[Interview] Agility to me is the ‘Health’ of the company and it is hard to calculate the ‘Returns’ – Sunil Mundra, Agility Evangelist & Author of ‘Enterprise Agility’

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

The biggest challenge enterprises face today is dealing with fast-paced change in all spheres of business. There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking and dealing with disruptive changes in the business environment.

Enterprise Agility – Being Agile In A Changing World by Sunil Mundra presents a core belief that enterprises are open and living systems. And, these living systems, also known as Complex Adaptive Systems [CAS] are ideally suited to deal with change very effectively.

Given that, ‘agility is to enterprises what health is to humans,’ there are some foundational principles of good health that can be broadly applied. But, the specific definition of ‘being healthy’ for a specific individual can and will vary. Enterprise Agility puts forward a similar approach where foundational practices can improve the overall health of the ‘body’ – read, culture, mindset and leadership, and the health of its various ‘organs’ – read, people, process, governance, structure, technology, and customers.

Image Source – Enterprise Agility

Enterprise Agility discusses how to avoid the mechanistic construction of existing enterprises, that focus on predictability and certainty. It also delivers practical advice on responding and adapting to scale, and disruption. The book goes on to suggest a practical framework with which leaders can create a plan to enhance agility. Today, we have a chat with Sunil about his book and his work with ThoughtWorks. So let’s get started with the Q&A…

Please talk about yourself, your association with ThoughtWorks [which is considered a leader when it comes to paired programming and other agile methodologies] and the learnings from that association ?

I have been with ThoughtWorks for eight years now. I have 28 years of experience, with 18 years in the IT industry and 10 years spent working with traditional businesses and startups.

My passion has been solving client problems. I am happy when I am working with leaders, understanding their problems and working at solving them. At ThoughtWorks, as a consultant, I have the room to do what I love. And, what’s interesting is the company does not expect me to accept a business issue as stated – I have the freedom to question and really dig deep and discover the true problem vs. symptoms of a business issue. Which lets me be extremely effective in my role!

I would say, ThoughtWorks’ niche is solving clients’ mission critical problems. And, my role in this process allowed me to learn about ‘Being Agile’ and ‘Business Agility’.

There are obvious learnings when one is working in an environment that believes in the power of its people; the knowledge workers and their knowledge work. Here, people pursue their passions [like myself] and are empowered. Also, ThoughtWorkers are true client partners and not people sitting on one side of the table. There is openness and transparency when working with clients, and all these progressive ‘habits’ are focussed on ensuring value to the client relationship.

Kindly give a small glimpse about your newly released book ‘Enterprise Agility’ and how can enterprises [SME’s, startups and huge corporations] incorporate the learnings into their development culture ?

The book, Enterprise Agility talks about how an organization needs to build capabilities that sense the fast changing environment and adapt, and respond to it.  And, that means the organization needs to function like a living entity – a Complex Adaptive System.

Today, most organizations have converted into or have become machines and are rooted in Frederick Taylor’s philosophy of separating the thinker and the doer –  focusing on efficiency and specialization. And, while that may have worked in an era when the market was stable, when the organization’s primary constraint was capacity, when everything that was produced was consumed. Clearly a seller’s market. But today it is very different. An organization has to adapt to change, when one cannot always and accurately anticipate the emergent future.

Sunil Mundra

For SMEs, startups and large corporations, the principle to ensuring agility stays the same – be focused on the customer and have an overarching purpose. By purpose, I mean the organization should enable a win-win with every stakeholder in the ecosystem – employees, customers, vendors, society etc. Once this purpose is defined, then we identify capabilities and draw out the strategy.

Businesses are changing at a breath-neck speed and in order to adapt, they need to be more agile [and same is applicable for their teams]. How can ‘Agile Methodologies’ be adopted in companies with large-scale teams [business, development, testing, etc.] since they are more resistant to openness and change ?

Agile has its origins in software development, and the underlying methodologies are designed to improve effectiveness and efficiency of software delivery. What is often forgotten is that agile is not just about ‘doing’ the practices, but about ‘being’ agile, i.e. about a mindset and culture which is focused on achieving the desired outcomes. And, practices which lead to collaboration, timely and effective communication, ensuring visibility and transparency support this culture.

Let’s look at an example of distributed development which has its pain points depending on where the teams are sitting – different floors, geographies, time zones, across different cultures or even across organizations. The complexity increases alongside the increasing variables. Here, agile practices, processes and techniques can help alleviate pain points by enabling the needed mindset or culture change.

The wrong way to go about things is ‘doing’ agile without understanding why or its value. That leads to no sustainable benefit, not unlike the waterfall methodology which requires following a preset process. Agile, in comparison has more to do with ‘knowledge work’, and places prime importance on the people on the ground – the most powerful in the hierarchy. This means, while the traditional model has a worker and a manager to manage the worker, and a senior manager to manage the manager, and a vice president to manage the senior manager – it’s actually the information the worker is sending up that defines business strategy. Now, this requires that the manager should stop [traditionally managing or] directing and be a facilitator and enabler.

Whether a business is large or small, it must create cross functional and autonomous teams that are organized around outcomes and supported by the right mindset and culture across the entire enterprise.

How can companies already following ‘Agile approach’ take the next leap and move to ‘Enterprise Agility’ for better productivity and employee management [and engagement] ? Also, how can an enterprise agility mindset help get the most out of distributed teams [that are spread across different countries with time-zone difference] ?

