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Peter Saddington on Agile Scout & Leveraging Human Capital
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Interview with Peter Saddington by Craig Smith on Feb 27, 2013 |
27:24

Bio Peter Saddington is an Organizational Consultant, Agile Coach and the voice behind the popular Agile Scout blog. He has 3 Masters degrees (Counseling, Education, Theology & Philosophy) and is the author of "The Agile Pocket Guide". He is the co-founder of research and analytics company Action & Influence which measures human dynamics within enterprise cultures. You can reach him at peter@myai.org.

The Agile Alliance organizes the Agile series conference, which bring together all the key people in the Agile space to talk about techniques and technologies, attitudes and policies, research and experience, and the management and development sides of agile software development.

   

1. Hi, this is Craig Smith, Agile editor at InfoQ and we’re here at Agile 2012 in Dallas, in Texas, and I am here with Peter Saddington. How are you doing, Peter?

Hey, how are you?

Craig: You bill yourself as an Agile coach and a consultant, and a Certified Scrum Trainer, but there is more to you than that, so tell us the story.

That’s kind of what comes behind the name, right? In reality I would say I really am a coach, I really love helping people, I love helping create high performing teams, high performing companies and that coach is a very broad term, you can say it’s consultant or trainer or what not, but really I think being part of a coach is walking with people, showing them how things can be done better, maybe a different reality, but invariably coaching them to excellence, so maybe it should be just Peter Saddington coach.

Craig: There you go. So, as a coach I assume over your time and you’ve been in this game for a few years now, I assume you’ve seen some really good Agile transformations.

Yes, I’ve had a couple of clients who’ve done it, I couldn’t say with my whole heart that it was a true, all the way 100% transformation, I think that’s really hard to get to, almost maybe theory, but I think what you can find are pockets of excellence within companies where they’re really moving the ball forward, iteratively, incrementally, and they are continuing to learn, kaizen of their teams and their business, I found a lot of success in that, but true transformation in a Fortune 50, Fortune 100 company, I haven’t been there yet.

   

2. Awesome. So, most people probably know you and how I came to know you is through Agile Scout, which is your blog. The interesting thing I read about that is that you kind of set it up, almost overnight, instrumental success, what’s the story behind the Scout, what made you start it, why do you think it was so successful?

Well I am a developer first, so as a developer I know the ins and outs of technology and how to leverage that to its best. What really Agile Scout was is a place for me to really explain myself and not only that but be a landing page for other great voices and talking about what else is going on in the Agile community. And InfoQ is a great place for that. This comes from a little bit more of a personal note, so I think it’s a little bit different from an InfoQ and a lot of it is my perspective, what I did was just say “hey, what are people interested about, what are my clients interested in, what are my peers, my compatriots, what are they interested about?” and start writing about it. People responded to it and people came and a lot of people ended up continuing to read it, it’s great, really great following.

   

3. You do a lot of work on that blog about top tools and top blogs and women in technology. What’s with the top thing?

Great question. There is actually some controversy around “the top”, because you immediately polarize another segment of people when you say “hey, these are the top people”, but I think the entire point is to create a list of voices that are influential within the community and so we created the top 100 Agile bloggers, top women in Agile, which I think is so important, I think it’s an underserviced area, my wife was really happy when I did that, being all about women power, totally cool, for me as a developer I want to know if a client is using a tool whether it’s valuable, so we created a top Agile Scrum tool list that I actually dive in with reviews, look up in the back end, the codes, sometimes I develop APIs for it, see if it actually works and then review them and say “hey, is this worth looking into, is this something that I would use?” and often many times they are something I would use, given the right circumstances.

Craig: I think that’s a really awesome part of your site, you do actually dig into the tools, it’s not just a press release, it’s actually someone whot understands the tool and actually gets in behind it, I assume that’s the developer background, right?

Absolutely.

   

4. Awesome. So, you’ve widened Agile Scout up now to be, more people writing now, is that right?

Yes, I got to the point where I find, like with any independent consultant, you can’t scale yourself. And so I wanted to start including other voices from areas which I am not that fluent in, like heavy Lean thinking type stuff or black belt master, Lean master, whatever or business analysis, things like that. So, I started opening it up to different voices and we got a lot of responses, I had to weed through some of the people, but we ended up, I think we have four or five contributors now to Agile Scout, it’s been really great. They’ve been able to add some really great values, some really good stuff to the website and people are responding to it, so it’s providing a lot of value, I hope.

