Interview With Ben Linders – The Highly Experienced Agile Coach
Ben Linders is an Independent Consultant in Agile, Lean, Quality, and Continuous Improvement, based in The Netherlands. Author of many books: Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives, Waardevolle Agile Retrospectives, What Drives Quality, The Agile Self-assessment Game, and Continuous Improvement. Creator of many Agile Coaching Tools, for example, the Agile Self-assessment Game.
As an adviser, trainer, and coach, he helps organizations with deploying effective software development and management practices. He focuses on continuous improvement, collaboration and communication, and professional development, to deliver business value to customers.
Ben is an active member of networks on Agile, Lean, and Quality, and a well-known speaker and author. He shares his experiences in a bilingual blog (Dutch and English), as an editor for Culture and Methods at InfoQ, and as a practitioner in communities like Computable, Quora, DZone, Stackoverflow, and TechTarget. Follow him on Twitter: @BenLinders.
1. Over the years you have been training and coaching people working in R&D, Banking & Insurance, Consulting, Telecom, Government, Healthcare, Embedded Software, etc. What are the main challenges faced by organizations in these domains, when they want to increase the business values they deliver to their customers?
The challenges that organizations are facing vary a lot, and that is actually what makes it so challenging.
Some companies are looking for ways to digitize their business, as their customers want to be served in many more ways than “call our customer service team”. They are improving their website and developing apps, improving their service via social media, and trying out new digital products.
Other companies are looking for ways to become innovative, being challenged by new companies that can develop products faster and cheaper, like fintech and other startups. They feel the competition and are losing customers, so their main challenge is to turn the tide and (re)connect with their customers.
There are companies that are having major quality related issues. I’m not talking here about bugs in their software, but also security or privacy issues, system unavailability, or lack of functionality. It often traces back to insufficient insight into the user’s business and needs (or not taking users seriously).
And there are companies that are focused on reducing costs. Which I believe as a strategy doesn’t work. Sure, it helps to remove waste (Lean!) and simplify things (Kanban!), but what that does is enabling you to deliver the same product faster at lower costs. As the value delivered doesn’t change, the risk of being passed by competitors who increased the value that they deliver is high.
The good thing about the above-mentioned companies is that at least they know what they are aiming it. I also see many companies that are adopting agile because everybody does. They are lacking a shared deep understanding of the problems that they are facing. Not knowing why you want to become agile is a recipe for failure.
Dealing with problems or impediments is another big challenge that I see in many organizations. Sometimes people have some idea or even know what the problems are, but are afraid to bring them up. They don’t talk about the elephant in the room.
As Captain Jack Sparrow said: “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”
If people don’t talk about problems, then that’s a big problem!
If I ask people in organizations that I work with why they want to become agile they often look surprised at first. Of course they want agile! Everybody is doing agile, so it must be good. Agile is supposed to make them faster, cheaper and better. So let’s do it. If it only was that easy … every organization should be truly agile by now.
And actually, it’s not about agile. It’s about agility, end-to-end result. Outcomes that have an impact. Delivering value.
Coming back to your question, the main challenge is that organizations are lacking the culture and capabilities for understanding their challenges and daring to face them due to a lack of psychological safety. They focus on implementing solutions without knowing why, because they are afraid of what will come out if they dig deep enough.
2. Can you suggest some solutions to overcome these challenges?
What we know for decades is that given the variety of problems and different contexts, there is no “one solution”. But many still want the silver bullet.
The solutions to solving problems may have been enriched in the past decades, but the approach taken is still largely the same. Whether it’s applying Scrum or SAFe or implementing the Spotify model, what I still mostly see is:
Let’s make a plan, get senior management support, roll it out and impose it on everyone, and get it done before the change project runs out of time and budget.
There are much better practices to deal with change in organizations than traditional change management. Examples are bottom-up approaches, self-organization, modern leadership approaches, sensemaking, wholeness, inside-out, experimentation, open space, etc. Such practices are known, they are used, and they work better.
Change starts with taking a different mindset and changing assumptions. When I work with people, I often share some of my assumptions to get people thinking.
Here are some examples (I borrowed some from great inspirers, other I crafted myself):
• People do the best they can
• Trust people to get the job done
• People don’t resist change, they resist being changed
• Nobody comes to work to do a bad job
• What you do says more than what you say
• You have to think for yourself
I don’t expect people to agree (or disagree). The aim is to get people to think differently. When you change your way of thinking, better solutions become visible, and possible.
3. Can you give an overview to our readers about the Agile Self-assessment Game? How do teams and organizations play it to self-assess their agility?
I have always been a big fan of self-assessments. They help you to reflect, see how you are doing, and find ways to improve. Many of teams that I work with want to find out how agile they are. I searched for tools and checklists on agile which I studied in detail. I also tried out some of them, where I tailored them to suit the specific needs of the teams/organizations that I work with.
Early 2016 I created my first version of a card game to do Agile Self-assessments with teams. I started using the game more often in my workshops to teach agile practices and when I coach teams to help them reflect and improve at their own pace. Every time I used it I adapted the game by improving the statements on the cards, dropping cards and adding new cards.
The Agile Self-assessment Game consists of decks of Coaching Cards for Agile, Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, and Business Agility with playing suggestions and experience stories. With this card game, organizations can discover how agile their teams are and what they can do to increase their agility to deliver more value to their customers and stakeholders.
