Martin Klusoň’s interview for the Moderní řízení magazine
For more than 25 years he has been helping to revise PMOs, manage portfolios and agile transformations. He has held top positions in e.g. Atos and Logica. Since 2007 he has been the Managing Director of Symphera. He has trained several thousand managers in agile workshops or in the PRINCE2 and PRINCE2 Agile methodology in the Czech Republic, Europe and the USA. He mentors and advises top managers at the level of board members. 11 years ago, he founded the Project Management Conference and the Chamber of Project Managers. He has helped more than 500 companies with agility and project management.
He’s very unhappy when agility is referred to something that doesn’t work. He immediately objects that in many cases this is not a problem of an agile approach as such, but its implementation. "If we push something hard only to say that we’re Agile, it won’t bring us anything," he says. He regularly runs agile project management courses and teaches managers to bring the agile approach into their own practice.
Don’t you feel that in the Czech Republic agility is more talked about than actually done? Doesn’t a working agile team sound a bit like a unicorn?
I can’t fully agree with this. Agility is talked about a lot, that's true, but it’s also being lived a lot. The key in this respect is to perhaps find the functional agile team. This is quite difficult. It is actually very difficult to define, how exactly we will assess the team’s agile function. These teams exist, I could show you dozens, maybe hundreds of them. All of these teams try to work agile, though not always succeeding. You see to change to agile management means to massively change the mindset, but also the corporate culture. And this is a bit painful process, especially in large corporations. So, in these companies the agile teams rather exist than work. They try to work in sprints, sometimes they work in a little different management processes, but they usually do not achieve the full autonomy or powers that are needed for agile management. Moreover, we must remember that the topic of agile is relatively young. Therefore, its definition is not yet fully established. Therefore, during implementation, the agile processes are slightly distorted and deployed poorly. So, it is not surprising that this doesn’t bring convenient results. But it’s the fault of the implementation, not of agile management itself.
Don´t you think that in many Czech companies the agile transformation is reflected more in their presentation of it rather than in the actual change of functioning?
That is unfortunately true. The problem is in fact that agile transformation is a very demanding process. And many companies are doing what I would call a wild agile transformation. Simply a transformation for transformation. But then failure is wrongly attributed to agility, though it isn’t its fault. In addition, many companies are unable to speak objectively and fairly about the process. It's just like you said. They spend a lot of time presenting themselves outwardly to convince the market, but also themselves, that the agile transformation has been or is going well. But it is in direct contradiction with what we hear from the people inside, their employees. I personally meet with hundreds of people who tell me about agile transformations in their companies, and those stories are often diametrically different to what these companies officially claim. I think that is why agility has an unnecessarily bad reputation today. It loses credibility. People cease to believe that it can really work. Yet if companies were willing to truly tell their experience, share the real situation, we would find many positive things.
Where can we most often find the weakness?
We often come across companies that officially claim that they cancelled all projects and the way of project management used to be done. But if you take a close look at their function, you will find that they still have projects, they are just named differently. And most of the Project Managers remained in their positions. Their function bears a new name, but they still behave the same way. The company basically lies not only to its people, but also to itself. In my opinion, this is in the direct contradiction with agility. Agility must not only mean a reorganization, but mainly a change in values and behaviour. Specifically, how the company behaves outwardly is one of the best measures of a truly agile approach. What products it has, how quickly they are put on the market, and perhaps most importantly, the company’s capability of market failure. Because an agile approach requires the courage to try new products and be unsuccessful. This is something that I would like to see from our big companies, whether it is banks, operators or energy suppliers. The ability to essentially test their products on customers and offer it as an advantage. In an agile world, we should really question the customers a lot more and only work with the features or parameters they really want.
But this means we really have to trust our people. Is that possible?
In agile management, trust is absolutely crucial. If I pretend that I have been through an agile transformation, yet basic things must be approved, it is absurd. I know a case of an airline that will entrust planes worth billions of crowns and the lives of hundreds of passengers on board to its pilots. But if they want their uniform to be cleaned, they must have a permission. This is an example of utter nonagility, a lack of confidence, where they were unable to change their processes and control mechanisms. Until budgets and some previously centralized processes are transferred to individual departments, including approvals, the business will not function agile.
So, how to do it right?