Craig: Now, one of the other things if you go to the site you notice, that you’ve spun out, you’ve got something called the Scrum Pocket Guide, which has been around for a while, I assume that came from coaching experience.

Right. Yes, absolutely! So, the Scrum Pocket Guide was a manifestation of emails and blog posts that I would give to my clients, and I said “hey, every week, client, I am going to send you an email of better practices, just things we need to think about”. So, I got an editor, put all those things together and published the e-book. And that’s what the Scrum Pocket Guide became, it’s just an e-book of a conglomeration of ideas around the common theme of how we can pragmatically and easily move within the Scrum framework and apply it to a team or a company fairly quickly.

Craig: And I guess the success of that has shown, you’ve now got a deal with Wiley to produce an updated version of that?

That’s right. Wiley Publisher, they picked it up, they said this is a great idea, we love it, it’s easy in its practice, and it’s easy to consume and understandable, we just need you to rewrite it because your writing is terrible. So they bought the rights and I rewrote it and so we’re releasing it in October of this year, 2012.

   

5. Great, we’ll look forward to that coming out. So one of the other things I that guessed surprised me when I was digging through what you do is you’re involved with something called LeanSalt, I believe, and the LeanGiving Workshops. They sound like a really great initiative, what’s all that about?

Well, I believe, just like Agile Scout, I believe in giving back to the community and it’s not just some hokey, he wants to sound like, but if you read my work, if you follow Agile Scout and you see how I operate, you see that I really want to grow the community in practice and so part of that is giving my time. I am also a volunteer counselor, so I spend weekends a month at a local church counseling people and part of, with Agile is that it’s not always accessible, sometimes it’s expensive to go to these workshops and training and I wanted to help non-profits and I wanted to help smaller companies have access to the training that big companies can afford at a very low cost to almost cheap, nothing, and so for me that’s one way of me giving back at least local, not national, but local communities and local companies, “hey, here’s a day of my time, I’d love to teach you about this great iterative method or Agile or whatever the topic is, how can I help you guys for free?”

   

6. What’s the reaction to that, because obviously we’ve nailed the software development thing, not completely, but everybody kind of gets that, but I guess the next thing, Agile in the enterprise has now got its momentum, but it’s now moving Agile into other areas and stuff like your LeanSalt and you were mentioning even things on Agile Scout, Agile music, those type of things. How do you approach people like that and go “here’s this thing that’s born out of software development, give it a look”?

Well, the first example that I always give is an example from my home. I use Agile at home, with my kids, we have a wallboard, we have the backlog doing done, it helps us visually see progress, and that’s usually how I introduce it, is that no matter what you are doing, whether it’s software or services or product management or whatever, you can use a visual, you can visually be able to see your work, you can start looking at opportunities to improve incrementally over time, you can start learning from what you are doing, relearning, these are almost, they seem like novel, they seem like new ideas, but they are not, it’s just another way of saying “hey, how can we continuously improve?” and so that word kaizen, Japanese word meaning continuous improvement is really what it’s all about, so whether you do Agile art or Agile music or Agile event organizing, it can all be done in an Agile fashion in some semblance of it.

   

7. Have you seen any really good examples of people taking it to next level in other areas?

Yes. I’ve seen it taken into classrooms and the best example is a local school that I’m working with, it’s all pro bono, we’re setting up wallboards in all their elementary schools and we’re having the teachers understand how to have conversations with the students on what needs to get done, seeing an entire backlog for the day and then working through that and allowing the kids to self-organize of sorts, pick out their leaders for the day, who’s going to get these things done, who’s going to lead that, who’s going to get the crayons, who’s going to get the pencils, get the markers, and then suddenly you’ve built a culture of empowerment of the children, leadership, you start to see who kind of generally drifts towards leadership and you can have really candid conversations about tradeoffs, “what happens if we get this, can we get this done or can we get these two things done ahead of that and are these things more worthwhile?” and you’d be amazed at the capacity of these young children to have these really good conversations around prioritization, “I don’t want to do that, I’d like to do that, well that’s great, what do you guys think?, well we’d rather to do that, well let’s put up the backlog”, it’s an awesome thing to see.

