AN AGILE INTERVIEW – Alexandra Stokes

I had the amazing opportunity to interview one of Melbourne’s best know agile experts Alexandra Stokes. With over 20 years of experience in agile delivery and having worked with some of the leading agile organisations in Australia and the UK, Alexandra has a wealth of knowledge on the history of agile, the success and failures of using agile methodologies, and why having the right mindset is the key to a successful agile transformation.

Can you tell me about your introduction to agile? 

I started my career as a Developer. I spend my last few years of university in the UK so I stayed there to work once I had finished. I had started working in a few organizations as a consultant around the time that Agile was kicking off. I was working for British Airways and they had a choice as to whether or not they would try this new agile way or take the more traditional path. Half of the team wanted to use it and the other half didn’t. There were people saying “we have to do this slowly and carefully.” They chose traditional, which was the worst project experience ever! The few of that were younger graduates didn’t really understand why agile had not been chosen as we thought it seemed like the logical sense.

We had seen things done using the traditional method and mistakes made. Instead of building the product for ages and then showing it to our disappointed customers, why wouldn’t we build things earlier and show customers products sooner for feedback?

What is interesting is at the time we didn’t have coaches or consultants coming in to show us how agile worked. We would just read things and go to meet ups and asked people who were doing stand ups, how does it work? What are you doing? What’s working for you? There was this underground community of people using agile and this was around 1997.

The agile community mostly consisted of technologist and developers trying to prove that this could be done in different environments. There were a lot of people saying “you can’t use agile. It’s way too radical. Where is the documentation?” A lot of people from these communities came together and said “we have used agile in the manufacturing industry and we have done it in the financial industry and this is how it worked.” We used these examples of where it had been used successfully to refute conversations of it can’t work.

It was just through the curiosity of those meet ups that I found Thoughtworks. This was during the time of the financial crisis in the UK and Thoughtworks was growing! They were based in Chicago but due to the number of technical projects that were based out of the London they gained a UK office.

At this time there was a huge demand for engineering to be done well. Thoughtworks didn’t necessarily bang the drums about agile but if you wanted a great engineering team to come into your organisation and work for you, here is it and those teams just used those agile approaches. Thoughtworks always had a great caliber of people they hired and I learnt a lot about building software rapidly for companies. I learnt how extreme you could be in really taking on good engineering practices and turning the gears up to 11.

I came back from the UK to Australia when I had my first child. I thought I was done with my career. I had gone through all the roles in a project team and I had seen all the different sides of clients and I had moved into a Principal Consultant role and now I will just be a mum. When I had my second child I thought no I think I have more left in me to give. This time though I worked inside organisations rather than as a consultant. I worked for Insuranceline (TAL), AIA and Australia Post. Three organisations in a row and I went in and looked at the problems and thought “you know what we need here?” An agile transformation. I repeated that 3 times.

What I have learnt is that you can apply these agile techniques to any team. When I first went into these organisations and I didn’t have these top teams, I didn’t have these thoughtworkers here so I thought is this going to work? Did we only have success through Thoughtworks because we had a team with such a high level of skills and talent? What I found was it worked anyway. This reaffirmed to me that this was just a good way to work because everyone is more engaged. Everyone has more to say and you get better ideas because we were leveraging collaboration a lot more. That really confirmed for me that this is something really worth while it’s not just a flash in the pan thing.

I was really quite a methods nut anyway and I would devour the books, go to the conferences and learn stuff, get certificates. I realized that it was something that we could do to help lots of teams and lots of organsiations.

So then after I left Australia Post I realized something about myself. When I am in an organisation I really like the people leadership aspect. When I am outside a company consulting for other organisation that’s where my knowledge curve grows. When I am inside a company I like to nurture companies and you immerse yourself in different cultures and when you consult for companies you learn so much. That’s why we have established Reboot Co. because my business partner and I each have over 20 years experience in this agile space. We both have similar values. We both believe that we can take normal teams, ordinary teams nothing extraordinary and help them rebuild and grow.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you have seen organsiations make when trying to implement agile?

