Fleur van Unen And Sylvain Mahe On a Toolkit For Leadership Agility

At the upcoming Agile Indonesia conference, Fleur van Unen and Sylvain Mahe from Palo IT are co-presenting a talk on tools for agile leadership, and give concrete advice for leaders drawing on techniques and frameworks such as Management 3.0.  They spoke to InfoQ about the talk and their leadership philosophy, the importance of community in spreading agile ideas and treating employees as resourceful adults.

InfoQ: Sylvain, in your profile I read ‘I believe Agile is above all an attitude based on trust, discipline and a flexible mindset.’ Can you please elaborate a bit on that?

Sylvain Mahe: I mentioned these three attributes on my profile because I think they are key success factors for Agile to succeed:

  • Trust: without trust, there is no safe space for team members to fail, be vulnerable, give and receive feedback. Most Agile feedback loops then become useless (daily meeting, retro…).
  • Discipline: people are often surprised when I tell them that I think Agile requires a lot of discipline, but I really mean it. It takes a lot of perseverance to try something new, be humble, be a beginner again. Agile is simple, but not easy.
  • Flexible mindset: when I teach Agile I often play the human pendulum, swinging from the “fixed mindset” space (the need to control, plan...) to the “flexible/growth mindset” space (change is the only constant, failing is learning...). They both serve us and I believe we continuously swing between them depending on the context. The thing is that we have a preferred one and Agile definitely belongs to the flexible space meaning that if the fixed mindset space is your default state, well then shifting to Agile will be less natural.

InfoQ: You seem to approach agile from a spiritual viewpoint; you are soft spoken, non-threatening and I think that’s a good basis for ‘facilitation’. How do you see your character match with agility and facilitation?

Mahe: I guess Agile resonated with my own journey to become more aware of my beliefs systems, my inner critic, my ego, the way I show up, the way I communicate, how “words are windows or they’re walls”. You can only achieve this with deep introspection, and many spiritual practices invite us to deeply explore our inner self: mindfulness meditation, yoga, tantra, shamanism… I’m a seeker who believes there is something beyond what we can see and that connects all of us. Connection to this outer - or is it inner?- world is the path to higher levels of consciousness, which I think we badly need as a species if we want to extend our time on this planet.

Long story short, I think Agile is a path to greater levels of consciousness - for individuals, teams and organizations.  This is of course one interpretation of Agile, but that’s the one I chose until today: that Agile is a people centric approach to work that aims at ending suffering in the workplace and creating the space for people’s creative nature to blossom. That’s where I see the match with who I am today. I’m walking the same path as the organizations and people I coach.

InfoQ: What are some of the things you found as common ‘blockers’ to Agility in Asia and Singapore specifically?

Mahe: I’m being cautious here because it’s always tempting to make generalizations, and since I hate being put in a box I don’t want to do it to others. On top of that, I’ve been living and working in Singapore for just a little more than four years and still have a lot to learn about the culture here and in SEA. Consider my comments in the perspective of nations, as a cohesive group who shares a common set of values, and not at the individual level.

The main challenge I see lies in the implementation of feedback loops. Feedback loops are everywhere in Agile, and their intent is to provide a “real time” mechanism to correct our course if we are not going in the right direction. It works under the assumption that it’s safe to provide feedback. The problem I see is that in many Asian cultures it’s not ok to bring bad news, concerns, share impediments with the boss… The same is true with transparency. It works if it’s ok to challenge the manager or the elder which is a difficult thing to do here.

Another challenge is related to the way people deal with their emotions. I believe peak performance / happiness happens when it’s completely safe to open up, which seems to be more difficult here where people tend to hide their emotions in the workplace.

I also think Singapore is facing some specific challenges due to the education and political systems. From what I’ve seen, stability, control, compliance with the rules are highly valued here and taught from a very young age. As a result, things like thinking outside the box, saying no, challenging the status quo - which are encouraged in Agile - are seen as being rebellious and put you at risk of being excluded from the group.

That being said, the government seems very aware of the challenges ahead and of the limitations of the dominant fixed mindset. The PM recently said “Old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast, and we're having to adjust and to keep up, because of technology and globalisation. And the disruption will happen over and over again, relentlessly”, and knows that in order to stay ahead of the pack, there is an urgency to be more innovative and creative. As you know, Agile promotes a growth/flexible mindset that welcomes unknown, embraces change, allows solutions to emerge; this could be part of the answer.