The book The Agile Self-assessment Game which I released early 2019 provides many playing suggestions. Examples are agile health check, investing in agile, sailboat retrospective, angels advocate, and two truths and a lie.
To give some idea how teams play the game, let’s look at the investing in agile format. It starts by shuffling the cards and dividing them over the team. Next, each team member picks the card with a practice they think the team should work on. After two rounds of playing cards, the team votes to agree which practices are most important to improve. Finally, they discuss how to do it.
Teams can decide to use one of the playing suggestions, or design their own playing format. If they need some help, they can contact me (for free!) to get support on how to play the game. I want my customers to be successful!
4. Congratulations on being selected as one of the speakers at ACE! 2019. Would you mind sharing the topic that you have chosen to present there, and why is it relevant in the current scenario?
Thank you. I’m really looking forward to finally going to ACE!
At ACE! 2019 I’m doing a mini-workshop titled “Problem? What Problem? – Getting rid of impediments quickly and effectively”. In this session, I will be playing the Impediment Game in teams. This is a game that I developed for my workshops and are about to release as an Agile Coaching Tool that can be downloaded in my webshop.
An agile way of working doesn’t guarantee that there will be no problems. Most probably there will be; working agile will make them surface. Agile teams need skills to deal with impediments to be effective and be able to deliver and satisfy the needs of their customers and stakeholders. Agile teams are self-organized, nobody will solve their problems for them. They can decide how they want to do their work. Having the authority to decide comes with a responsibility: you have to solve problems that the team is facing. You cannot rely on management to solve them for you. That may sound like a disadvantage, but it actually is an advantage since you are allowed to solve them in a way that is most suitable and effective for you.
My belief is that if organizations want to become agile and lean, their teams need to be able to handle impediments quickly and effectively. In the game, attendees practice how to recognize and analyze impediments, understand how they hinder their team, and decide what can be done and who can take appropriate action by deploying agile and lean principles and good practices.
The impediment game that we will play in this session will teach the five steps for handling impediments effectively:
• recognizing impediments
• understanding how they are hindering the team
• find effective solutions to deal with them
• decide what to do and who can do it
• learn how to become more effective in dealing with impediments
I love to do mini-workshops at conferences, as they are a great way for attendees to discover new things. Learning by doing, in a safe environment.
Next to my session on impediments, I’m also giving a full-day Master Class at ACE! on May 22: Increasing Agility with Retrospectives:
In this workshop, attendees learn how to scale agile retrospectives by doing them with multiple teams from a project, product or organization, practice facilitation skills with different retrospective exercises, and learn how they can introduce and improve retrospectives. They will also learn to do agile self-assessments and readiness checks and to design and facilitate retrospectives that help organizations to increase their agility.
5. As an Editor for Agile at InfoQ for more than 6 years, our readers would be excited to know about the main trends and new developments in software development?
InfoQ publishes yearly State of Practice reports where the editors discuss the adoption of methods and practices. I’m one of the contributors of Culture & Methods – the State of Practice in 2019.
Very few ideas crossed the chasm, the organizational challenges which existed at the beginning of 2018 are still present, and they are slowing the adoption of innovator practices in the majority of organizations. This worries me.
Many organizations are starting digital transformations or are scaling agile, but due to a lack of culture change the results are often disappointing. Some practices that support culture change are on the rise. Examples are sociocracy, liberating structures, teal organizations, and DevOps. Hopefully, this will increase the chance of success in 2019.
There’s an increasing focus on topics like ethics, diversity, inclusion, self-organization, and self-selection. These are the things to look out for and adopt in your organization in a way that suits the needs of the organization, it’s employees, and customers.
My suggestion is to follow the Culture and Methods section of InfoQ to stay on top of new developments and see what companies are doing.
6. How can businesses benefit from the distributed agile working model?
The biggest benefit of distribution is that it’s much easier to have the right people in the team, as you’re not depending on where these people are based or living. Instead of having to depend on who’s available close to your office location, you can onboard anyone anywhere.
The agile manifesto values individuals and interactions. Many think that you need co-located teams to do this; I strongly disagree with that. In my opinion, it’s not the physical distance but the emotional distance between team members that is most important.
If teams are aligned of the values, if they have a shared view on how they want to collaborate and communicate, if there is trust and openness, then teams can flourish independent of being co-located or distributed.
I work with people all around the world. I support facilitators and team that play the games that I developed. I coach people remotely. I interview book authors using co-writing tools. I use tools like slack, email, whatsapp, and linkedIn to stay connected and align work. I can work anywhere, if there’s WiFi and coffee :-).
When agile is adopted in a good way it empowers teams and individuals to take control and decide how to best do their work. Distribution leverages this, as people can work when and where they feel comfortable.
As an example, look at open source software. Much of it is developed by professionals who volunteer to invest their time, provided that they can do it when it suits them and from their own location. Collaboration is intense, based on trust and respect. The quality of open source software is often high as a result of this.
Distributed agile can bring out the best in people and for people, no doubt about that.
If the only way that people can effectively work together in an organization is by being co-located, then there’s something seriously wrong there. If I see this in teams, then I suggest exploring how the team works together in the next retrospective.