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InfoQ Homepage News Agile 2016: Steve Denning on Agile within Large Organizations and Leadership in Agile

Agile 2016: Steve Denning on Agile within Large Organizations and Leadership in Agile

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At the recent Agile 2016 Conference leadership, expert and author Steve Denning presented a Stalwarts session, a fishbowl-style session focused on the topics of Agile Within Large Organizations and Leadership in Agile. He covered three broad topics: Engagement of Leaders - Agile Mindset Shift in Management, Agile Adoption Challenges and Agile in the Global Economy

In this fishbowl format, seats were arranged in a circle around a small, elevated stage in the middle of a room. Denning sat on a chair on the stage with five additional chairs. Participants could leave their seat at any time to join him on stage and ask a question, returning to their original seat after their question was addressed.

In the 75-minute session, Denning duscussed18 topics/questions which centered around three themes:

1) Engagement of Leaders - Agile Mindset Shift in Management

In this theme, Steve discussed how leaders have been conditioned to behave in ways that raise shareholder value vs. customer value. Engaging them in different ways of thinking and behaving is a challenge. 

He explained that change begins with mindset – shifting to a mindset that enables teams to deliver more value for customers over shareholders. Delighting customers is a long-term view, while value to shareholders is a short-term view. Also, a leader’s mindset should include conversations and continuous improvement versus telling teams what to do.

He described that while some leaders understand this concept instantly and some never get it, there is a spectrum. The most effective path is to connect those that don’t get it with those that do.

Another path Steve discussed was the art of storytelling. He suggested, storytelling is more powerful than data and charts, when the right story for the situation is used. The right stories are not necessarily about Agile. Stories should help listeners imagine themselves as the main character and correlate pain and success to something with which the listener resonates. The story, Steve explained, must have a happy ending, but use negative aspects to grab their attention. Position the story to inspire change, and include little detail so the listener can fill in their own vision. You want to tell the story to inspire the listener to think, “Ahhh, maybe I can do that!” Then, they create their own action plan.

2) Agile Adoption Challenges

Based on his work with the Learning Consortium, Denning suggested organizations with no agile mindset will suffer. Teams transitioning to agile are seeing dramatic gains. It doesn’t matter what tools an organization uses. Agile is a necessity, not a choice.

Agile Adoption during a Merger

Denning described that during a merger where there is an island of agile, either the organization becomes agile or the organization crushes agile. There are really only these two possible endings. To encourage the organization to adopt the agile way, focus on two things: build coalitions and tell stories.

Agile Adoption Politics

Denning explained the opposing factors that create agile politics. On the one hand, agile is a threat to management. On the other hand, the marketplace changing to agile is not a choice anymore; it is a necessity.

Traditional management, Denning argued, simply cannot cope in this new world of the changing marketplace. He cited a recent Harvard Business Review article as evidence that leaders are starting to understand the necessity and exclaimed “we will win this war – the market requires it. We will lose some battles, but win the war.”

3) Agile and the Global Economy

Denning explained that the 17 individuals who came up with the agile manifesto were thinking about software development teams at a small scale. This is history. We need to embrace what we have learned in the past 15 years about agile at scale and what these principles and the mindset means. He suggested the consensus with many is that we have learned a lot since 2001.

We have a genuine paradigm shift. Back in 2001, we couldn’t ask those 17 guys what a transformation would look like, and for 15 years we have been finding out what works. Some ideas have flourished, and some have not.

In the larger economy, Denning would like people to embrace agile as a mindset, and the 1st statement of agile manifesto is crucial. Agile at a crossroads will fail if the movement focuses on process and tools over individuals and interactions. He noted that all movements started with noble goals and succumb to tools and processes.

While top down management is still pervasive, Denning indicated a new pattern is emerging. He is seeing a convergence on a different way to run an organization. When discussing Wall Street, he mentioned that some companies deliver quarterly earnings, and some like Amazon do not announce quarterly earnings and actually have a plan to deliver value. This is pointing to a convergence around a view of management radically different form 20th century top down style.

When discussing today’s educational systems, he notes that most jobs today will not exist in 10 years’ time. The current education system still trains students for a job. These are jobs that won’t exist when they graduate. We need more focus on “how to learn” vs. job skills, “how to ask questions” vs. memorize. It’s a radical shift in education, too. 


Guest editor Angela Wick is an Agile Coach and Trainer, she is the Founder & CEO of BA-Squared, LLC a training and consulting company that helps organizations modernize requirements practices. She helps traditional, agile, and hybrid teams develop the skills they need to build the right solutions that deliver the intended value to the organization.

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