If you had a magic wand and you could radically modify the way corporate IT engages itself in organizations, what would you change?
That's the question we asked Scott W. Ambler, author and Chief Scientist of Disciplined Agile at the Project Management Institute.
Scott shares his wisdom on many important topics, including:
Hello, this is R.M. Bastien and welcome to another episode of the podcast series on radical change in Corporate IT. This afternoon we have Scott Ambler with us. Scott is the Chief Scientist for Disciplined Agile, which has been acquired by the Project Manager and Institute (the famous PMI) in August 2019, which is not a small thing. Scott is a talented and prolific author. He's written tons of articles --I didn't even count the number-- in different channels. Also he co-authored several books. I counted 22 including the latest one, Choose Your Wow (or choose your ways of working) which I've read. It's very impressive in terms of breadth and it describes the Disciplined Agile Toolkit, which is the world's only comprehensive Agile body of knowledge that provides guidance to help individuals, teams, enterprises choose their own way of working in context specific ways. Which I like a lot, because what Scott has done is not your seven-step-recipe kind of thing. It acknowledges the fact that no-one is the same and you really have to do some work and choose what's the best way to work for you. Scott also works with organizations around the world to improve their way of working with training, coaching, mentoring. And this is not his first methodology! He's created three of them: Agile Modeling, Agile Data and Enterprise Unified Process, in addition to to Disciplined Agile. Scott is a frequent conference keynote speaker about Lean ,software development, DevOps, Enterprise Architecture, Agile Data and Agile Architecture. Obviously, Scott comes from an IT development background. So, for those of you that never heard of him because you are just not acquainted in that milieu, let me put it that way: Scott is like the Peter Drucker of software development management. Good afternoon, Scott.
Oh, good afternoon. Thank you. That's a darn good... I don't think anyone's ever called me Peter Drucker, But I can definitely live with it!
Or it could be Tom Peters...
That would work, too. But I guess Scott Amblers is better, because it fits what you're doing. So Scott, the question I'm asking you this afternoon (this is the same that asked all the other ones) and it's it's pretty simple. Let's just for a moment. Let's just think that you have a magic wand --I know it doesn't exist, but you have a magic wand. And you could change the way the IT function engages itself in organizations of all sorts. And you could change it --and drastically change it, or change it the way you want-- what would be the end state? OK, because we all know and you know specifically that the road to get there might be tortuous and very long and it may take years, or you know organizations may never get where you want them to be. That might be as far as you want, in how it provides its value to the rest of the organization.
Yeah, it's a great... a huge question, it's a great one. And I want to point out that it's sort of a shame that this is only an audio recording, because I actually have my wizard robe on right now and I'm sure look like Gandalf, but anyways... Yeah, moving on. Okay.
Hu! Hu! Hu!