   

8. I assume one of the reasons children would levitate towards it is that tactileness of boards, right? But what about the teachers, obviously they’ve being schooled in a way of delivering lesson plans, so how do they react?

So, our educational system is not great, there is always room for improvement, and that’s ok. Teachers are always, as I’ve found in my limited experience, are always looking at better methods to help teach their students because you don’t go into teaching for the money, you go into teaching for the love of it and wanting to help students learn and so they are looking for ways to help manage their classes better, ways to help their kids learn and retain that information better and this is a great way to do that. And so I haven’t found a lot of resistance from teachers, there’s been a little bit, but once they see that “wow, I don’t have to manage my class so much?”, it’s more the management of the environment and how I can set up this environment up so that it’s conducive to children’s learning, “wow, my job just became a little bit more easy”. So, I’ve found that a lot of the teachers are liking it a lot.

   

9. Do you think then that is the passion for the work that is the driving force? I think about software developers, software developers are passionate about writing good software, at least you’d hope, and obviously teachers are passionate about teaching, you talked about art and music. Is that then the key?

Craig, you’ve got some great questions here. I think that’s in a lot of ways the key ingredient to success. The driving passion to want to do something better, maybe even change your reality a little bit and improve something whether personally or whether for your company. And I think in a lot of ways that will be the missing ingredient or the key ingredient to success within Agile transformation or wherever you employ it. It’s the passion to want to do something better and Agile and the frameworks underneath it are great ways to do it.

   

10. So that’s probably a good link, obviously I understand your wealth of education goes beyond technical, you’ve got three degrees, is that right?

Right, right, three master’s degrees.

Craig: Three masters, sorry!


Three master’s degrees in Educational Counseling and Religion and Philosophy.

   

11. Ok, so I guess the education thing is why you resonate with the education example there, but that I believe has lead you to a whole different area which your real passion is probably around human performance and dynamics?

Right. Absolutely. So a lot of my research has been around human performance, dynamics, cultural dynamics, enterprise and cultural design and understanding how we as management and as companies can utilize our human capital better. I always say that it’s not technology that builds great products and services, it’s your people. So, if you understand how people operate and behave within the context of a team, then you can start to optimize their strengths, build the right teams, assemble them correctly. According to the strategic and the goals that you have as a team, you can start building them correctly. So for me, that is a passion of mine and I love to help companies understand and utilize their human capital better.

   

12. What are some of the examples, how does a company approach someone like you, how do you get in the door with that type of thing, because I would assume most HR departments think that they are doing a pretty good job of managing the human capital, right?

Well, they do, but then when they see what we’ve build, spent years of research doing and building, and not a lot of people, especially my Agile Scout community doesn’t necessarily have purview into this, but my company, we’ve spent years building this.

   

13. That’s the name of your company is Action & Influence?

Action & Influence, our company is Action & Influence and we’ve built a process that we call team science, understanding the science of teams and understanding how to leverage human capital better. So to come into an HR department, they are always looking for exactly that, how to optimize their people and so it’s simply a question of how can we do that best, how can we start getting better return on our investment, of the people that we hire, how can we make sure we’re hiring not just based on technical aptitude but on cultural fit, for sustainability. And how can we retrofit and build the right teams for our strategic needs? And so, with those questions in mind we can answer those questions because we can help companies and teams optimize their people better.

   

14. In what ways can you help them?

Well, for example, I’ll give you a couple of examples. The first would be, if you’re looking to build a team for a particular goal and you are looking to have ten people on that team, according to the specific goals that you have in mind for that team, what they are going to build, the service, you want to assemble the right team for that, so if you are going to hire people, it’s great for hiring people to that team, to that cultural dynamic, it’s great if an entire enterprise utilizes our process and method, then you can have the right leverage to pull when you are changing teams, you can move through, like for example Bruce Tuckman’s model of team performance, you can move to a normalization experience faster, so they will become more high performing quicker. So those are some examples of teams that we’ve worked with at enterprise level that have utilized our method and we’ve seen those type of results.

   

15. Based on your research and knowledge in this area, what type of advice could you give to people who are Agile coaching or even just thinking about how they can make their team more high performing, what are some of the things they can start to look at now?