On reflection and in conflict to how I feel I have learnt that you can’t preach agile to people who have been delivering a certain way for such a long time. Just doing agile for agile sake is not good enough. It has to be grounded in something more than that, such as how are we going to be better? It has to be tied to some sort of outcome that is business relevant. Otherwise it can quickly spiral into an environment where communities of agile people only talk to each other because they haven’t worked out how to talk in terms of business outcomes and business goals. That kind of “preachy” agile can really put business people offside.

It’s a lot easier now because when you see big companies deciding to go through agile transformations like the ANZ’s and the Australia Post’s it’s much easier to say “Here’s how another big organization has done it” and you are not taking about some ridiculous idea that will never work.

The movement of mobile phones has meant that we see software much more frequently updating itself, and it’s not something that we have to go into a store and buy in packaging. Because of the cloud it is everywhere and we interact with it daily. Everyone understands that it needs to be rapid, what customers want, and used. Features are now being released more rapidly which means faster feedback, more customer centricity and this is starting to sink in. Other organisations are starting to say. Give me some of that fast delivery!

I am also really against any type of dogma. As I said I am a bit of a process nerd, so I will look at all of the agile methodologies and work out go what’s interesting about each one. I remember back in the day there was a bit of an Agile vs. Lean conversation. But communities started to come together and started to realise, “hey we have more in common than we thought.” There are different things you can use for different circumstances. Lean came from manufacturing so it is really suitable for teams that are doing similar stuff really regularly, like operations teams can leverage Lean. Agile, XP and Scrum is really suited to new products, big projects, one off’s that go for 6 to 18mths. I just think dogmatically sticking to something because it is in someone’s book or a methodology can lose people. You see it in teams sometimes for example, a Scrum team doesn’t have Product Owner they think that’s why it is not working. What I see a lot more of now is there’s different things people can bring to the table and not as many people are getting pigeon holed into one role. There is a lot more collaboration.

Have you seen people struggle when they are asked to complete tasks that fall outside of their job title?

Yes, I have and I can totally understand why people do freak out because that is their career.  They might have a really nicely planned out path of where they want to go and what they want to do. I think in 10 years time the world will look very different. Career changes, role changes and whole industry changes will become really common. I think at that point we will see less of the panic. But for now you are measured by your job title. You apply against a specific job title for a particular position description. The PD has a job salary related to it within a salary band. It might have a mid, junior, senior, or executive role. I think in the next 10 years organisations will be removing those structures and giving people more freedom. Facilitating that and giving people more movement, especially lateral movement. There are definitely a lot more jobs becoming blended.

I’d imagine in the recruitment world it presents difficulties because clients are looking for someone with specific skills. If you have diversity across multiple agile roles it does become more difficult to ‘fit’ you into a specific role.

I think in a few years time there will be a whole new language that’s going to wipe out all of these generic job titles. I think we will start to see people calling themselves digital natives or cross functional consultants, or collaborator which is going to make a lot of the other roles seem old and outdated.

What are some of the biggest achievements you have seen or helped teams deliver?

When you are a consultant you have to be happy with the business having the achievements and you have to smile and be happy that you played some part in that. It’s not your victory but theirs. Whereas when you are inside companies you feel like “hey my team and I really owned this.” For many years we used to talk about the agile transformation that we did at Insurance Line because we left these amazing, self organising delivery teams. It came from a failing technology team that wasn’t very well respected by the business and there was a bridge between the business and technology that they couldn’t cross. Being part of the team that turned all of that around was incredibly rewarding. We could give them anything, any project and they would rally around and start delivering. They were delivering with an amazing track record of success. Back in those days, on time, to budget were the buzz words and we were hitting those. We measured them and for years afterwards teams are still doing that, it stuck. They didn’t revert back to their old way of working.

The interesting thing that happened though was once new people came into the organisation it all got dissolved. New executives, new ideas and it all got reorganised and dissolved into different areas and a lot of the work we had done was reversed.