Um, yeah... I think that is a fantastic question. So a couple of things come to mind there. First, I hope that we're not talking about IT as a separate thing anymore. So I've always found it interesting that somehow IT is --and rightfully so in many ways-- but somehow IT is always treated as a separate entity. It's like the rest of the business and IT. But we don't really talk about Marketing that way or Procurement that way or other aspects of organization. So and I think that's a symptom of just the education level that we see within the business world. So I think the people in the business side of the house (well, first, I should even be talking a side of the house) but business leaders are leaders in general, should understand IT. It should be part of their education. It should be part of their background. They should fundamentally understand IT. And yes the rules of IT are different And it is... often perceived as a technical thing and there's technological aspects to it. But certainly there's many important business aspects to it. So we need to... I think we need to look at that. IT really should be part of the business and arguably is the business for the vast majority of organizations. So another thing --and part of that drives to my next point-- is that we really do need to be looking at the whole picture. How does this or how does our organization work? How do we offer value streams to our customers? How does it all fit together with IT being part of that, but you know, once again, Marketing, Procurement and Sales and Operations and Legal and many other aspects also being critical aspects of organizations. So how does it all fit together? And how do we streamline the whole? How do we? And we should be all working together at this, and we should understand... So today's IT people should understand the rest of the business and how they fit into it. But the rest of the business needs to understand IT as well. And I think this this thing one of our fundamental challenges that we see today in many organizations is that IT is still being treated like a black box and is still being treated as, you know, those other techie nerds that we sort of tolerate. And then the interactions between IT and the rest of the business tend to be reasonably dysfunctional because of this lack of understanding and lack of communication. And then I think the third thing that I would really like to see, and this really isn't an IT thing it's more of a an organizational issue, around the lines of: how do we/leadership develop their long term vision and provide guidance to the rest of the organization in many aspects of the organization, including Marketing and IT and Architecture and Data and Legal and other important aspects. So how do we come up with this long term vision making understandable and communicate it and drive that down and communicate it down into the rest organization and then act on feedback? And how does it all fit together and how we govern effectively? And I think those are certainly some of the questions I'm working on for a long time and certainly absolutely critical to our success. So I think this is something organizations really need to understand how to do... you know, how do we merge the strategic issues that keep us healthy long term yet still be able to react tactically very quickly in order to be competitive in order to delight our customers. Think this is, you know, that is an absolute critical thing. And we certainly need a little bit of magic, perhaps, to do that.
So, Scott, let me just maybe rephrase the first major point I see in what you've told us today. It's that, you know, the unfortunate us-and-them thing that's occurring, that has been for so many years, which your magic wand, you would like to wipe that out so that it becomes like any other function other than IT. And the second point I'm hearing --and I'd like you to confirm if I'm right-- is that is there is in your mind a leadership issue when it comes to IT today? Or is it a leadership issue in terms of the enterprise as a whole, including IT? Or I just I didn't understand the point...
I think that... well the quick answer is "It depends". You know it depends on the organization. But certainly overall, there's definitely a challenge in almost always in both IT leadership and non-IT leadership, I guess. The challenge becomes one of: do the IT people understand the business that they're actually in? If I work for a bank, do I understand banking and am I actively improving the lives of my stakeholders, including the customers, the end users? Am I working such a way that enhances their interactions with us? But also, this is a non-IT leadership issue. Are we leveraging IT properly? Do we recognize... as a bank, do we recognize that we really pretty much are an IT company that just happens to be in the banking business? Because if we don't understand IT, if we don't understand how to leverage it and how to be efficient at it as a bank, then we're not really competitive anymore. And this is not a long term, healthy proposition for us. And it's interesting. You'll see some organizations change dramatically throughout their history because you know they'll start, you know... Tandy, for example, is a company that started as a leather company and then became a computer company and a technology company. And, you know, wherever they became... So over the years they changed dramatically. And but they recognized that they were in business to satisfy the customer, delight their customers and they evolved over time as they learned. I would argue that modern leadership needs to understand that and needs to understand that there really isn't a delta. There should be no no space between IT and the rest of the business. And we really as as we're getting at this "us versus them" mentality really is not healthy. It's us. Us is an organization and we're here to like the customers and we're here to optimize the whole, and we're here to improve and learn. And hopefully make some money in order to keep the company going, but this is what we really should be.... we should be focused on. We should be constantly trying to learn, constantly trying to improve, constantly focused on serving our customers.
So Scott, I fully agree with everything you just said. But I'm not gonna challenge you, but its just to move forward in that direction is: OK, we have to agree also that most people that are non-IT, that are Marketing, Sales or the Bankers, you know, when they talk or they interact with IT people, they feel like this big difference in terms of knowledge, in terms of personality, in terms of so many things. So how would you see that gap? Which is not, which is not just an enormous structure gap, which is more than that, it's a knowledge, it's a cultural gap, how would you see that gap being, if not filled, at least diminished?