What it could or should look like is something we’re trying to show in ČSOB. There we are cooperating on an activity we called Smart Agile Transformation. In this bank, it’s Marcela Suchánková, Chief Executive Officer, who is responsible for the initiative. It’s important that the initiators are people who can directly influence their subordinate departments, whether it is HR, IT, or operational processes or facility management, who can eventually arrange tables. If an agile transformation is to be successful, we must start with the values. Gradually and slowly we must start changing the corporate culture. Not the whole company at once, but by individual departments. We must start where it makes most sense and try it out on just one or two teams. The second important aspect is, that people who know the market situation are involved in the project. They know where agile management has been introduced, where there are problems, and they may also have experience with the function of smaller teams within the company itself.
How should the mindset shift in order to truly implement agile management? Where is the most common mental barrier?
The first thing that needs to be answered is the reason why to get involved in agile transformation. If the reason is only that it is modern or that a competing company has moved to agile management, then my attempt is probably doomed to failure. This is wrong and it will probably end up with some outward arrangement, but true agility won’t sink into the company. If we find out what agile transformation can really help us with, we need to realize that an agile transformation means setting different behaviours, different values and performance indicators, changing the relationship with the customer and the product itself. Meaning, to move to a much greater flexibility. So, let's just get one thing out there, if we don't include HR in the agile transformation, we cannot make it. Because if managers want to maintain the existing control mechanisms, agile management won’t work. It is absolutely essential to be prepared to delegate authority and grant autonomy to individual agile teams.
What types of companies would find agile management unsuitable?
When we say agile transformation, it would seem that we must change the whole company. There are a number of reasons why not to engage in such a thing. If a company does not have a product that can be quickly launched and changed quickly during its life cycle, an agile transformation would make no sense. An example we can use is construction or development firms: their products simply can’t be created agile. But even to such companies we can introduce at least some elements or ideas of agility, or only implement agile management into some selected teams, where it makes sense.
When should we start to think about agility?
Agile is the best answer when we want to move the company forward and overcome some rigidity, get rid of unnecessarily heavy-duty processes. When the company’s own management doesn’t allow it to respond quickly enough to market movements. For example, an uprise of a new dynamic competitor that will take over the company’s market share. If it turns out that customers appreciate the competitor’s speed and flexibility, it's time to seriously think about changing management. In this situation, an agile transformation can help.
You said that without the involvement of the human resources department, we will achieve very little results in agile transformation. But how to get this done?
The basic prerequisite is that the mover of agile transformation is someone authorized to involve HR in the process. So, the decision should come from the position of a CEO or at least top management, someone enlightened at a board level. Agile transformation means a relatively detailed analysis of the whole company’s functioning, but also the re-setting of individual roles, tasks and other things. This is where the HR department is crucial. It is really necessary to carefully analyse the current organizational structure and the functioning of individual people in it; I should assess the atmosphere in the company and individual teams. It is a good idea to verify that the company accepts people who are open to change or on the contrary those, who cling to the processes. And then I should know what we already said – if the managers are able to delegate powers at all levels of management. Because if our company has the old type managers who are only used to tasking, micromanaging, then agile management cannot work with them. Last but not least, it is advisable to audit the existing processes and rules.
How should we adjust the processes?
We need them to be flexible – this may mean small things, for example nobody approves employees' holidays. This example is exactly what the agile team must manage by itself. Similarly, the rules must allow agile teams to recruit new members, even if it’s for a short term. It is also quite important to set up a remuneration system so that the employee really understands the impact of their performance on their own wage. Obsolete and rigid systems or, worse, tabular salaries, are very dangerous for agile functioning, I would almost say deadly. Only with HR’s help can the system of remuneration, delegation, responsibility, task ownership be changed. Agility allows employees to be more closely linked to the company's overall earnings, market success, and final product. This gives a whole new dynamic that the company is looking for. This cannot be achieved by changing of words or function names, but only by truly effective reorganization.
One of the manager’s qualities in an agile company should be the ability to delegate. But won’t the management lose control over the company?
The main task of a manager is to select sufficiently competent members for the team. When the team is not competent enough, getting rid of the control mechanism is somewhat foolish. In addition, the manager must be able to very clearly communicate the goals, the way of remuneration depending on its fulfilment to the team. Once these two things can be combined, it’s possible to start transferring a part of the powers and responsibilities. The book Turn the Ship Around describes a story of a submarine captain who delegated responsibility to his crew and gave its members more autonomy. Instead of commands, he asked his subordinates what they think they are supposed to do, and at times gave them his opinion. Therefore, he fundamentally changed the way of communication and assignment, or rather the non-assignment of work. The results of this submarine then greatly improved. In an agile environment, we should give up placing orders and concentrate on explaining the vision, project goals. Because if people identify with the goal, there is no need to give them tasks.