Great question. At the end of the day, I believe coaching is really relationship management and understanding really how to optimize the people that you have. We as coaches come in blind when we come into a new client, we do not know the cultural context, we do not know how those teams organize or have self-organized and normalized their positive or negative experiences, we don’t know, and over time we might be able to say “I’ve been here three months, I kind of know empirically how this team works”. Well, our process method quickens that, so even before you hit the door with a client, you can say “I know John, Suzie, Sally, Mark, Jim, I know how they operate as a team, I know their team dysfunctions, and I know how we can start alleviating those gaps and those issues before I even meet them”. And so that’s what we want to do, we want to accelerate that understanding of how to optimize those teams and build those teams correctly.

   

16. One of the things that your company does is builds a tool to help people optimize their people. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

So, this tool is in the form of a survey, so it helps us understand, and we’ve done a ton of research behind it, so it helps us understand the team dynamics, not just personality, we care not about personality, you can take personality tests and all that stuff, ours is more about behavioral, so it’s behavioral science. How we operate within a team is more around the team dynamics and behavior of how we operate within a team than our personality how we approach it. So, most personality assessments it’s your personality and how you approach a situation, some people would say “lion at work, lamb at home”. You change your personality and your emotions based on your context. Now, within teams that’s what I care about. Every team has a cultural context and those behaviors within that team is what you will need to understand to be able to optimize it. So, that’s where we fit, we give out a survey and we can understand the behavioral dynamics of a team.

   

17. [...] I’m just wondering if you have a team that already has that passion, they probably don’t need as much of this type of thing, but for probably for most people in most large organizations where people just check in and check out. You think that is the difference and why as organizations we have to go through this?

Craig's full question: Do you think that, you talked about the different behaviors between people at work and home, do you think that is the difference between the passionate people and the not so passionate? Because if we take people like us, we are here at a conference having a chat about Agile and enjoying what we talk about, whereas some people rock up to work, they punch out. I’m just wondering if you have a team that already has that passion, they probably don’t need as much of this type of thing, but for probably for most people in most large organizations where people just check in and check out. You think that is the difference and why as organizations we have to go through this?

Well, I think passion can be misplaced, I think if you can have the wrong passion, you can have a lot of good passion for maybe the wrong trajectory or the wrong goal. And I think that needs coralling, I think that needs coaching. So, I think passion is great if it’s focused on the right initiatives, the right strategic goals, the right tactical issues, I think passion is great but I think it needs to be balanced with the right level of control. I say that and I kind of grit my teeth as I say that, but what I mean by control is the right amount of structure and direction really.

   

18. With your research in that area, what’s coming down the pipe, what are the things that people like you are now looking at that are going to hit us in the next two to three years?

Great question. So, a lot of the research that we are doing, we’re a research and analytics company and a lot of the research we’re doing is understanding better the human dynamic and understanding behavioral science better around enterprise teams. What is really fascinating, as we collect more and more data from big companies around teams, is we are better able to understand patterns of what, I’d go as far as say, what is the pattern of a great Agile coach. What about, let’s take a level deeper, what is the pattern of a great technical Agile coach, or a great leadership coach, or a great business analyst coach, what are those patterns and what can we glean from that data, that information that can help us understand how we can apply ourselves better as coaches to those particular realms or as we move into a new assignment, if it’s very technical, what are facets or what are patterns that we need to have, or what are the things we need to understand about ourself and our teams that can help us be more effective. So, that’s what we are looking and diving more into, is patterns around what we’ve received in terms of optimizing teams.

   

19. And I assume those patterns are starting to emerge?

Yes, yes. We have a ton of data, we have 240,000 users of our platform and that’s giving us a lot of data around how to optimize individuals with their teams.

   

20. And are you matching that just to typical software development teams or can you actually map that across a wider range?

The original intent was for leadership development and then we contextualized it for teams. And so it can be used for software teams, it can be used for non-profit teams, services teams, it can be used for any company that has to work in a team, which is pretty much every company. Right? So, that’s why I’m super excited about it, because we are getting a lot of data from different demographics, different markets, from financial companies to airline companies to oil companies, and the patterns are eerily similar but interestingly different. So it’s really fun to research and understand that better.

   

21. Are there any other research things are going on, obviously that is what you are doing, but any other things that are holding your eye in that area?