Yes, definitely. Some of it is to appreciate the other group and have empathy and walk a mile in their shoes and or walk a kilometer in their shoes. But the but so of it too is also recognize: there's other gaps in organizations. So, for example, I would say the exact same thing if I was to put together a group of Marketing people into a room with a group of Legal people, there would be a significant cultural difference, you know, significant background difference in a mindset difference; and that's okay. But we can still learn to work together. We could still appreciate how the other, you know, how these other people have a different view and are focused on different things than we are. But we still need to work with them effectively. And I should, as a Marketing person, I should know a little bit about legal and I should know a little bit about why it's important to interact with those folks and vice versa. So should the Legal folks, so should the Finance folks. So should the IT folks. I think a lot of it is to recognize first that these differences are gonna happen and and that's great, you know, this is one aspect of diversity, this is clearly one aspect of diversity. We're stronger for it. But we need to work on it. We need to actively appreciate each other and respect each other and then try to learn from each other and work together and collaborate. So I would invite the Marketing people to take time to learn a little bit more about IT, and vice versa. And for each group be tolerant of each other because I'm sure the people that have a few choice things to say about marketing people on the marketing people have some choice things to say, but the IT people, and so on. And that's okay, way need to get over these prejudices and start working together to learn from each other, and to actually collaborate effectively.
Great. Thanks, Scott, great answers. Is there anything else you'd like to do with your magic wand in terms of engagement or in terms of the way of functioning or even what's done by the organization as a whole, okay, as a team like like you described? But also what is not done by your organization, what is outside of the organization? Because some of the other interviewees had some opinions about, you know, what is done today in organizations and what might not the best or what should be done in the future and organization versus externally. Do you have ideas on this?
Yeah, so if I had a magic wand, one the other things that would do is ensure that organizations understand how to work with other organisations and how to bring in people when they need it. So, for example, when you hire people, you you might want to hire them as a full time employee. Maybe you'll hire them as a part time contractor. Maybe we'll hire them as a contractor and then, perhaps invite them to become a real employee at some point after you tried them out for a while and they fit in well. Sometimes your outsource some of the work, or you'll bring in entire teams to in the organization to get a project done. So the challenge that is you've got to be really good at managing these relationships and managing these contracts and managing and governing these teams and these projects. So, for example, I was working at an organization a while ago, and they had outsourced their help desk, and they were absolute, convinced it was great. Their cost metrics were telling them "Oh, yeah, we're saving money and and things were fine". But you talked to anybody in organization, and it's a disaster! Because the service is down; it takes forever to get anything done. Simple things such as getting a laptop or getting some software reinstalled could take hours or even days. So you've got, yes, you've got a very inexpensive request being served. You know, it costs you very little to get that help done. But if I have a highly paid person sitting around for a day and a half without a computer, that's a very serious problem. So there's cost of delay to be taken in consideration, staff moral taken in consideration. So had this relationship been governed effectively, had it been measured well, the numbers would very easily have shown that this help desk outsourcing effort was actually quite dysfunctional and was not doing this organization very well. I had worked with another organization a couple years ago now where they had outsourced most of IT. Which I thought was rather unfortunate because they were basically once again, the other basically an IT company. It just happened to be making money in a non IT field, but the heart of their business was software development. And it was, you know, IT and running these systems for the customers. They didn't understand that. So what happened was they basically had given their company away; were having a really rough going in the industry, as a result; had significant technical debt and significant quality problems that were affecting their ability to respond in the marketplace and their long term cost, and... They were in serious trouble. But they were also convinced that they were doing well with this outsourcing because they were getting these low bids, right? So there most of the vendors were winning because, you know, they had the lowest bid, so from a cost point of it was great. But from a actual service point of view in a long term, keep the company running point of view, it just was not getting the job done. They were finally getting an inkling that they were in serious trouble. So being able to manage these external relationships and actually being able to partner with other organisations effectively and to govern and to guide those relationships is absolutely critical. And this is something we need to work on. And I think across multiple industries, because I think outsourcing is important, but we need to do it effectively. Doing it on a cost basis is probably not the way to go.