You could go back and re-coach that organisation on things we taught them back in 2008. Some areas have still kept the skills. But a lot of people have left and gone to other organisations and that is also something I would say is an achievement. When you see other people start their own smaller agile transformations in their new companies. It’s like this butterfly wing flap that has spread.

AIA we did a great agile transformation. That was super successful with small wins in different circumstances. The team in question, had in the previous years, delivered 11 changes into production. They then reverted to agile ways of working and they had delivered 60 in the first few months and in the year had delivered 320 changes to production. We thought, this is nuts! I have always known this way of working is better, more efficient, and adds value. But to have it quantified like that and that level of improvement blew me away. And that gave us license to say ‘well we have delivered this from one stream there’s nothing to say we can’t deliver that from 4 streams next year.’ If you go into AIA there are different people but there are still some people working the same way we had coached them. Now there’s a real push for the agile journey again at AIA.

Australia Post is another big one. There was a new team, digital new people involved and I was one of those people in the leadership group that really created a new awesome way of working in a 200 year old company. In this role I feel like every agile fight you had to fight you found yourself having. Every kind of conflict you could have inside an organisation we had.  Now what they deliver out of those teams is incredible! The digital identity that you see from them on the news now is from those teams. Cam Gough was the GM there at the time and had a team of about 20 people. There were around 30 pretty cranky digital assets that weren’t really well loved and now his team is up near the 350 now.

The best thing is, is when you go and have a coffee with someone and they say ‘remember when we started that agile transformation and now look at what’s it’s grown into.’ It’s cool to think that you were there when those pieces were started and you played an influential role in the success and growth of that company.

What is the most important quality of an agile team needs to have?

As we get more modern and technology becomes more a part of our lives and robots do more things for us we are starting to see a new style of leadership. The one that I see that is creating the best results in organisations is the one that is supportive, gives people the reigns, fosters decision making and really doesn’t focus on the output of the team but focuses on the growth of that team. Any leader with those skills, it doesn’t matter how many of the agile practices they are implementing or how extremely cool their technology solutions are, if they create a team that loves working together they will stay there. They won’t want to go anywhere else. Great products come from great teams not from the smartest person, or biggest dictator of timelines. You have to invest in the people if you want good things to come out of an agile transformation.

Agile Method vs. Agile Mindset?

We run a fundamentals course were we go through the why, what and the how. So the ‘why’ is all about the principles and where the history of agile comes from. The ‘what’ is all about the practices, the methodology, reading a book and finding out about how this stuff works. But the ‘how’ is learning all about mindset. What culture do we need for us all to work really well together? How curious are we, are we incentivised by the need to be curious? Are we encouraged to be curious or are we encouraged to put our heads down and just crank out story cards? How involved are we all in this product together or are we just taking orders from a Product Manager?  Mindset is a huge part of it because you can mechanically go through an agile practice, and I have seen teams do this with ok results. But if you want that above average result of a team that absolutely kills, creating a product or building something, mindset is a huge part of that.

Some people get there quicker than others. If you have been rewarded for being a hero for 20 years of your career for getting results at whatever cost, making decisions that are dollar based over people and values, it is going to be harder for you to shift to that mindset. A mindset where you support collaboration, value everyone’s opinion and you have empathy for others.

That’s’ why you get some agile people who make the jump really quickly. I can be running a fundamentals class and I can see light bulbs going off in certain people and I think ‘they’ve got it.’ They just naturally understand the underlying values and principles of agile and that’s how they want to live their lives. Some people struggle to get there and some people will never get there. Mindset is so important and more and more these days we see people wanting to be highly engaged in their work, wanting to have decision making power and work with teams in a collaborative way.

I think you will see people that have a good mindset stay in orgs for longer because they are engaged and they want to be there. In an agile team it’s great when the mentality is ‘occasionally we have struggles but we get through them together.’ Why would anyone leave those workplaces?

