A conversation with Dr. Barton Friedland, Principal Advisory Consultant at ThoughtWorks, about agile organizations and leadership, and the challenges and opportunities that come along with it.
Nino: How would you explain agility in 1-2 sentences to someone who has no idea and no contact with agility?
Barton: My answer would be that agility is about leveraging feedback loops, and taking into account information that we might not normally pay attention to, so that at the end of those feedback loops, we can reflect and hopefully gain some insights about how we might change our behaviour, how we might try something different, how we might then measurably improve the outputs and outcomes of our work.
When did you first get in touch with agility?
I lived in San Francisco, in the early 2000s. And I first came across the concept of agile or agility shortly after the Agile Manifesto was signed. A colleague of mine was the Vice- President of delivery at the gap — Pat Reed — and she was bringing agile to the gap. At that time, there were no courses in agile or agility. There were some books that preceded the Agile Manifesto, like Kent Beck's Extreme Programming, or Poppendieck's book on applying lean principles to software development, but agile as a buzzword didn't exist yet. So at that time, I came into contact with it through human beings who were actually practising the idea and, and showed me what they meant by agility.
I think it's also important to take into account that the people who signed the Agile Manifesto came from very different methodological approaches and perspectives. As far as I understand, the Agile Manifesto was never meant to sbe prescriptive, but rather is the distillation of what the people who signed it felt they had in common.
As an archetypal activity, the Manifesto still stands today as something we can do with with our stakeholders to look at what do we have in common in order to identify the steps we should be taking to go forward.
How is organizational agility measured?
I can only give you my opinion here. I think that one place to start looking is the cadence of processes. If, for example, you are releasing software every six months, perhaps you could release it every three months. If, for example, your budgeting process is annual and wrapped up with strategy, perhaps you could do it quarterly.
I think the idea underlying agile is that as the context or the environment changes, we want our processes to keep up. And therefore we may need to run some processes in a more lightweight and a faster cadence than we are used to. So I think that might be one of the ways to measure agility.
I think you can also look at actual outcomes that are satisfying customer needs. It could certainly be that you're able to satisfy customer needs without putting any Agile processes into place. But if someone does that sustainably I'd be very interested to hear about it!
Is agility a leadership competency?
I think the underlying mindset that enables agility — what Carol Dweck calls adaptive mindset, or learning mindset — is very much a leadership competency. And in fact, Pat Reed, who I mentioned earlier, along with Agile signatory Jim Highsmith established in the mid 2000s a course at Berkeley University in California, specifically on this topic, agile leadership, exploring how we apply Agile principles to leadership which still runs to this day.
We also see in the leadership literature as well that, from the beginning of the 20th century, when conceptions of leadership were very much so-called "Great man" theories that there has been an evolution in the way we think about leadership.
We've seen a lot of new forms of leadership emerge through research in the last century, such as "empathetic" leadership or "empowering" leadership, or "servant" leadership. And I think all of these conceptions speak to an acknowledgement that leadership is not just about telling people what to do, or giving commands or controlling things, but also about how one might support a team so that they can become a high-performing team, a team that's able to deliver breakthrough results.
I think there's a lot there, and many other authors have had much more to say on this topic. I'd recommend Jim Highsmith's book on Adaptive Ladership.
What causes agile to fail?
That's an interesting question. I don't think agile fails. I think what happens is agile mindsets are sometimes displaced by other mindsets, and we are all human.
For example, I don't experience myself as always being agile, I think sometimes I fall back to patterns and behaviour of trying to protect myself or responding in a defensive manner. When the underlying mindset of empowering people and really looking for new forms of information actively and applying feedback loops and feedback itself, as an active process, become dormant it's very easy for our habits of behaviour to take over the environment.
It's important to realize that improving our environment, adapting our environment takes work, and it's never done. In summary, I don't think that agile does fail - it always waits for us to come back to it and continue the work that needs to be done to improve the environment we live in.
What is the required mindset in an organization in order to be agile?
I think I've covered that to some degree. I think the best explanation of that is Carol Dweck's work on adaptive mindset which reminds us that we need to be open to change. We see this kind of notion of adaptive versus fixed mindset in other formulations by the way, like Douglas McGregor and his work from MIT in the 1950s and 60s, the so-called Theory X and Theory Y views of management, which represent the assumptions that different kinds of managers bring with them. I think that Theory X and Theory Y could also be said to be an early form of the mindset equation.
Here, Theory Y would be more the Agile view, where Theory X takes a more defensive posture. It's not that one is better than the other - I think, again, we're all human. And it's not about adopting the so-called perfect mindset and having a perfect world.
I think challenge and alignment and ongoing learning are part of the course of living our lives - and we have a choice of how we approach those changes. Agile speaks more to "how do we adapt actively proactively" to those changes?
What has changed in the area of agility in recent years?
Well, there's always change and I could pick lots of things because Agile has been around since around 2000. I could talk about many of the innovations that ThoughtWorks has brought to the market in terms of inventing continuous delivery, or the invention of microservices, both of which were inspired and driven by a dogged commitment to Agile Principles and a focus on solving client problems.
I would also say that another aspect that has changed more generally is the commercialisation of the idea of agile - that one can take agile courses, get agile certifications as if there is a single body on such matters.
I think going back to what I said earlier about the purpose of the Agile Manifesto. It is not to prescribe methodologies, but rather to capture what was common about a range of varying approaches.
I think because of the commercialisation of agile, it's also raised the question for many people about whether or not agile is truly effective, because of course, with different versions of agile, competing for being the "real" Agile, it becomes a little bit more difficult for people to identify whether the thing that they're doing called Agile is actually working or not. But I think that's normal in the evolution of a concept.
Jim Highsmith, who was one of the original signatories has shared with me his view that maybe we need to come up with a different name, or it needs to be reborn in a different way. We'll see.
Can you summarize one of your major take-aways so far with regards to common challenges organizations face when they are in a change management process?
The biggest takeaway is that whatever change management process we are in, it's a change process that will continue to change always continues. And this is really one of the strengths of agile approaches, the idea that we build habits and practices into our work into our everyday so that they become business-as-usual or BAU. In this way, change management is something that we can begin to do more and more naturally.
Some organisations may need to set up formal change management programmes to put in place an initial set of changes. But we very much encourage the idea that once you are on your journey, to begin to normalise these change management behaviours and make them part of our everyday life so that we can 1) make better decisions and these can be 2) more distributed across the organisation and 3) we empower teams to be more proactive about the changes hey see coming before them and 4) give them the tools to experiment and measure in ways that reduce the risk of those changes - essentially building the maturity of the organization and its capabilities.
About Barton Friedland:
As a digital pioneer at both Apple and NeXT Computer, Barton has worked with and implemented leading-edge technologies for over 30 years. He is currently a Principal Advisory Consultant at Thoughtworks based in Berlin, Germany where he engages at a strategic level with senior leadership to support a deeper understanding of how to transform their organisations by taking better advantage of the benefits technology brings.