And Scott, in the future, in that future that you're drawing with your magic wand, do you see that there will be some areas that are currently inside IT, inside an organization that are better fit than others for outsourcing? Or, let's say, "externalization" as an umbrella term.
It really does depend. I think there's no hard and fast rules and and if you're looking for hard and fast rules, you're never going to find any. Because it won't be industry based; it won't even be organization based 'cause your organization will do many different things. So it really is a case by case basis. Yeah, you know, certainly there's some interesting things going on in the cloud and, you know, these cloud based services I think that will continue. I think it has its place, but once again, you really do need to understand what aspects of your business you're putting into the cloud or that you're outsourcing. And then you need to manage it accordingly and govern it accordingly. And that requires skills; something you want to inch your way into. Because you need to learn and it can take years to learn how to manage and guide these relationships. But yes, I definitely think that's the case. Be smart about it going eyes wide open.
Do you think that if there's us and there's them, then there's probably no danger outsourcing it. And in the case where we don't want us-and-them, any more then the dangers about sourcing become more patent because you don't want to outsource anything, especially if its core to your own survival and your own business, isn't it?
Well, yes, so and there's a few interesting implications of that. Do you understand what's core to your business? So 10 years ago, a lot of the big consulting firms were telling organizations: "Well, if if you're not good at IT, if that's not your business, you should outsource it". So, you know, the banks and telecoms and in many industries, we found significant outsourcing of IT because and arguably, maybe they weren't that good at it. Or on the business side of the house, they perceived that they really weren't an IT group because they were a bank, they were a telecom, they were an insurance company. They fundamentally didn't realize what "No, wait a minute the're an IT company that just happens to be in telecom or just happens to be in banking. And that is a very different mindset. So what happens is when you start outsourcing a lot of this functionality to a great extent, you lose that capability as an organization. And having to in-source again can be incredibly painful. So we've got to be very careful about this. So yeah, I'm always a bit concerned. I haven't said that yet. It certainly does make sense to outsource some things. A very good heuristic that I always suggest to people is: if your reason to outsource is because you're not good at it, you probably shouldn't be outsourcing that. Because if you can't manage or if you can't govern the IT people when they're down the hall from you, what makes you think that you can govern and guide them when they're working at another company on the other side of the planet? The amount of risk that you're taking on there is spectacular. And I think it is this type of thinking that is critical. So we need to really sort of be smart about the way we outsource.
That's great. The first time I hear that heuristic. This is great! I love that: "If you can't manage it now you won't manage it if it's outsourced 5000 kilometers away". You're not going to get any better.
Wait. And they've got a different culture. They're being rewarded in a much different way. You know, they're there to make money. They're there to get more business out of you. Yes, it be nice if they were to do do a really great job and earn your business. But often, often that's not the case. Often it's more of a case of vendor lock-in, and at some point they start to realize: "Hey, we've got you now. We can start cutting costs. We can start doing everything we possibly can to reduce our costs and yet still maintain some, some, a sufficient level of service that we don't lose the business." It's a very... in some organizations they're like that. Other organizations, they really do want to turn your business and they really are eager to earn more business from you. And I think that that's very healthy.
Great. At the beginning of this interview, you talked about cases where things weren't measured and you said "They don't measure this. They don't measure that" I think you were talking about the call center or the help desk I think. Can you expand a little bit on measurements? It's because I'm really into this lately, so I'm really strong about measurements or the lack of it in some key areas. But I'd like to have your opinion on it.
