The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

The Mindset

with 5 comments

In her recent post Stop Drinking the Kool-aid – Eat the Cereal!, colleague and friend Jean Tabaka gives an interesting metaphor for iteracting with executives about Agile:

Talking about Agile to executives can be like feeding turkey to your family on Thanksgiving; it puts everyone into a sleepy stupor.

Jean goes on to recommend Lean as a way to get the message across. To quote her:

Through Lean, I am able to tap into discussions about waste versus value. I can engage the executive team into looking at their entire organization. And, these “seeing the whole” discussions help them then understand why they should care about an engineering groups adoption of Agile.

Working the Lean angle the way Jean recommends could most certainly open the discussion and enrich it. Success, however, depends on a certain kind of mindset of the executive you are talking to.  This mindset is nicely described in H. Thomas Johnson‘s article Manage a Living System, Not a Ledger:

…a business organization cannot improve its long-run financial results by working to improve its financial results. But the only way to ensure satisfactory and stable long-term financial results is to work on improving the system from which those results emerge.

If you accept the premise expressed by Johnson, you need to consider two kinds of possible dialogs to get your Agile message across:

  • Agile focused dialog about the what, why, how and when of Agile. You do this kind of dialog when your counterpart is already at the point of looking for sustainable value generation, not for a magic bullet.
  • Recipe for success dialog. This kind of dialog establishes the foundation required for the first dialog when the executive is not quite ready yet for Agile. Give the executive the opportunity to think deeply on his algorithm for success. It may take a few conversations until the algorithm is spelled out. Once it is, you can start working with the executive on what Agile is and how it might fit into his algorithm for success.

An extremely important point to keep in mind is that mindsets evolve. The set of business circumstances under which an executive is operating can lead to a certain mindset. The mindset can be quite different at another point in time due to change in strategy, priorities and constraints. A good fit for Agile may not exist today, but it might exist tomorrow.

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Written by israelgat

January 26, 2009 at 9:51 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Israel,
    your reference to the H.Thomas Johnson article about long-term financial results reminds me of some reading I have been doing in the broader scope of systems thinking. A system can rarely be “cured” either from within or from short-sighted goals. Typically, an outside influence, an independent agent or catalyst, must nudge the system to change. Additionally, systems usually require a two-pronged approach for improvement. Pay attention to what must be fixed now; don’t lose track of long-term impacts or goals.

    Jean Tabaka

    February 24, 2009 at 7:31 pm

  2. I am afraid we are staring at a major misalignment between systems thinking and the way the financials markets operate in the US (and possibly elsewhere).
    Public companies in the US live or die by their quarterly results. The relentless pressure to improve the quarterly results often stands in the way of long-term improvements to the system. My Social Contract post in this blog addresses the employer-employee dynamics. However, a system where costs are repeatedely being cut is on a very slippery slope. The system could easily deteriorate even if we manage to give employees the Agile skills safety net.

    Israel Gat

    February 25, 2009 at 8:07 am

  3. […] Agile poses harder challenge for executives who have not had the opportunity to assimilate the Agile mindset. The problem seems to be exacerbated due to the “Bobby Fischer […]

  4. […] “cut costs by systemically improving the underlying system” variety. The conversation with executives of this mindset usually converge quickly on what is most […]

  5. […] a comment » Readers of this blog might recall the ’secret sauce’ proposed in The Mindset for talking about Agile with executives: Success, however, depends on a certain kind of mindset […]


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