The management style I’ve seen so far is still very much traditional – command and control, centralized, long hours, top down, fear-based… - and is quite at the other end of the spectrum compared to Agile which favours delegation, collaboration and co-creation.

At the same time Singapore is a masterpiece of adaptive planning and continuous improvement. I see many initiatives where the government tries something; sees if it brings the expected results and improves (for instance the self-driving cars). This approach is comparable to the Plan-Do- Check-Act loop in Agile.

So as always, it’s not black and white; I see roadblocks to the adoption of Agile but also aspects that are very conducive to the success of Agile.

InfoQ: Fleur, you started your agile journey as a Scrum Master for ABN AMRO; first in the Netherlands, later in Singapore. What do you see as some differences between the way agile is adopted in the Netherlands versus Singapore?

Fleur van Unen: Of course every organization, team and individual is different and I’m still learning everyday about differences in cultures and organizations when it comes to Agile adoption in various contexts and countries. However, there are a few key observations I made as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach so far. First of all, I feel that in general, the level of adoption and maturity in Agile is higher in the Netherlands, in comparison to Singapore. This observation is based on my experience in and with large waterfall organizations going through an Agile Transformation (e.g. banks, large service/software providers).

In addition, there are also cultural and organizational differences which impact the level of adoption of Agile. In the Netherlands, individuals tend to provide feedback openly and directly during meetings, which is highly valued in Agile (e.g. during Sprint Reviews). My observation in Singapore is that feedback is preferably provided 1-on-1. Building on the point raised by Sylvain, the main challenge in adopting the Agile way of working lies in the implementation of feedback loops which is one of the key characteristics of Agile. The (often) existence of hierarchy in traditional Singaporean organisations can impact the implementation of iterative feedback loops and open, direct communication.  In the Netherlands, individuals (in general - not all of course) tend to feel comfortable to provide (both negative and positive) feedback, share opinions or address concerns in groups or towards a manager, whereas individuals in Singaporean organisations might not feel that it is safe or appropriate to do the same (since it can be considered as too direct, inappropriate or rude).

InfoQ: You recently joined Palo-IT and started on a project for another big bank. What are some of the experiences you gained at ABN Amro that you can use in your new role?

van Unen: Yes, and it has been very exciting! I am indeed currently working on two projects at a large, traditional bank in Singapore. With a Palo IT Development Team (consisting of UX Designers and Developers) we are working closely with two Product Owners from the business-side of this bank. We deliver the projects “Agile”, which means that we work according to the Agile principles and Scrum framework, in a waterfall environment. My previous experience at ABN AMRO Bank definitely helps me, in a sense that I know how traditional organizations (with waterfall processes) and Project Management works (e.g. managing expectations of stakeholders, documentation which is required), but also have the experience of working with Agile teams and coaching them in a traditional environment.

InfoQ: Fleur, what do you see as the top three ‘struggles’ teams have in becoming Agile?

van Unen: One of the main struggles is the mind-set change. It is not only about “doing Agile”, but also very much about “being Agile”. Of course we can learn by the book how we should apply and implement Agile principles and for example a Scrum Framework, but if our mindset is not ready, will we achieve an actual change in our way of working?

Another struggle which teams face is the organization and context they are working in. What if a team is working in an Agile manner and is highly motivated to deliver in short iterative cycles by working closely with their Product Owner, but still have to deal with waterfall processes as part of their organization, vendors which have their own way of working (waterfall model) or management trying to push in requirements by bypassing their Product Owner? Not only teams need to change their mind-set; it’s a journey for the whole organization, including leaders.

The role of the Product Owner and the mandate a Product Owner has to clearly define a vision and sharing this with a Development Team can also be challenging. A Product Owner has a key role and needs to work closely with a Team, while managing its stakeholders so the Team can keep focus on the actual work to be done. Since a Product Owner needs to ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page when it comes to a (product) vision, and share this subsequently with the Team, it is a very important role in order to deliver an Agile project successfully. If the Product Owner does not have the mandate, or faces challenges with sharing the vision or setting priorities towards the Team, it can result in struggles, impediments and frustrations for the Team.

InfoQ: Sylvain, looking more on the leadership side, what do you see as the three most common challenges to move leaders towards agility?