Yeah, definitely. So you know, there's the old axiom "If is not being measured, it's probably not going to improve". But then again, too, there's also the axiom that "You will get what you measure". So measurement is a double edged sword. I'm a firm believer in techniques like GQM Goal Question Metric or OKR Objectives and Key Results. And the reason why is... Well, first of all, they're both "It depends" type strategies, where you know your goals, hat are you trying to achieve, your objectives, what are you trying to improve are what drives your decisions of what to measure. An implication of that is because your situation changes because your priorities change over time, what you measure needs to change over time as well. So you will constantly be of evolving your measurement programme. Another interesting implication is that because different teams are in different situations, we will measure things in different ways. So, for example, a Marketing team will collect certain quality measures. A Data Warehousing team will collect certain quality measures. A Procurement team will collect certain quality measures. Those measures will all be different, but they're still measuring quality. So our objectives should be: we want to improve the quality of the work that we do or we want to improve the value that we provide to our customers or whatever's important to you, improve staff morale or we want to improve the quality of the food in the in our cafeteria. I hope you have got bigger goals that... but anyway... What are you trying to improve, whatever you're trying to, whatever your objectives are, whatever your goals are, that's what you should measure against. The challenge becomes is: do you have a vision? Have you do have a coherent understanding of what you want to achieve. And that's easier said than done. Earlier, I was talking about how we need to, you know, leadership should be working together to form strategy across the organization and be looking at the whole, then we should then be executing on that and bring that down to the people who are tactically executing. So we need to be measuring that. So the challenge with this help desk group was that the objectives, at the time, might have been to reduce costs, that's fair enough. So they were measuring that. They had other objectives, such as providing the same level service, I would hope, or even better levels of service. But they weren't really measuring that. And frankly, I would argue they weren't really measuring cost either. They were measuring the transaction cost of operating the help desk, but they were not looking at the total cost of ownership. They're not looking at the cost of delay, which is absolutely critical in this case. So they really weren't doing it, even if you argued that reducing cost was their primary objective --and it might very well have been-- they still weren't measuring that. Yet they were convinced they were, right? So there was a lack of understanding of the situation. Or maybe --and that's the best excuse I can come up with you, let alone, if, you know, something nefarious was going on-- but they certainly were not measuring what needed to be measured. So yes, this is a challenge. And it's an important part of governance. So we need visibility into our teams. We need to be able to guide... We need to be able to motivate and guide our people to do the right thing. And part of that is, we need to have a strategy to understand what the right thing is for us, at the time. And we need to get the visibility into what's going on. Part of that visibility is ongoing and hopefully real time metrics. We need to up our game in how we measure and what we measure. I'm a firm believer in automating my measurements as much as possible. This is something something we talk about in the Disciplined Agile Toolkit a lot because we want to be a real time, we want them to be inexpensive, we want them to be real, well and be accurate. And so the more we automate... And you can't automate everything but can certainly automate a lot. Certainly want to do that as much as possible. I'm always leery of any sort of manually generated numbers or manually generated status because it's open to interpretation is open and open a gaming. And frankly, it's expensive and out of date. So a lot of questionable things happen when you manually gather data and some things have to be manually gathered, but I certainly want to minimize that as much as I can.
Scott, you used the word "governance". How would you see governance in your future to be state, envisioned state, with your magic wand?
Yeah, so in Discipline Agile we talk a lot about governance, provide a fair bit of advice. And our vision of governance is: It should be based on motivation and enablement, not a command and control. As a leader, I should be motivating you...W ell, first of all, I should provide a vision for what we, as an organization, believe to be the right thing to do, whatever that happens to be. And I should motivate you to do the right thing. And then I should make it as easy as possible; so I should enable you and automate as much as I can and to put procedures in place that will enable you to do the right thing. Because people, like it or not, are inherently lazy. They will take the easy path. So if the easy path is the right thing, they'll probably do it. And if I also I'm smart and I make the wrong thing to be a hard path. So motivation-enablement are a key foundational philosophy of effective governance. Some of that, though, is we also believe in a trust but verify type of a mindset where I'm gonna trust do the right thing. I'm gonna keep an eye on you as well, and I'll step in and help you whenever I think you know, you might need a little bit of guidance. So I've got a young daughter for example, so I would consider this to be good parenting. I'm gonna want to provide a safe environment for her, I want her to learn and I want her to make your own decisions. But I still got to sort of keep an eye on, you know, the kids she's playing with and what she's doing. And you know, if they discover her playing with matches around a can of gasoline, I'm gonna step in and say, "Hey, honey might not be the way to go" or if, you know, if I find out --she's nine years old-- but if I discover that she's going on spending her allowance to buy cigarettes, we're going to have a discussion about that. But other than that, I'm gonna let her spend her money however she sees fit. It was just sort of a mindset of motivate and enable and trust that you keep an eye on things are absolutely critical your success. Telling people what to do, command and control, and trying to review things into your process and to try to force people to conform to your will, you might get conformance. But you won't get the results that you want. And it won't be effective. And you won't be able to attract people. It'll, it'll be tough. A lighter, lighter hand and a more guiding hand is absolutely critical in the governance world.
