Interview With Preeth Pandalay, A Techno-Agilist, Agile Coach, Trainer & Consultant

“Continuous feedback and reviews are core to agile and helps the organization, teams and team members understand whether they are heading in the right direction and as expected.

– Preeth Pandalay

Q:Welcome Preeth, thanks for taking the time to run this interview. Let’s start with a short introduction about yourself (your role, how long you’ve been working with agile and the current company, etc)?

A people first, leadership oriented, enterprise aware pragmatic agile coach with 18 years of industry learning is how I would introduce myself. I am an independent consultant and I train, consult and coach organizations to be agile and more importantly to stay agile.
As an agile coach, I work with the leadership teams to collaboratively explore the best approach, empower the teams, enable the roles, and transform the practices based on known agile frameworks, scaling frameworks and the best practices out there today through constant use of inspect & adapt to be sustainable and self-evolving.

Q:What does an executive and business Agile coach do?

Today we live in a world where change itself is changing and it’s safe to assume that the pace of change will continue to increase, and the level of complexity will continue to grow.
So it’s imperative now that we start thinking differently about the world, how it works and what it takes to succeed in this world. It is absolutely necessary to develop a level of organizational agility that makes the organization as nimble as the business environment. It’s not just about better software, it’s about better business, it’s about getting the entire organization aligned.
Now to create an aligned organization that is focused on learning about themselves and their customers much faster and better, there is a need to create teams, structures and culture that can cater to the demands of the business. This calls for leaders who can exemplify agility, leaders who can lead effectively in an environment of rapid change and mounting complexity.
Helping an organization achieve agility at a leadership and business level is what an executive/leadership and business coach(s) would do.

Q:What are the benefits that Agile coaches can bring to organizations?

As we just discussed, agile is about thinking differently and we all know how difficult that is. This is a universal phenomenon because continuous use of specific patterns burns a neural path in the brain that acts as a map or a short cut to quick answers and this is tough to overcome. To give you an example when the US national library of Medicines conducted a survey on the changes inculcated by cardiac patients to improve their conditions, an astonishing 70% of the people hadn’t reached the optimal body weight and about 94% had indulged in a high sodium diet just the previous day of taking the survey. It is not easy to change the ways of the brain and it’s a real uphill task to think ourselves into a new way of acting. An agile mentor & coach helps the client act themselves into a new way of thinking, helps them to be agile by doing agile.

Q:What are the main challenges of implementing Agile methodology in large/small organisations?

Every organization is unique and the challenges are also different. Transforming to an org with the customer as its main focus, supported by purposeful metrics and, capable of moving faster and with more agility than in its traditional functional silo based sequential past, the organisation faces challenges in the form of its existing structure and culture. This is especially true for larger organizations. Transforming functional silos to a cross functional and self-organizing team, transforming mentor-managers to coach-leaders, transforming the ops and IT teams to dev-ops, transforming traditional HR and its policies to agile friendly policies, creating a culture of transparency, a culture where failure and success contribute to growth does pose some interesting challenges.

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Q:What do you think of continuous feedback / performance reviews using the Agile methodology? How would they help companies?

Continuous feedback and reviews are core to agile and helps the organization, teams and team members understand whether they are heading in the right direction and as expected. The product increment developed is subjected to customer and stakeholder review, the agile development teams do a demo to the PO as and when a story is complete to elicit feedback, the review and retro at the end of every time box provides an opportunity for asking/giving feedback. The development team members share feedback among themselves on a daily basis. So the continuous feedback is absolutely vital for the success of the agile teams and the organization to be able to course correct and stay true to the customer(s) requirements.

Q:What are some of the challenges you have faced in your role and how did you tackle them?

