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Agile Executive Forum 2016 Summary


The Agile Alliance hosted a one-day Executive Forum in San Jose, CA on September 19.  The event attracted participants from around the world and a range of senior speakers from large organisations, and focused on how adopting agile development impacts companies and what executives need to do to help ensure successful cultural transformation, which is what agile adoption at scale is about.

All the speakers made a strong point that the goal of an agile transformation should not be about adopting a set of practices or even about the culture change needed; rather, it is about improving outcomes for all stakeholders in organisations, improving the important value-focused metrics and making workplaces more humanistic.

Sanjiv Augustine opened the event with a talk about how an agile culture allows organisations to survive and prosper amidst the turbulent ecosystem that exists today.  He explained that the conference themes of innovation and resilience are tightly coupled as one supports the other.

The first speaker was Rob Mee, CEO of Pivotal, who spoke on “Transforming how the world builds software”.  He described his own journey to becoming the CEO of Pivotal and how they engage with large organisations to support them in adopting new ways of working.  His key message is that the cultural inertia in most organisations is so heavy that “transforming the monolith” is impossible.  What is needed is to slowly replace the old organisation with a new one that has an agile culture from the ground up.  This is done by taking small groups out of the organisation and partnering them with the Pivotal team members for about three months, during which time they form a cross-functional team and learn the new tools and techniques for delivering products more effectively.  It is important that these teams are building products that are valuable to the organisation – it’s not just about theoretical learning but practical application of the new ideas solving real world problems.  Then these seed teams become the genesis of a new organisation back at the home base, and they repeat the partnering cycle with new teams, growing the number of teams in the new organisation exponentially (he talks about a cellular division model) as the numbers in the old monolith get absorbed in the new “agile from the ground up” organisation.

Karyn Hayes-Ryan spoke about how the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is a leading example of how agile adoption has been successful in the US government.  Her talk titled “Driving Innovation, Speed and Creativity in the Federal Government” focused on how they are changing the acquisition/contracting model for software.  She discussed how the Federal Government acquisition rules are not as onerous as is often perceived and how adopting an agile mindset, through a large scale transformation program including training, discussion fora and an awards program have resulted in measurable benefits for the Agency.  They have moved from a contracting model based on detailed requirements to one focused on capacity and expertise – purchasing blocks of time rather than trying to identify in advance exactly what will be needed in a turbulent and rapidly changing world.

Stelio Verzera, founder of Cocoon Projects and LiquidO™ discussed Liquid Organisations as a model for agile governance:

Rigidly structured organizations cannot cope with the current pace of innovation and its complexity, let alone exploit it. On one hand hierarchies are a sound bottleneck both for decision making and for competences evolution. Too much info to process in order to succeed. It’s crazy today to think that whatever kind of manager, as an individual, can collect, process and use all the info that is produced in a single day in her domain of management!

He explored the current state of the world, high levels of disengagement among employees, social unrest and how the management models of the 20th century are no longer applicable – organisations in the 20th century were designed for a world of low complexity, built for predictability, durability and stability.  Organisations today exist in a highly complex environment and need different governance and management approaches – an organisation model that is adaptable and anti-fragile which goes beyond being resilient to one where change and stress make the system better.

In order to achieve this, some fundamental shifts need to happen in governance thinking:

  • Values and principles driven rather than roles and structures
  • Engagement rather than command & control
  • Empowerment rather than controlling

He talked about the four pillars of Liquid Organizations:

  • Collaborative working board
  • Contribution accounting
  • Collaborative decision making
  • Reputation tracking

He emphasized the focus on people and creating a safe environment:

  • Enable trust by design, not by chance
  • Evolve leadership, leaders who help others become more effective
  • Disable fear, make failure safe by limiting the blast radius.

Verzera was interviewed by InfoQ in 2014 about the LiquidO model.

The next session was a panel with four leaders explaining their organisations’ Innovative Leadership Journeys.

Ahmed Sidky of Riot Games explained how they have identified team level leadership responsibilities in order to achieve a balance of alignment and autonomy. They identified 35 discrete responsibilities, 10 of which are anchored to specific leadership roles, while the remaining responsibilities need to be negotiated among the team members. They have four named leadership roles: Team Captain, Product Lead, Delivery Lead and Craft Lead. These roles are hats that people opt to wear rather than job titles allocated my management. As long as all the leadership responsibilities are covered it is up to the teams to select who takes which responsibilities.


Hugh Molotsi explained the Intuit view of innovation. Intuit has a core philosophy where “innovation is everybody's job”. They have two pillars which are taught to everyone in the company: “customer driven innovation”  and “design for delight”. They aim to tie people's work to what they are passionate about and allow 10% unstructured time where people can work on initiatives they care about.

Rob Mee spoke about how Pivotal have deliberately devolved responsibilities into the teams. He described an experiment, initiated by team members, which changed the way they do evaluations and reviews, moving from a six monthly cycle to a daily cycle where pairs provide immediate feedback on each other immediately.

Karyn Hayes-Ryan explained their approach of allowing  the formation of a coalition of the willing in the teams. She described how the presence of a senior leader in team activities gave visible support, while also inhibiting the level of conversation in the group. Finding the delicate balance where executive involvement helps without overwhelming the free flow of information.  She spoke about the importance of “getting the middle 80% excited” and allowing them to own the change.

Stelio Verzero spoke about the value of an open invitation and how leadership arises at the intersection of passion and responsibility. Move the management of the system away from specific individuals to the whole organisation.

The next talk was Jennifer Richardson from Blue Cross.  She discussed how the collaborative values are not just useful for IT transformation, but are common to life.  She encouraged the audience to “build the right culture and invest in your people and they will improve the work”.

Faye Hall from American Express talked about the challenges involved in moving an organisation of 80,000 people to a new way of working. They currently have over 900 Scrum teams, which has taken over five years. She made the point that “you can't shift mindset without education and knowledge”.

Hall warned against the danger of the wrong metrics, and how they have refined their measures of success over time.  She discussed the importance of recognising coaching and facilitation as an important skillset, and having the right people in the delivery transformation roles. She also pointed out the changed attitudes from executives that have supported the transformation- “what can I do to help you get there”.

She pointed out some recommendations to overcome some of the challenges, including:

  • Transparency comes with consequences, enables courage and protects people from the organisational punishment – making it safe to learn
  • Measure outcomes not activities


She made the point that for Amex this is not an agile transformation; it is a new way of doing business.

Concurrent with the conference sessions, an Innovation Lab was hosted in which participants could explore specific challenges with leaders who have experience in a wide range of transitions. This lab was busy all day.

Conference co-chairs Pat Reed and Sanjiv Augustine closed the conference by summarising the key learnings from the day and encouraging the participants to take the actionable learning and turning them into insights they can use back in their own organisations.

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