And lots of measurements also, uh?
Exactly yeah, we need to, you know, in order to be able to trust, but verify, I've gotta have visibility into what's going on. I gotta be able to know what's happening. And a lot of this is real time. You'll see people now with these organizations with these automated dashboard, certainly for their operations, business operations as well as as technical operations. This'll all be real time monitoring for everything. Most Marketing departments now have real time monitoring of what's going on in social media and rightfully so, right? You can't, you know, if you think you're gonna to respond to a Twitter outburst, detect that and maybe, a couple weeks later, have a meeting about it and then come up with a strategy and eventually a month or so later address whatever the Twitter problem was, it's long gone! You've got minutes not weeks or days.
You're right. Scott, this is really great and super interesting. I've got so many other questions, but I'm kind of getting to the time limit that I kind of set. Is there other things Scott that you'd like to talk about that are related to that, that you haven't yet?
Yeah. So I think one thing I also want, you know, if I had a magic wand, I would have help organizations to become learning organizations. To help them to learn how to learn. To experiment with new ideas and to see what works for them in their situation. And I would do this at the organization level. I would certainly do this at the team level and even at the personal level. So I'm a firm believer in a technique called Guided Continuous Improvement. It's based on the Lean concept of Kaizen where you improve in small increments. You run the experiment, you see what works for you. And if it works for you, you adopt it. If it doesn't work, you abandon it. Guided Continuous Improvement, it's the same basic idea except you have the humility to realize that other people, other groups, other teams have probably faced this problem before. We could leverage their their learnings in order to identify potential strategies to experiment with and thereby increase the chance that we will identify something that we will succeed at. So we can reduce the number of failures that you know. You will, you will have failures in your experiments without a doubt. But we could have fewer of them if we have the humility to either get good coaching from people who've been there before or to leverage some sort of a knowledge base or a toolkit. I think this is... My experience has been that this is absolutely critical to your success as an organization. I invite executives, to identify what companies are you scared of? Who keeps you up at night? Who are the apex predators that you truly fear to compete against? And often you'll hear examples like Amazon and Apple and Google and eBay and all these great companies. How did they get so scary? Well, it's because they were on this Kaizen path. Because they're learning organizations that air constantly improving and constantly experimenting with new techniques. All the companies that you're afraid of, they're the ones that do this already. So you really do want to get on this path of being a learning organization and enabling your teams to learn and allowing them experiment. Allowing them to find their own ways of working and and realizing that teams are unique. Everybody will have a unique way of working, and that's okay. You can still guide and govern and manage. But you need to allow your people to find ways --the best ways-- for them to work effectively, given the situation that currently face. And allow them to improve and to change as they learn as their situation changes. Because, you know, we all know the one constant is change. So we need to be will react to that. Having static, prescriptive processes, you know, one-size-fits-all and the standard best practice will not get the job done for you anymore, if it ever did.
Good point, if it ever did! So we're going away from command and control more into a mode of operation where it's more organic and people can really, are allowed, to challenge themselves, how they work and to evolve also to something better.
Anything else, Scott?
No. I think we're pretty good. We covered a lot of ground Marc!
Yeah we did! We did. We did.
Thanks a lot Scott Ambler!
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