Right now, I am looking at doing a Ph. D. in psychology.

Craig: Another one?

Well, three masters and a PH. D., which I should have done earlier, because I really want to understand deeper the human psyche and how we operate internally and what those mechanisms are beneath us that if we can understand it and potentially even maybe measure within a threshold of reason, we can start leveraging those internal things, deeper seeded things that come out at work and utilize those for performance.

   

22. Great. So, your talk here at Agile 2012, you’re here to give a talk, it’s called Scaling Product Ownership at the US Air Force, interesting title, what’s it all about?

So, what it’s all about is I worked for the DOD in the Air Force and we had a serious issue around product ownership or product management alignment. An obtuse portfolio of products all interestingly enough focused on one single initiative or mission critical element. And so what we did was we aligned those groups, aligned those product owners and product managers to a simple construct and so my talk, my IEEE paper, this insight report talked about how we did that. So, it’s highly contextualized to all my experience, but there are some golden nuggets there that I think people can learn from and I just love working for the government. It’s fun.

   

23. Which is interesting, because people have a lot of trouble sometimes implementing in organizations like the government, so what’s your secret sauce?

I wish I had some. Government when you think about it, it’s highly political, ton of red tape, a lot of bureaucracy, in this experience it’s not government per se, it’s more military. What I love about the military is that the question of why is gone, they never ask “why are we doing this mission, why are we bringing in an Agile coach, why are we trying to transform”, that question has already been set by the top brass, so the question is how, “how do we get that done”.

In private companies and other companies, there would be a lot of dissenting ideas, people say “why are we bringing this guy in, why do we need to do this”, where in the military that is gone, they’ve left that at the door. It’s just a matter of how do we get that done effectively and efficiently. So that’s why I like working with the military, because the top brass and the Lieutenant Colonels that I work with and the Majors, they are like “this is the mission, we’ve got to get it done”, everyone is like “amen, let’s get it done”. And I think that alignment really helps.

   

24. In your talk you mentioned you’ve got some nuggets around product ownership, for those that aren’t going to get to the talk, what are some of the things that you are passing on to people there?

We created what we call a product alignment group, that is a group of product owners that kind of come together, like a Scrum of Scrums, to understand the entire portfolio of projects and programs and then be able to create a backlog from that. Now, this isn’t necessarily a new idea, there are many Agile coaches who have done this before, but what makes it interesting is it’s been done at the DOD in the Air Force, with their particular constraints and dependencies and nuances and idiosyncrasies of that environment. And so that’s what makes it kind of interesting.

Other than that, a lot of the talk is not only about the product ownership alignment, but a lot of it is about understanding the vision, understanding all the alignment aspects of teams, of how to build them correctly, we also talk about making sure that we’ve optimized those teams effectively according to the aptitudes and skills of each individual, and the contractors, and so there is kind of that fun stuff in there as well.

   

25. That’s great. So, my last question to you is: Agile, where do you think we’re heading as a community, what’s interesting youmoving forward in the Agile community?

I am obviously a huge consumer of books and literature and I’m reading all the new stuff that’s coming out that’s kind of Agile, kind of Lean, your Eric Ries Lean Startup, your Scott Belsky, Getting Things Done, Making Ideas Happen, your Seth Godin’s, your Dan Pink;s, those types of guys, I mean all that stuff’s Agile. It’s kind of a broader umbrella of sorts. So for me, to your question, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s going to continue to evolve. Now, I don’t care whether we call it Agile or “raccoon” or a lampshade, I just care that we are continually improving over time and we have a mindset to do that and do that effectively, I don’t care what framework we put on top of it. So, I’m excited to see what these other speakers and other thought leaders have in terms of helping that evolution move forward and that’s why I am here, it’s part of the reason why I am here.

   

26. That’s great. So if people want to know more about you, Peter, where can they find you?

My cell phone… no! You can find me at agilescout.com, @AgileScout Twitter and if you like to email me it’s info@agilescout.com.

Craig: And your company, if they want to find out more that?

Action & Influence is my company.

Craig: All right. And can they get that on the web as well?

Yes, myai.org.

Craig: Great. And the book is coming out?

October.

Craig: October, so we’ll look for that on the bookshelves. Thanks very much for your time, Peter, it’s been great!

Great, thank you!

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