed: Yeah, and it's a continuous journey. It doesn't stop. People tell me when are we done? It's agility. It's continuous improvement. What does done mean?

Noel: True. For those who have started making this transition, I know that this is something that comes up all the time, is that everyone is so focused on the process of the work at hand and the tasks and all that kind of stuff, but they sometimes fail to acknowledge the culture. Whether it's acknowledging the need for it or assuming that their culture is fine or that culture that I saw at this company, that's not how we do it here or that kind of thing. Why does culture, even though once it's paid attention to, always make such a huge impact? Why does it continue to get overlooked on the road to agility or even in any situation in the workplace?

Ahmed: That's a great question and really it's grounded in what I wanted to start with, which is the definition of agile. If people view agile as a process, a methodology, a framework, then a transition to agile simply implies a change of process, methodology or framework. If people understand agile as a mindset, as a culture, then the transition to agile is a change of mindset and culture. It's grounded in where we see agile, and unfortunately, like I said, most people have equated agile to scrum. Scrum is a methodology. It is a process. It has roles and responsibilities and artifacts and so if you equate agile to Scrum and Scrum is a process, then the rollout of scrum is a rollout of a process. Pretty simple. But if you understand agile as the fundamental mindset, values and principles, and then Scrum is a process that manifests these agile mindset, values and principles then you're taking a very different look at things and you understand that agility changes not just from one organization to another, but constantly within the organization. That's the whole point of agility.

It's ironic that people say, "You need to be flexible, but you've got to do it this way." That's why I think most people have failed to recognize not just the value of culture, but even those who recognize the value of culture, we then move into another challenge which is how do we change culture? That's what we're going to be talking about in the session in Boston, but really we are, most of us are IT people, most of us are engineers. Transformations in the IT space; we're a rollout of processes and ERP systems and all that kind of stuff. We have never been responsible for cultural change, and yet for the first time in history the IT organization is leading what is supposed to be a culture transformation. We don't know how to do it. We are using the wrong tools and the rest of the organization isn't seeing it as a cultural change. It is seeing it as, “OK we're going to play along with your process change. Tell us what we need to do,” and that's the big difference.

Noel: You mentioned, you brought up tools, and then I noticed that in your abstract for your session that one of the keystone habits that I guess your going to talk about is “rewarding collaboration.” Is that collaboration being rewarding, I don't mean that it’s replacing a tool, but is collaboration almost acting as a tool for this culture change that you're discussing?

Ahmed: There's many relationships going on here in a cultural change, and again, just because of the time of this interview, but that's literally what we're going to dive into which is, what are the dimensions that we need to be aware of and take care of and what to change to change a culture? And, part of that is how behaviors are rewarded and what's rewarded, because that drives habits and behaviors, so let's take a look here. A lot of organizations are rolling out scrum, right? So they have a process that is collaborative, but they don't have structures, roles, and responsibilities that promote that collaboration. I hear constant challenges of teams saying, "We don't have buy-in for a product owner to be really committed to us." Then you don't have the structure that needs to be aligned with that process change, right? You don't have the strategy which is part of how things are rewarded that rewards for that collaboration. You still have competition being the main factor of reward within the organization. How do you expect that agility to be sustainable? And that's the key thing that we'll focus about is sustainable agility, because guess what? If it's not sustainable, you haven't transformed.

The word transformation means you have changed the state into another state and you cannot go back to the first state. People that tell me, "We've been through an agile transformation two years back but we slipped back." You didn't go through an agile transformation. You tried to change the process and the culture was stronger enough that it pulled you right back. The analogy I give, and I don't want to take too much time, but the analogy I give is it's creating strawberry jam. You don't create strawberry jam by just adding more strawberries in a bowl. You don't create an agile organization by just launching agile teams. There's a culture shift. There's a true transformation. There is heat that's needed to change the form, change the culture of the organization so that it can support because all you have, what I've seen in many organizations are agile teams inside of a non-agile organization.

Noel: Right. That leads right to my last question here was just once you have these agile teams, the agile department and that kind of thing, and they do want to expand it to the organization, what are some of the ways besides just showing, "Hey, look how agile we are. Look how happy we all are now at work."? What are some ways that those teams that have managed to get it right can kind of either convince doubters or even just help it spread faster than hoping everyone else catches on?

Ahmed: Modeling the desired behavior, and notice the words. We're not talking about demonstrating the practices. I'm talking about ... see and that's the difference here. A lot of the training, and when people talk about agile we talk about these milestone events, talk about retrospectives, we talk about writing user stories or our user theory workshop, we talk about chartering, but what happens in between? What happens in between is really the manifestation of the mindset and the behaviors of the people. What happens between the iteration planning session and the demo, or the daily stand-up? What happens in the day-to-day life how people think and react and behave? That's the best attractor to agile because suddenly people will see people being agile not doing agile. And, people are sick and tired of new processes because they are simply the flavor of the month and we know that there's a new flavor of the month cooked up. But really, the power is, the breath of fresh air is, to see a cultural shift and to see people truly start to change the way they think about work and the way they behave, and the way they collaborate.

And that, from my point of view, has been the big aha moment for people to come and say I want to be like that; not the iterations, not the daily stand-ups, but the culture, the behavioral, the habits. And those habits ... part of my presentation or workshop and tutorial there will be based on the work of the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The power of habit is that it's automatic. You don't think about it. Every person and every organization has developed personal and organizational habits. They know what they need to do in order to succeed. When we start to change those, that's really when agile becomes sustainable and spreads through the company.

Noel: That sounds awesome. That was great. I've never thought ... again, that so many sessions are based on improving your retrospectives, improving the work in each iteration, how to make stand-up meetings more fun and all that kind of stuff, and it's ...

Ahmed: We're done with that. It's the in between, it's the 90 percent of the other work that we're not talking about.

Noel: That's cool! That sounds like an awesome session. Everyone listening, again, this is Ahmed Sidky. He's going to be speaking Tuesday, November 12th, at the Better Software/Agile Development Conference East in Boston, Massachusetts, and his session is titled "Keystone Habits of Organizational Agility." Sounds like a fantastic session. Thanks so much for speaking to us today.

Ahmed: Thank you.


Ahmed Sidky, aka Dr. Agile, combines more than fifteen years of software development experience with research from his Ph.D. in agile transformation and agility assessment to guide enterprise agile transformations in Fortune 100 companies. Ahmed helps small to medium companies worldwide realize sustainable organizational agility and educates people—CEOs to developers—on the agile mindset and creating lean high-performing teams. The principal consultant at SCG Inc. and co-author of Becoming Agile in an Imperfect World, Ahmed consults, teaches, and writes. He co-founded the International Consortium for Agile, sat on the steering committee for the creation of the PMI-ACP® certification, and is a frequent speaker at agile conferences worldwide.

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