I have worked in places that have amazing cultures like Envato or REA. Envato for example have flexibility where you can work from anywhere and at the times you want. Employees value that so highly that some people will never leave. That’s such a big part of their lifestyle and you would either have to be getting paid a lot less than the market rate or something else bad was happening in the organisation for them to leave. But if you have a great salary and you are getting all of the other boxes ticked, why would you leave?

Do you think agile can work in any organisation?

This would have been hard questions to answer 10 years ago. But now I would say yes. When you look at companies like ANZ and what they are doing at the moment in terms of agile transformation, you would have to think it can work anywhere. It always comes at a cost. There are definitely people that will struggle with all of the changes, especially those that don’t gravitate to an agile mindset. Maybe people who have been at ANZ for 20 years might find it difficult.

Sometimes I sit there and try and think of organisations where it wouldn’t work but then I look at companies like NASA and SpaceX who are building rockets and space ships. This is a company where there are these incredibly high tolerances for safety and lives are at stake. But then you hear about little things that those companies are doing where they are leveraging lean and doing a bit of agile there and you start to realise it is possible. I think it again comes down to really understanding investment in leadership. You never hear about those places being top down dictatorship style companies. There are these new emerging mindsets that are coming out of these places and it’s so good to see. Can you think of anywhere?

Briana – ‘I think what I have seen in many of the companies that we work with, that are going through agile transformations, is that people have adapted agile to suit what’s best for their organisation. So what I would say is that it’s not that it can’t work in some companies but it’s more about finding what is going to work best for them.’

That’s true. There have always been pockets of agile in a lot of organizations as well. Even 10 years ago you would find someone in a cupboard doing Scrum somewhere. There was always some teams where they would be like yeah ‘we use JIRA we do cards it’s just our Project Manager doesn’t know that this I what we do.’ People I know are saying Agile is going to be like typing in 5 years time everyone is going to know how to do it. You won’t even think about it anymore.

I’m hearing a lot about design thinking and different practices and there’s talk about whether these methodologies will work outside of digital or software delivery. A collision of all of those practices is where you will find the sweet spot. There are so many methodologies that seem hard and complex and we need coaches almost to navigate our way around what is out there. But honestly I think anything can work if you put enough energy into it and if you have enough expertise.

I coach a lot of non technical teams and we coach them on how to do Retros, Stand Ups, use iterations and do planning and those 4 things can make a huge difference to a HR team or finance team. Not everyone has to follow the Scrum guide to the letter. You can give teams that have nothing to do with delivery of software these skills.

Briana – ‘At Rowben we have started to introduce some of the agile practices you had taught us about which have been really interesting to use from a recruitment perspective.’

It is great that Tracee will invest in training for your team. In the recruitment industry I would imagine that is very rare. It is great if there is anything you want to know or learn there is a lot of investment in that. Again it’s a mindset thing, you need that support from your leader. It’s again about building a team that is invested in the work they do.

Briana – ‘I think the more we understand about agile the better we understand the roles the easier it will be for us to find the right people for our clients. The first role I had was digital agile role over a year and a half ago. To see how the market has changed and how many more people know about agile or have those skills now is crazy. I am seeing a lot of people up skilling themselves too.’

When I was GMHBA with Luna Tractor there was a girl there and we had been coaching that group for a couple of weeks and she said ‘ok let me show you our board.’ We just thought she was a Scrum Master because she was so good at bringing people together and taking down every idea that we had. We assumed she was the team leader or manager and it turns out she was the Personal Assistant of one of the GM’s. She just absorbed all of this information and thought I can make this department more efficient by using these agile methods. I thought to myself ‘you are a future agilest.’

What are your thoughts on the Project Manager or Product Manager? In an agile team is there a need for a Project Manager still?