Agility is a set of capabilities that help an organization deliver value. Agility can exist at enterprise level or even within smaller units of the enterprise, where people work on input to create something of value. [In comparison, agile is more focussed on the software development process].

Expanding on agility, there are three basic capabilities [in no particular order] it is defined by.  One is the ability to sense the environment, second is the ability to adapt and third is the ability to respond. However, enterprises may need additional capabilities which enable their agility. For example, Apple, also considered a master of innovation would call ‘being innovative’ a desired capability. For an organization that produces something in mass numbers, efficiency could be a capability.

This is also a key takeaway from my book where I talk about how every organization has to come up with a set of capabilities [specific to their context] that improves agility.

Please walk us through Complex Adaptive Systems [CAS] model and how the model can be used to enhance enterprise agility ?

Let me begin with an example. Nokia was a leader in the mobile handset space.  But, Apple’s iPhone, a smartphone with apps came to market and changed the status quo. Evidently, Nokia had become complacent and had failed to sense the change in the environment, in customer mindset/expectations and failed to respond to it. A similar story is of Kodak’s and the digital revolution – when they were the ones that invented the digital camera.  But, the technology was raw and they had failed to sense the potential opportunity.

In comparison, natural and socio-economic systems have been adapting and evolving. For example, transportation was predominantly animal-bound, then came vehicles that run on fuel and now, we are moving into an age of electric vehicles and soon it will be self-driven cars. Another example is human beings. We began as apes and today, we are a jumble of several races. We had a tail that we gave up as part of our physical evolution. And, like all Complex Adaptive Systems, we are still evolving and geared to improve the chances of survival.

Some characteristics of these systems include having agents that are autonomous in nature – mostly free but bound by some basic rules. For example, the traffic system is bound by some basic rules like red means stop, drive on one side of the road, use an indicator when making a turn and more. And, the ‘free agents’ are the make of the car, the route you take, the speed you drive at etc. The objective is to get from one place to the other with a fair amount of freedom.

When such freedom exists, there is value created from the interacting between agents. This calls for flexibility because detailed plans can quickly become obsolete in such environments. Meaning, something new emerges and the CAS has to figure out what to do next – evolve and adapt.

How can your book ‘Enterprise Agility’ be of help to an entrepreneur leading an early-stage or a growth stage startup ?

Startups by definition have greater agility, are usually based on a purpose that the founders passionately believe in, and are smaller during their initial stages. I would advise startups is to avoid scaling the based-on-enterprise principles of Taylorism, and ensure their purpose creates the ‘win-win’ for all stakeholders. Another key advice would be to build teams that are outcome driven.

Many companies have stringent policies, mindset, culture and once they adapt to change [by embracing agile], there would be a tendency to measure the ROI [either in terms of bug inflow, man hours reduction, etc.], how can ROI be measured for adoption of ‘Agile’ or ‘Enterprise Agile’ approach ?

Let’s explain this with an analogy – how would one measure the ROI of being healthy?  One can’t.  The investment could be calculated on gym membership fees, organic food etc. But, how would one calculate the returns of feeling healthy and having avoided disease?

That is how it is with agility.  Agility is the health of the company and it’s hard to calculate the returns. How would one calculate the cost of something that has not happened or the benefit of something bad that has been avoided.

Enterprises continue to practice such anti-patterns. For example, if the company is doing financially well, the assumption is that they are successful. But, the fact could be that the enterprise is slowing drowning because they are not ready for change. And, eventually, it’s only when organizations are in crisis are they ready to embrace change.

Can agile approach be applied to Product companies/Startups [Products which are in the Hardware space e.g. mobiles, e-scooters, etc.] where dependencies are on hardware, software, OEM’s, board manufacturers and what are some approaches that leaders can follow in order to bring-in agile mindset in product organizations [not pure software/SAAS based products] ?

Being agile ensures an environment in which people are given the most importance, because they are the thinking, living and breathing free agents who do the knowledge work. And, this is applicable to all types of organizations.

Toyota is a great example of applying agile principles to a manufacturing activity. Every worker is free to validate a problem that they see in the production line, with their manager, but they are equally empowered to pull the cord that stops the entire production line when they see an obvious problem on the line. This is an example of having a process but empower the people to break that process, if needed, in pursuit of the right outcome.

And, this is connected to one of the agile principles that talks motivated individuals, and that’s especially important when living in the knowledge world. This is because, a lot of jobs that we used to do can be done by machines. Software has so many tools that has automated several parts of software development. And, this has freed up the human brain for bolder creativity and expression.

In effect, I believe that agile principles can be applied beyond the scope of software development. The processes, techniques, standup meetings, MVP etc. are all about delivering an outcome that pleases the customer and harnesses the potential of motivated employees to the fullest, within the framework of appropriate governance, and intelligently planned innovation and experimentation.

Before we sign-off, please let us know the intended audience of the book ‘Enterprise Aglity’ i.e. whether it could be engineers, team leaders, team managers, CXO’s, etc. ?

Enterprise Agility is intended to be more thought provoking for leaders, rather than a step-by-step prescriptive playbook. My goal is to make a leader or influencer say, “Oh, I didn’t think of it like that! And, I see it’s relevance for my enterprise.”

We thank Sunil Mundra for sharing his insights with our readers. If you have any questions for him about agile programming, his new book, application of agile for distributed teams, etc. please email them here or share them via a comment to this article.