Flow is for everyone, agile is not

By Fin Goulding

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I’ve always felt a little different from my other C-suite executive colleagues and in fact, I have had many a conversation with my executive coach about imposter syndrome (take a listen to Tara Nolan’s Game of Teams podcast episode with me).

I thought that maybe it had something to do with my nomadic IT career in Europe, the US and Argentina, where I tried to soak up the culture and then adapt to their context.

To do this, one needs to be more open and available to your wider team. Indeed, I have always said that it’s the leader’s role is to get the work done and not to do it all themselves.

And while my team members tended to respect my openness, my peers labelled me quirky and some of my bosses called me a maverick (hence the title of our first book).

But whatever style you choose, curiosity, communication and personal learning can take you a long way.

The Art of Continuous Learning

I used to think that I was lucky in my professional life but in reality, it’s more about the combination of three key factors that have changed my career significantly:

1. Learning to counsel, coach and mentor. 

I’ve always been a social person and I genuinely believe that leaders need to be connective and supportive. And I learned that by working for a number of bosses who were the complete opposite to me; aggressive, machiavellian, control freaks who became successful by crushing everyone else (you know who you are). A bit of a sad existence which will feature in penance one day.

But I’ll be forever grateful for one (female) boss of mine who encouraged me to learn real counselling, coaching & mentoring skills and then let me take the lead in teaching her and the executive team how we could change the culture in the organisation for the good of the business. 

Leaders need to be responsible for the professional and mental health of their people. Full stop.    

2. Learning to be “agile” and not to buy agile

Even though I was leading agile teams, I wasn’t really part of the club. There is very little information about agile leadership apart from the so-called experts telling you that it’s your job to get out of the way. How sad!

You see, we don’t have agile badges and certifications at the C-level. And I’ll let you into a secret, we wouldn’t be very good at the exams anyway.

But I guessed that there had to be more for us and I figured that learning on the job would be my route to gaining agile skills. So I decided to go to stand-ups, retrospectives, sprint planning etc. 

At first, there was suspicion and why not, here is the person that leads thousands of staff standing at a whiteboard looking like a fish out of water. But when I personally took action to remove blockers, change bureaucratic processes, coached people to create solutions and made funds available to the teams to help them, I became part of the team and in the process learned visualisation skills that would help me to create new techniques and assets for other leaders. 

3. Learning that agile isn’t enough

 I started getting a reputation as a CIO/CTO talking about agile at conferences in terms of it being dead or calling Scrum mini-waterfall (by the way, my wife is a Scrum Master). I even went as far as to say that Scaled Frameworks are a Ponzi scheme driven by consultants where there is no finishing line (by the way, those frameworks are for leadership control and not team agility).

It might seem a bit harsh maybe, but what I was doing as a senior IT professional was calling out that agile needed to evolve. Mainly because it had become too IT-centric and the “business” was still unhappy about the pace and quality of delivery to the market.

Now the IT teams were obsessed with pace but when coupled with product failures this became one step forward and two steps backwards. Mainly because no one knew how to deliver value.      

Going back to point 1, what continued to happen is that people were not happy; Dev vs Ops vs Testers. IT vs Product vs Marketing. CxO vs CxO. Security vs everyone etc.

Change was needed and I personally needed to do something about it. And in 2013, that’s how we started to develop Flow.

The Business as a Value Chain

I don’t want to talk about agile methodologies in a bad way. They, like me, should be the culmination of lessons learned in the face of needing to improve.

But it’s not happening. And I believe that IT or more specifically many “agilists” don’t want it to (another harsh statement). Giving up the badges, certifications or titles gives rise to a defence mechanism and SAFe experts can be the most aggressive.

In my own agile journey, I studied lean practices and quickly saw the inefficiencies in branching code or big room planning (too many people in a room multitasking whilst waiting for their 15 minutes of story fame). Waste became my mantra or indeed the removal of said waste. 

I was also fascinated by value chains. This made sense but I couldn’t see the source of value creation. My job was to deliver value. But also, I saw the biggest impediment to value streams being the entire business itself.

And while IT wrestled against some silos with DevOps, Business/IT multi-disciplinary teams seemed and still seem a long way off (perhaps hampered by a lack of agile skills in HR). 

So it seemed obvious to me that if the entire business could become agile, then value could be derived and delivered with ease.

I Lied About Three Key Factors, There’s a Fourth 

And that fourth factor was meeting Haydn Shaughnessy back in 2013. He had developed the techniques for value discovery which are much wider than just product development and he had the successes to prove it.

We went about making Flow end-to-end, business plus IT and then make our practices a reality with great social interaction, visualisation, collective intelligence and collaboration. We focused on every aspect of a business, including those teams that are not normally interfacing every day with agile teams.

We also developed the Transformation Sprint (the topic of our latest book) to help us implement Flow for our clients and to help them to transform their businesses.

And what we are now discovering more and more, is that agile has become the thing that is now creating a divide between IT and the Business in some companies. And that’s why we designed Flow for everyone – even leaders! 

Flow Academy is a leading advisory and implementation practice specialising in transformation. Our tools help companies make the best use of their existing assets while reshaping their business to meet new demands.

Fin Goulding is a top 100 CTO/CIO who in the past five years has transformed into a business agility expert having worked for organisations like Visa, RBS, HSBC and digital startups such as lastminute.com and paddypower.com. Fin also coaches executives through the challenges of transformation.

Haydn Shaughnessy is a business economist and innovation expert who has consulted to some of the world’s leading organisations helping senior executives to plan the next-generation enterprise.

Transformation Sprint is their new book, now available on Amazon, which builds upon their best selling business books Flow: A Handbook for Changemakers and 12 Steps to Flow.

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