I think we definitely still need Project Facilitators. We have used the scaled agile model which worked really well but we had these big important initiatives as well, so unless we gave someone the overall control of the project to keep an eye on everything things would have got out of hand. If there was someone in the team that put that hat on then the initiative would just run smoother. There is still a need in many organisations for whatever you want to call it, facilitator, Delivery Manager or Project Manager. There is still going to be the need in any organisation for coordination. I would love to believe that self organising teams, left to their own devices, could self organise the world but I don’t think we are there yet. We have noticed over the years that we are not very good at taking away processes we just add more processes in place. In large organisations this means you have so many hurdles to navigate. There is always going to be a place for that type of skill it’s just whether or not the job title changes.

I noticed at Australia Post and REA there was a real aversion for Scrum Masters or Delivery Leads to look at the finances of projects because they were people who didn’t have that background. So the people who were willing to give it a go and say I can calculate a budget, I can tell you how much the team is costing, I can look at some vendor licensing agreements and put it into a spreadsheet really stepped up.

It’s really not that hard of a skill but some people just like it more than others. Some people would think that as soon as I start looking at dollars I now have more responsibility, some didn’t want that responsibility.

Anyone who is willing to come to grips with the commercial side of the business will have an advantage over those who do not. Project Managers have that experience and those skills. If a Project Manager can take that knowledge of finances and that commercial aspect and shift their mindset towards those collaborative aspects and let go of the need to boss people around, that’s when you see really good transitions for Project Manager’s into these agile roles.

What are the positives and negatives of agile transformation?

Positives? You find you have happier people, the feeling that you are getting more for less, more return on investment for less effort. You also get that lovely feeling of knowing you haven’t wasted your time creating a whole bunch of stuff no one needs. Being able to get rapid feedback or any feedback means you are creating products that people actually want to use and not ones that make you want to through your phone against the wall!

Negatives? Now this is full disclosure because I am an agile coach but a negative I see is when people get caught up in the whole religious debate of Agile. Sometimes you wouldn’t believe it but some Agile consultants are actually really nice to each other. Sometimes there is a bit of a war and trash talking amongst other agile consultants though. I feel that the pie is big enough for everyone to get in there and help out the organizations that need help without undermining each other or having twitter wars about what particular interpretation of the scrum guide is best, or whether a certification in agile is good or evil. I think that is the down side. I feel like sometimes I am even sick of the word agile because of the people out there giving us a bad name.

I will admit it has taken longer than I thought it would for agile to be accepted. When I first came across it I thought ‘this seems logical.’ This time next year everyone will be doing stand ups! Well that wasn’t the case. I think one of the reasons why the movement has been so successful now though is because it is an open community that hasn’t really been owned by a particular brand or company and it’s just a collective of people who want to believe in the principals. If you had one company that owned agile like how IBM that owned Rational and we saw that methodology fade out and die. I think because agile methodology hasn’t been owned by any one company has added to its success. This is also why we get these philosophical debates about which methodology is best.

To finish up can you tell me about your new venture with Reboot Co.?

Reboot Co. is a consultancy that my business partner and I have created because we collectively have all of these scars and war stories but also some really great success stories during our 20 years of experience in Agile Transformations and consulting. We see a real need out there for proliferation of techniques; in particular the mindset side of things and the culture that makes companies thrive. We want to leave organisations with really happy teams that are really enjoying their work. We believe will get the best return for their buck in using some of these techniques. We are all about rebooting teams, whether that is conducting boot camps from the start so that they can then go off and apply these skills on their own or rebooting cultures, or booting up transformation.

This could be across a whole department or a whole organisation. If a company wants to improve their culture and become better at delivery using agile we can help them set up their systems or work flows so that they are organised.  We want teams to get the best advantage out of what they are doing. Whether this is across really big pieces of work and really tiny pieces of work we will be involved in all aspects, everything apart from the actual delivery.

We really want to work with small delivery partners. We often go in to places and they ask us to help them hire a Business Analyst or a Developer.  We will aim to work with them as a delivery partners to help them get the best people onboard as well!

I want to say a massive thank you to Alexandra Stokes for coming in to share her knowledge and experiences.

If you would like any more information on Reboot Co. follow the link to the company’s website www.rebootco.com.au

Interview conducted by Briana Adams, Digital Recruitment Specialist at Rowben Consulting