Olivia Britz, Head of Client Engagement at X4 Group, recently caught up with Giles Lindsay, CEO at Agile Delta Consulting, as part of the first of our interview series with prominent industry leaders. The series looks at touching upon key challenges facing the technology function right now.
The role of ‘technology leader’ has never been so intensely thrown into the limelight as much as it has during Covid-19. I recently spoke with Giles Lindsay, former CTO and now CEO at Agile Delta Consulting, to try and demystify ‘agile’, and get his steer on the challenges that businesses face in being agile rather than doing agile.
Giles has over 25 years’ experience as a software engineer, technology leader and agile expert. He is currently a Fellow with the BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT) and a Fellow with the Institute of Analysts and Programmers. He is a long term Agilist and Enterprise Agile Coach. He is also a member of the Advisory Council of the PMI Disciplined Agile Consortium.
Below we cover things like psychological safety, removing friction and pitfalls of leadership when it comes to agile.
What lessons have technology leaders learnt during the last few months of Covid-19?
What we have been experiencing is wholly unprecedented. Technology leaders will have been able to transition their teams to our ‘new norms’ and ways of working much quicker than a lot of other departments, since the majority of them will have already been very familiar with the working from home model. So actually, I think one big learning has absolutely been to be more mindful of the stresses, strains and mental health issues that may be exacerbated by not being part of a ‘physical community.’
Having said that, with the use of technology, we are now able to see our colleagues and peers in the comfort of their homes, with their dogs and children running around. Our private life and work life have come together. Those two worlds have merged to present us with a new ‘physical reality’.
What advice would you give a CTO right now whilst they grapple our new normal?
Any good CTO will be wearing a commercial hat now as well as their technology hat.
Most boards will be looking to their tech leaders and asking ‘How will we operate?’ ‘How do we quickly migrate?’ and ‘How do we move to AWS and Azure?’ A good tech leader needs to provide opportunities to solve those particular outcomes.
In terms of delivering the outcomes to customers, they need to be thinking ‘How smart can we be with the technology that we were using and does that actually need to change moving forward?’ Not only that, but should you decide to make changes and businesses go back into a collaborative workspace – what will happen then? What’s that going to be like – will we need to disable new capabilities?
We have seen many transformations that would have taken perhaps years, happen practically overnight. What impact will that have on the future expectations we place on technology functions?
There has been a lot of pressure on the technology teams and departments to rapidly make changes to outcomes and solutions so that they can stay commercially afloat during this lock down.
However, I don’t see that the tech function is somehow going to be called upon to do something radically different. For things to change, organisational agility and design will have to change.
Some of the agility may need to be faster, particularly if it is very competitive. But I don’t see it going off operating on its own. If anything the entire organisation needs to do that if it needs to shift to meet any new outcomes.
Many businesses are familiar with the benefits of the agile mindset but for those who are yet to fully embrace it, why should they look at being more agile?
A lot of businesses are scared of change thinking it needs to be a revolution rather than an evolution and don’t understand the amount of time and money wasted caused by a lack of agility. They don’t understand what an agile outcome will deliver them, often through no fault of their own as they haven’t had the coaching or support to help them through the mindset shift. They also, mistakenly, believe that agile is only for software development teams and so often the rest of the business is at odds with the way the tech function is performing, and this creates organisational friction.
What is the biggest obstacle facing businesses who seek an agile way of working?
The biggest challenge is of agile leadership – it has to start at the top. Certainly the C-suites and then leaders of particular remits need to be making those shifts. You could certainly look to bring in the expertise of an Enterprise Agile Coach but the leaders in the business would need to be thinking about identifying what the new philosophies, values and norms will be in this future state.
I have worked within businesses where there are those bureaucratic leaders who don’t want change and don’t want to evolve change, and that presents a lot of challenges. There are of course a lot of people who are very receptive or open to change and want to do anything that they can to make their business a success.
The other thing that stands in the way, is that many organisations don’t fully comprehend what agile actually means for them. A lot of businesses aspire to be agile and end up ‘doing’ agile and not ‘being’ agile, a lot of them label themselves as agile but simply do not embody the mindset.
What is an agile mindset?
There are a set of attitudes that support a truly agile environment. Things like respect, collaboration, improvement, learning cycles, pride and ownership, delivering value, ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary for everyone in the business, especially the leadership teams. The teams will deliver the outcomes, agile is about embracing the mindset it’s not about an agile structure – it’s not about following a system or a process.
How does a business introduce an agile mindset?
Firstly a business can only do this, once it is in a position of understanding the need for change and appreciating that they are in a continual evolution to operate smarter. From there it’s about trying to remove silos and to try and figure out how we can remove that friction.
Another important factor is to integrate systemic coaching across the whole business. You would need to go through all layers of the business and talk about the mindset shift and the philosophy that we want to operate under, remembering to share the why. Making sure to share learnings from other organisations to back up your direction. Having a sense of direction and identifying the future state will enable organisations make the decisions about how the ways of working is going to look like.
Lastly, you need to look for internal champions and continuously get feedback as you will be working in short iterations. You then change the model until you have something right for that business capability.
How do you interview for that mindset?
I’m not so sure you do. But a good indicator is the ability to digress honestly about past mistakes and failures just as much as successes. Without this honesty it is easy to spot who is pulling the wool over your eyes.
How can a business monitor the efficacy of how well they are doing with new processes?
Not a fan of metrics really but if you want to know how successful it is you should speak to your customer – they will tell you everything you need to know.
From inside the business, the real way of knowing is to identify the level of psychological safety. Also, how well does the business believe it is operating?
What does an agile culture look like to you?
An agile culture is one where employees can operate freely in an environment of trust and psychological safety. They don’t fear failure. Culture isn’t something you necessarily can create as it’s typically a side-effect of two fundamental parts coming together. The first part is your leadership and the second comes down to your ways of working. Together that generates a certain culture.
Can a business be agile or make change without the right leadership?
If the leadership team isn’t right then the whole business isn’t right. With the popularity of agile there is always that pressure to make sure you have the right leaders. I have worked with some great mentors and leaders, and I have worked with those that think they know better when they don’t.
Leaders have to identify whether they are the ones that need to change. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work when middle management try and take the reins, which they often do. Those businesses that have a risk averse culture, beurocratic layers and traditional mindsets will struggle. I remember one woman approaching me during one of my stints as an agile coach and exclaiming ‘Now I know I am a blocker – and I know I need to change.’ Senior Managers often wrongly over focus on others, rather than themselves and as such the organisation is ultimately a reflection of them. Unless leaders do their own development, they are unlikely to create any positive business transformation.
When can you put your flag in the ground and say that you’re truly being agile?
How do I know when a business is truly agile? When there’s no friction across the state of the organisation and when agile ways of working permeate across all departments in an organisation.
Looking back over your career, who stood out for you as a technology leader?
For me, CTO Brian Proffitt, stood out as someone who allowed me to be myself. He allowed me to be that servant leader and to become accountable for the function that I was ultimately responsible for. He always set me up to be the best I can be.