Mahe: The key word for me in your question is “move”. I don’t think my role is to move leaders towards agility. I like the coaching standpoint: people are resourceful and I’m here to help them. I have no mandate to force any change down their throat (something I see very often in organizations). I’m not saying it’s the right way - the agile coach spectrum is broad - but it’s the way I chose and that matches my values. The three natural steps in coaching are:

1- awareness of the issue

2- willingness to change

3- ability to change

As a coach, it’s my job to open new perspectives and creating awareness. Then comes willingness and ability and that’s where I see most challenges. The main ones at the top of my head right now are:

  • There seems to be more to lose than to gain. Power. Title. Status. Shifting to Agile requires an important leap of faith.
  • My organization won’t give me the time to learn the new skills I need. It looks like more work.
  • I’m not sure I have the full support from my management. Is it a safe space to experiment?

As a coach, my job is to challenge the willingness, make sure it’s there and it’s strong. Once willingness is validated, then I can help my client develop a plan to develop the resources (abilities) she needs to become a great agile leader.

InfoQ: Fleur, what do you think is the role of ‘community’ in spreading agile?

van Unen: If I think about the meaning of community, I think about a group of people, who have something in common, like norms, values or identity. When it comes to Agile, I certainly believe there is a strong existing community where Agile practitioners, leaders, coaches and many others share the same values; the values of the Agile Manifesto. It is great to see how many meetups, conferences, events and workshops are being organized worldwide to share thoughts and experiences about the Agile way of working, mindset and behaviour, frameworks, methodologies, tools, best practices and challenges in implementing an Agile way of working in organizations. Our role as community is very important as I really believe that we, as a group of unique individuals with different backgrounds, nationalities and experiences can empower, strengthen and inspire organizations and each other as unique individuals about spreading and adopting Agile.

InfoQ: During the Agile Indonesia conference, you will run a workshop on tools for agile leadership. What in your view are the differences between a ‘manager’ and a ‘leader’?

Mahe: Most management techniques still being used today have been designed 100 years ago for uneducated workers going to the cities to work on assembly lines (thanks Mr Frederick Taylor). If you go back to the etymology of the word manager, you’ll learn that it means “holding hand”. Do I need to say more? In traditional management, employees are treated like kids and trust is very low.

The problem is that the context has dramatically changed - knowledge workers, millennials, pace of innovation… - and this toolbox has become largely ineffective.

The traditional management realm - motivation, hiring, compensation, performance, engagement… - is still highly relevant but science has given us new powerful tools to perform these tasks. Time clocking, yearly performance reviews, monetary rewards… this is the old world! Resilient organizations are now operating with very different models.

In the new world, employees are considered as resourceful adults, and as a result are able to handle many management tasks. As we sometimes hear, “management is too important to leave it to managers”.

At the same time, there is the need for inspiration, support, mentoring… that’s the role of leaders. Leader is not a title, it’s an attitude. Leaders shape the organization’s culture - “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate”. Leaders go first!

I hope we’re going to see more a more conscious leaders in the coming years.

InfoQ: What toolbox will you share with people? What else can the audience expect?

Mahe: We are going to share tools and models who helped us in our work with our clients (and who hopefully helped us become better persons in the process). Our goal is not to tell people what to do, but to share our experience and let them decide if they want to give them a go or not.

Expect a very interactive session where we’ll explore tools and models like Management 3.0, Life coaching, Theory X and Y… that we find powerful to illustrate topics like trust, delegation, motivation… which are key topics to address when working with leaders transitioning to Agile. We’ll also share things we’ve discovered recently like host leadership. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

About the Interviewees:

Fleur van Unen has been working in Singapore the past 1.5 years. As a native Dutch, she moved for ABN AMRO Bank from the Netherlands to Singapore to work as a Scrum Master and introduce the Agile way of working to ABN’s Asian branch. After a short travel back to ABN AMRO Headquarters in the Netherlands, she joined Palo IT, a French Innovation & Transformation Consultancy, in Singapore. She is passionate about innovation and Agile and an experienced Agile practitioner and coach. Van Unen works with clients to increase their products’ Time-2-Market and enable an innovative and Agile way of working in an international environment while empowering teams and individuals.

Sylvain Mahe is an agile and life coach with 9+ year of experience working on medium to large Agile transformations at the team, management and executive levels. He has worked in a variety of industries (Banking, Telcos, Publishing, IP, ecommerce…). Originally from France, Mahe has worked from Singapore for the past years.

This post originally appeared on InfoQ.