Often times I see teams/organizations that have adopted a particular framework and cherry pick few of the recommendations. Then there are teams/organizations that tailor the framework to accommodate what they are currently practicing. There are teams/organizations that borrow practices from a successful agile team or organization and try retrofitting it into their environment. This most often than not doesn’t work and usually agile is blamed. This is because unfortunately doing agile is looked upon as the goal or the end state. The focus thus is never on the spirit of agile but rather on the mechanics. Realigning the thought process to have ‘being agile’ as the goal and doing agile as a path that leads to this goal is what I try to impress upon the teams/organizations.

Q:Where are Agile teams currently going wrong usually?

One thing that I have noticed is the approach towards agile as a set of best practices and viewing the change more as a transition and not transformation is hurting teams. There is no top 3 or 5 things that every team does and become successful. Software Development falls in the complex quadrant of the cynefin framework. Everything that is built or is being built is the sum total of unique design, circumstances, skill levels, environment etc. which brings down the probability of what worked for one team working for another team. There is no harm in experimenting what worked for one team if it makes sense in the team’s context. While there is value in practices we should value agile principles more and practices should not be mistaken for the goals.

Q:If a company wants to start adopting agile, what are some of your recommendations?

An agile organization is a pragmatic, learning oriented, team based organization model with a lean governance framework poised to respond to unpredictability in an empherical, incremental and iterative approach.
So typically while the initial focus is execution and delivery, focus on business & product strategy, Leadership, organization (structure & culture) is absolutely necessary to sustain agility.

Q:One of the biggest project management challenges is dealing with risk. How do you handle this?

On a lighter note, Project management could be the biggest challenge posing a risk to the agile transformation. Unlike traditional software development and delivery, agile approach of an iterative, incremental delivery with lots of opportunity for feedback inherently reduces the requirement of a comprehensive risk management strategy.
Having said that if there are teams that require risk management there are several ways of doing it. A risk roster with a risk burndown for instance, but again the approaches should be what works for the team/organization. Most scaling framework do provide recommendations for risk management that works well within the framework’s context.

Q:Can you give us some suggestions on how agile team should plan their tasks better?

Here again I do not think there is a top 3 or top 5 best practices. This is contextual and depends on various factors like the framework selected, the team composition, team maturity and many such. Agile generally is about keeping it small, be it the team, be it the user story, be it tasks. The idea is to create as many shorter feedback loops as possible to enable corrective actions (if required) sooner. So chances of going wrong with smaller tasks are remote.

Q:A great Agile coach helps others become great at what they do. Your thoughts?

A coach irrespective of the prefix is a person who helps the client to move to a more resourceful state. So coaching has to be a thought provoking and a creative process which helps the client maximise their potential without building a dependency on the coach. So an agile coach in true sense should help the client become better at what they do.

An Agile Coach in True Sense Should Help the Client Become Better at What They Do! Click To Tweet

Q:One thing we often notice is that it is hard to develop a ‘sense of ownership’. What things do you believe contribute to that sense?

While there are many factors that influence the sense of ownership, I have encountered a few more often than others. Assuming a cross-functional team is in place, the empowerment to take timely decisions, say quantum of work to commit in a sprint, the how, when and by whom the tasks are to be done, how to handle under (or over)-commitment of work, actions to be taken in case of impediments and many such, are key to feel a sense of ownership. It is highly unlikely for a team operating under a command and control environment to have a sense of ownership. So it always helps to see if the teams are being managed from the outside in anyway if the sense of ownership is lacking.

Q:Can you share some of the experiences that you had from Agile coaching?

For me coaching teams on Agile is a very enriching and a humbling experience every single time. It’s an exhilarating experience when the teams having moved from the storming to norming and performing phases and we start to co-create the practices. The work environment becomes highly charged and you see the adage the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in action.

Q:What advice would you give people if they want to become an Agile coach?

Be a servant leader, be humble and have compassion for the client. Always remember that each and every team member, each and every stake holder is your client. Know and respect the fact that the client is capable and resourceful. You use the Agile manifesto and principles to help them identify and connect the dots themselves.

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