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The Art of Agile

Albert Einstein once said: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” It’s hard to argue that this era is characterized by its fast pace and bold inventions, making the willingness to adapt all the more vital for success. That’s what got Matthew Caine interested in Agile. While working in software development, he was looking for a way to streamline his processes, and once he went Agile, he never went back. Now Matthew runs M.C. Partners and Associates and the Agile Academy in Zurich, where he helps businesses adapt Agile practices. Here, he tells us how he became interested in Agile and how it can help companies adapt to an ever-changing world.

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Let’s start with the basics. What is Agile?

The way I like to start talking about Agile is by explaining that it’s a way of working that allows people to fulfill their potential. But it’s also about results; it’s about people and the results that they can actually achieve. Agile is about getting feedback; it’s about failing fast and learning; it’s about bringing people together as a team; it’s about breaking down silos and taking time to reflect on how we work together. Agile is about learning and improving how we work, not only what we do but how we work. Normally in projects we do a ‘lessons learned’ at the end, but what we do with Agile is that every two weeks we talk about what’s stopping us from getting better. So, in a traditional work environment, we’d do a nice, lovely plan and stick to that plan and what we would actually deliver at the end would not be what the customer wanted. And Agile is all about delivering what the customer wants.

So, anticipating that things don’t always go according to plan?

Correct. Change always occurs and we’re in a world where change is happening faster and faster and more frequently. Instead of sticking to a plan, we need to change and deliver according to how things emerge as we learn. It’s about embracing that. Agile is still all about planning, but as soon as we have a plan it’s out of date, you see.

One way to demonstrate this is to identify the difference between a complicated and a complex problem. A complicated problem is one where we can assume that if we have enough time and enough data, the results will always be the same; the answer to the problem will always be the same. For example: what is the shortest route from Los Angeles to Chicago? Given enough time, enough data, the answer is always the same. So, that’s a complicated problem. A complex problem is: what is the shortest route right now? While you’re on that journey, the quickest route changes as there are car accidents or roads get closed or you break down: all of these things influence the result. So, a complex problem is one where the solution emerges over time and a complicated problem is one where you can do all of the planning and analysis and get the result upfront. So, the world today is all about complexity. And Agile is all about embracing that complexity and living with change.

What was it that first got you interested in Agile?

In 2009–2010 I worked for a software company, and we couldn’t deliver software at all. One day, one of our customers sent a guy to come and speak to us and he said, ‘You should look at Agile software development’ and explained it to us. I was the project manager and was responsible for the releases of the software, and I thought, ‘This is crazy, this will never work. Where’s my control? Where’s my plan?’ But, we went through the training and we decided to go for it. And it just made my life so much easier. I could focus more on the future, focus on the content of what they were doing rather than focusing on how much people cost, my project plan, negotiating change, all those things that take time and cost money. With Agile, I could focus on generating money rather than trying to save it.

So, does Agile have its roots in software specifically?

Yes, it all began in 2001. There were groups of individuals around the world who were producing software in a similar way, and they all had their own name for it. Then somebody had the idea to gather all these people together in Salt Lake City, and they worked for a long weekend and came up with their so-called manifesto for Agile Software Development. And slowly, over time, it gained traction. There were rumors in 2010 that it would just remain a fad, but it’s actually quite mainstream now.

What kinds of companies might find this useful?

Well, software companies, of course. But it can be applied to corporate communication, HR; it’s very applicable to knowledge work. The practices that are done within an Agile team or an Agile project, those good behaviors can be repeated with any team. For example, instead of having a weekly team meeting for an hour where the team lead just talks for the whole hour and everybody’s bored, we have five fifteen minute meetings where everyone says: ‘This is where I’m at, this is what I’m working on today, this is my problem’. So it’s about the timely addressing of issues that arise rather than waiting for a team meeting, which is boring and doesn’t bring any value.

How did the Agile Academy come about?

