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InfoQ Homepage Articles Lee Cunningham on Talking to Executives About Agile

Lee Cunningham on Talking to Executives About Agile


At the recent Agile Singapore conference Lee Cunningham gave a talk on helping agile champions to get the message of agile across to senior executives and gain their buy-in and support. He spoke to InfoQ after his talk.

InfoQ: Lee, thank you very much for talking to InfoQ today. VersionOne is not sponsoring the Agile Singapore Conference this year - you here as a speaker, and your topic was talking to the executives?

Lee: Yes, my presentation was about Agile supporting business goals. The gist of the talk was on helping Agile champions to learn how to align Agile with the goals and priorities of senior executives.

InfoQ: What are the biggest challenges that one hears about? Certainly, some of the surveys seem to indicate that when people ask what's preventing teams from adopting Agile or doing it well is that executive buy-in and the sponsorship and talking to people at that executive level is difficult. So how do we do that and how do you get somebody at that level excited about a daily standup?

Lee: There are two main challenges, one of which is gaining access to get executive buy-in. Discussing how to get executive buy-in was my inspiration for this presentation. I would love to think that I can waltz into XYZ corporation and get the time of the CIO and CEO, but that's not likely to happen. So I decided to take the “missionary” approach to this talk. Instead of going in and carrying the message to the executives, I decided to equip the “indigenous people” to spread the message internally. The people who are on site working with the teams every day have a higher probability of access.

The second challenge you mention is getting a senior executive excited about team-level Agile practices. That can happen, if they’re already embracing some Agile techniques in their higher-level meetings. But if you review research reports and surveys from sources like Gartner and CIO Magazine, you will see what senior executives are focused on is far different then the challenges typically discussed at Agile conferences. My talk was aimed at “agile champions”, and was intended to give the attendees some tools, some mental scaffolding to try to reframe Agile in terms that would resonate with their senior executives.

InfoQ: So what are the things that keep senior execs up at night and how does Agile fix it?

Lee: According to a Gartner survey, growth is a top priority of CEOs. This includes both geographic and market share growth. Some of these challenges cited by CEOs in the report can’t be directly addressed by Agile, such as taxation concerns, but there are other challenges that can be addressed, like cultural issues, product innovation, and time to market.

During my presentation we discussed these types of challenges. We used these challenges as an example and for an exercise. The bottom-line recommendation is find out what's important to your executives, and make sure you're tailoring your messaging about Agile to challenges that are important to your executives. Otherwise it could be an uphill battle to get organizational transformation going.

InfoQ: So what is that process? Your role at VersionOne is the Director of Enterprise Agile Enablement. What do you need to do to enable an Agile enterprise?

Lee: My role really has a dual focus. One focus is enabling the sponsors and leaders of our customers’ transformations to be successful. The other is working internally with various groups at VersionOne. I'm a member of our product team at VersionOne and I have an ear to the ground as I work with our larger customers. Customers provide a rich source of information about how we can make our product and services better. We're enabling VersionOne to be the best solution for enterprise Agile, but also continuously looking for feedback on what’s working and what’s not working from our customers.

InfoQ: So it contains social network around shared problem solving

Lee: Yes.

InfoQ: So if we take that and want to spread it now into organizations, one of the things we heard at the conference, from Dave Snowden, was talking about the sensor network and getting lots of direct feedback. He was talking about basically ways of getting feedback from myriads of people and then in organization or product like yours. You have thousands and thousands of users. How do you hear through the noise?

Lee: At VersionOne we have multiple ways of getting customer feedback. When we discuss our roadmap with our customers, we discuss the different channels where they can provide feedback. One of the common questions I get is “How do new features get onto your roadmap?” My outreach as a member of the product team is certainly one way.

We also have a customer success team that works with the largest population of our customers. They have touch points throughout the year where they work with customers. Customer support is also a big source of customer feedback. You can glean a lot of information from the issues people are having. What can appear to be a platform-related issue can actually be a more fundamental issue, like communication. We host several AgilePalooza community events in different locations around the world. These events give us yet another opportunity to hear from the community. We’re also building out user communities to give customers the opportunity to network and collaborate.

Since the company started we have always been focused on listening to the community and establishing meaningful contact with our customers. We try to stay in contact with them and be as high-touch as possible.