But this means I have to give up the reporting system, right?
Absolutely, because if someone has to regularly report to the manager what he/she is doing, then we’re back to micromanagement. After all, the agile team is not about what everyone is doing, it is essential that a particular employee is responsible for the results. I try to work like this in our company, I do not need any reporting from my subordinates. They themselves know how the company works, they are co-responsible for making the profit and are also rewarded by it. So, if I go to a meeting with my subordinates, even though it’s questionable if I can actually call them that, I ask what I can do for them. How can I help them? I don't need any list of what they did. That's their responsibility.
What kind of people should we recruit into agile teams? What qualities should they have?
To put it simply, we should no longer recruit anybody centrally. Decision-making about new members should be an essential autonomous task of every agile team. After all, no one else can know exactly what type of a person this team needs. HR should only be a service organization ready to help, but the actual recruitment should be delegated to individual agile teams. But the basic rule that is being promoted today - and not only in the Agile environment - is to recruit people by qualities, not skills. Because the necessary skills can usually be taught quite easily. This is truly essential for agile teams, we need a person open to this style of functioning, that’s more important than his technical skills. The emphasis must therefore be on the values that the team has. The candidate should fit into the team’s values and his acceptance or rejection should be influenced by the team itself.
But what you probably cannot delegate is the selection of managers. How do we recognize a manager capable of building an agile team?
It’s not entirely true that this step cannot be delegated. If , as a CEO, you are looking for a new member of the Board of Directors, you have other members under you. And they will again work with him as a team and, for example, they can be given the right to veto on a potential candidate. In general, the lesson that applies is not to invent difficult things, but to simply try them. When creating agile teams, it’s best to look for places where the agile principles already work and try to transfer this experience elsewhere. Then you can try to hire someone as a test. In our company or in the companies we work with, we hire new employees and at the same time we give them the task, that they themselves have to find a place in the team, to assert themselves. So, we don’t have the classic trial period, but at the same time all newcomers count on the chance that it may not turn out well. And that’s perhaps more likely than in a regular business, where once you come, you stay. In fact, in this setup, the employee himself decides whether or not the team will accept him/her.
You train quite often; you are also helping companies with agile transformation. Where does the impulse to change usually come from? From the CEO, or actually from within the company?
Both variants work, although it’s rarely from the CEO. These are rather individual cases. Quite often, however, the initiative comes from top management, say from the level of the board or one level below. Quite often they are operational or personnel directors or other members. Roughly the same amount of impulses comes from the middle management. It is often individual projects or departments that want to start functioning agile.
Does it happen that you do not recommend agile transformation to the company?
This does not happen, because such companies would not even come to us. There are many companies we help, for example, with project management, other transformations, and here the idea of agility doesn’t even come up and we do not recommend it. Then again, we recommend an agile transformation to the vast majority of companies, but just in some places, only in a small number of cases can the whole company be transformed into agile management. Usually, it is much better if only some of its parts work agile, for example selected departments or teams. There are several companies that have attempted a comprehensive agile transformation and today claim to have succeeded. But once you look inside, you find out that many things (sometimes almost all of them) have remained the same. The culture has not changed, only the names of positions have changed. And even the employees themselves laugh at the forced renaming in the spirit of agile terminology when they actually don’t work agile. It is always necessary to look at parts of the company, projects, activities and products which should be dealing with agile.
Isn't it so, that agile management is more suitable for small businesses? Could it be established in large corporations?
I do not think this is a system suitable for just some company size. Even in the Czech Republic we find examples of relatively large companies that are already moving to agile management. For example, Avast is definitely not a small company and works agile. We could say the same about Česká spořitelna (Erste bank), Vodafone and actually ČSOB, which we already mentioned. However, what has been said at the beginning remains - for large corporations, change of thinking and corporate culture is quite difficult. It is in these companies that, more often, only some departments decide for agile management, or only selected projects are managed this way - where it makes sense from a product’s point of view. That, in my opinion, is the only right way. Agile is not a universal remedy for all ailments, decisions on agile transformation must be preceded by a thorough analysis of what it can actually bring us.