I had my own consulting company which I founded in 2011 to help businesses to adopt Agile practices. And one of the things we had to do was offer training courses. So we basically created this brand through which we could offer our courses. But there are lots of trainers out there and lots of training courses, so what we tend to do is that if someone is interested in a training course, we will look for the best trainer we can find, and it won’t necessarily be me. It depends on the culture of the organization. This is very important: it requires a certain amount of humility for a trainer to be able to say, ‘I don’t think i’m the best trainer for this organization and for this organization’s culture’. If we have a group of project managers from the financial services sector, the atmosphere is very aggressive, there’s no point in putting a soft project management trainer in that environment, he’ll get killed! And likewise, if you put a hard project manager into a softer organization such as an NGO, it won’t work either. So, our principal thing is: let’s understand the customer’s needs regarding training, let’s understand their culture, and then we can find the appropriate trainer to do it.

Can you describe the process you go through with a client or company?

If we’re focusing on training, the first thing is to understand why they want training in the first place. I’ve had clients call me and say, ‘I think it would be good for motivation’. I’m not interested in working with those clients. I need to know why you’re interested. And if they give me a good reason why, then I make a proposal and we execute the training. After they’ve done the training, we then support them in actually implementing what they’ve learned. Because often there is a lot of money wasted in training. You send someone to a training course, they do the training, and then they don’t apply it back into their work. And I don’t want that, because it’s a waste of time.

We used to do public training courses in hotels for two days, and anyone in the world could attend. And what happened is that an individual would come from a company and they couldn’t actually discuss their issues because they were confidential. Then they would go back fully motivated but nobody else understood, their boss wasn’t really interested, they’d get frustrated and demotivated, and we actually saw somebody quit their company because they believed in Agile so much and the company wouldn’t adopt it, and so they went somewhere else. So not only did it frustrate us because we didn’t win any further work, it frustrated the person who attended, and it was a waste of money for the client.

What, in your opinion, are the benefits of investing in training for a company?

That’s a very good question because I’m often asked what the benefits are, and some people will even say, ‘What’s the return on investment?’. It’s one of the hardest questions to answer, but I can quantify it in some way: If a team is able to deliver better quality, then they don’t get interrupted so often by questions or defects and they can focus more. So, if they can reduce the amount of defects from taking up 40% of their time to 30% of their time, it’s actually quite a big improvement in terms of building new functionality. Then it’s a question of how much you sell that extra functionality for, and then you start to see what your return on investment is. So, that’s one way of measuring it, through the number of defects. Improving quality improves everything.

Then there is the question of investing in your people. Modern organizations recognize now that the client is not king, your employees are king. Because if your employees are happy, they will make sure that your clients are happy. So it’s all about training your people and keeping them up-to-date on modern skills, modern approaches, and modern techniques so that they feel as if they’re at the forefront of innovation. I’ve mentioned before that the world is changing. The Iphone has only been around for ten years, and look how much that has influenced and changed the world. If we stay with the status-quo, our skills become irrelevant very quickly. It’s about staying relevant to the market.

Can you share one of your favorite success stories of how Agile helped a company or an individual?

Back when I was a project manager, there was a guy called Nigel. And before we switched to Agile, I went to him and said, ‘Nigel, how is your task going?’. And he said it would take twenty days. ‘I know it will take twenty days,’ I said, ‘but have you started? Are you 50% done?’ ‘I told you, it will take twenty days,’ he said. He wouldn’t tell me the actual status of his task. And we had a big argument. In the end, he did work twenty days, but he also worked weekends and sixteen-hour days to deliver on time. Now, fast-forward six months, after our Agile implementation. He comes into my office and says, ‘Matthew, I’m done, my team is on track, who else can I help?’ So, I ask you, which of those two personalities would you want to work with? This is the impact that Agile has on people. The first one is aggressive, not transparent, unpleasant to work with, and the same person six months later is done ahead of schedule and asking who else he can help. So, how would you prefer to work?