InfoQ: When we were chatting you said one of your passions is making Agile real and accessible. What does that mean?

Lee: I think, fundamentally, it is to not complicate it. Agile has become somewhat of a commodity and as people take that commodity and put a spin on it, repackage it, and rebrand it, my goal is to really stay anchored to the foundational principles.

For instance, I was asked to speak in the Advance Agile track at an event. I asked, “What's the Advanced Agile track?” In my opinion, there's no such thing as advanced Agile. There are a few principles and you spend a career getting really good at those principles by practicing them over time. It's really the repetition and learning through lots of experience, more than it is having some new technique, some new framework, or something new that makes Agile work better. That's what I meant by making Agile real.

It is critical to be honest right up front. If a situation that a customer or a prospect is facing is tough, I let them know. I make sure that expectations are set correctly from the outset and then try to give the best advice and counsel given their situation.

InfoQ: So are there any recipes for success for implementing Agile?

Lee: I like to say, “The secret is that there is no secret.” There are certain things that can facilitate and make Agile easier, but there’s no pixie dust. One driving idea behind this session was that if you really want to have an Agile enterprise, you can’t just have rubber stamping from your executives. They need to be visibly, vocally and actively engaged.

I also believe that you can't scale what you don’t have. That's kind of been a tagline of mine for years. It all starts with the team. No matter how big you are, if your teams aren’t doing what they need to do, don’t have the muscle memory for delivering, don’t know what it feels like to get done, aren’t measuring the right things, and aren’t minding the right things, then it doesn’t matter how many of those dysfunctional teams you have together. You just have a big dysfunctional mess. Make sure you’ve got the fundamentals right on locally before you try to scale.

InfoQ: The fundamentals. One of the things that I personally find missing in a lot of Agile implementations is the focus on the technical excellence. If we go back to the manifesto, one of those principles is that good design and technical excellence enhance agility. How many teams are really achieving technical excellence?

Lee: That's a good question and there are two sides to that coin. My recommendation is to get the fundamental values and practices correct first, and then the technical practices will follow. Scrum suffers a lot of derision in some camps, but it works. Scrum provides a good framework for people to develop the discipline to get valuable things done as a team. If there's transparency and retrospection, it will expose issues that can only be resolved by more robust technical practices. Good reflection allows the need for better technical practices to be realized by the team instead of them being foisted on the team. I think that works really well. If technical practices aren’t getting better, that's often an indication that there's inadequate retrospection, or if there is retrospection, there's not really empowerment to do anything about it.

On the other hand, with all the talk about dev ops, with the tooling getting better, and the understanding around technical practices getting better, I've run across a couple of organizations where that was the primary focus. I've seen a couple of places where the dev ops is second to none. They are doing phenomenal work, investing in a lot of training -- but they aren’t delivering anything.

The analogy that came to mind was that they had perfected their golf swing. They could hit a long, straight shot every time, but they missed that the objective is to get the ball in the hole. They had a lot of technical prowess, but they weren’t bringing it home. So there can be an imbalance that way as well. That's not the norm, of course. Normally, the technical practices lag, but I've seen a couple of instances of late where technology has been the focus, to the detriment of delivery.

InfoQ: Really interesting. So how do you bring those teams around?

Lee: I don’t get the opportunity to do a lot of hands-on coaching anymore because my role has changed. I had one team in an environment like that not too long ago, and I only had three weeks to spend with them. We didn’t have time to do any formal training. They had had some rudimentary Agile training years ago. I just had them focus on getting done. That was the main focus. There were three principles we kept front and center. The first was to make sure they were collaboratively partnering with their product owner and were not just taking orders. The second was to make sure that once they started something, they got it done. The third was to always know where they were, and adjust if needed.

Those three guiding principles were enough for that team to grab onto and they ended up being the one team out of multiple teams that was actually delivering.

About the Interviewee

Lee Cunningham is VersionOne's Director of Enterprise Agile Enablement, where he focuses on helping senior organizational leadership succeed in their businesses through the application of lean-agile values, principles, and practices throughout the enterprise.  He advises and collaborates with the senior leaders of VersionOne's larger enterprise customers, providing insight and practical guidance in meeting the challenges of large-scale agile.

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