Libor Beněk: "Agility is for all companies that want to move forward"
October 29, 2020
"The most important thing for all of us would be agility in public administration," says Libor Beněk, an agile coach who has worked with teams of Seznam, Home Credit and Česká spořitelna. What does agile mean to him and why does agile development make sense even if "you and the client know exactly what you want"? Find out in today's interview.
What does an agile approach mean to you?
The main thing for me is customer focus and flexibility.
I often hear that agile is something new. But I see it as a return to common sense and functioning in business as well as in personal life. We can plan a house renovation or a vacation to the utmost detail, but eventually the plan will go in the trash anyway and we'll start adapting to the situation. Because the goal is not to stick to the plan, but to feel good about it.
When is agile development appropriate and when is it better to use other approaches?
In general, I use the Cynefin framework, where Lean is best for clear and repetitive processes for instance in stock, and agile is suitable for creating something new.
But here, some might argue: Me or the customer know exactly what we want. So why invest time in testing the hypothesis and iterating? For example, the customer wants a highway from point A to point B. Clear assignment.
But if we really care about the customer, let's ask him why he wants the highway. What data is he basing it on? If he wants to connect two points on the map, is there already a road leading there? Does he have information about its usage? Wouldn't the citizens and industry rather have rail?
If we don't know the answer to any of these questions, let's get the data first and make a decision based on that. And getting data in this case can be building a classical path between A and B, if no path has led there before.
What is the difference between an agile coach and a scrum master?
My perception is that the scrum master is fully focused on building the team according to the scrum framework and the agile coachdoes this function too butinterferes to a greater extent in the functioning of the company. In real life, I make a difference in that because we all have the same goal and that is a great product and a happy customer.
How did you personally get into the role of an agile coach?
It just fell into my lap. In university I wanted to be an IS analyst. During my studies I worked as a project manager for a long time, but this role was still somehow foreign to me.
I wanted to do it differently. So that it wasn't two parties, customer and supplier but one team which building something great. So I started reading about agile in the evenings and going to talks on the subject.
You have worked for several interesting companies. How was working with the team of Netbox, Seznam, Home Credit and Česká spořitelna different from your point of view?
In Netbox, I worked with the team as a project manager. And I also realized there that I needed to approach it differently.
In Seznam I worked mainly with development teams. With them I focused on collaboration, knowledge sharing, stable delivery and team organization.
What made it more interesting in Home Credit was that agility in IT was already well established and we started applying elements of agility to the leadership team with the vision that it would grow through to IT and bring the whole company together. So we defined OKRs (Objective and Key Results) with the board, set up a process around that, and I walked them through it.
Next, I started working with the teams that were impacted on the front line as an agile coach to support this change in thinking and functioning. The first team was created to develop the mobile app product and have all the roles to do so. I mean, not just IT roles. In agile lingo, the E2E team. I was very happy about that.
In Česká spořitelna they use so called the ING model and the OKR for setting objectives to organise its work. Right from the start, I was involved in the redesign of the tribe (an organizational unit focused on an area of business) and setting goals for the resulting tribe.
I'm also working on a more agile operation with two teams that are focused on all things around credit cards. This bank has been a big surprise for me in terms of how much they are investing in agility. Of course, the rate of change is not as high as in startups, but it is still impressive for the largest bank in the country.
In your LinkedIn articles, you emphasize the need for a team to be goal-oriented and accountable for the outcome. How do you motivate teams to take ownership of the product?
By being its creators. Not only do they do the work to the assignment, but they are co-creators of the assignment. To keep it from becoming anarchy, it takes those very goals mentioned above. The team agrees with the client WHAT they want to achieve with the product. HOW we achieve that is left up to the team.
The agility from IT has gradually penetrated into other fields. In what areas do you think it should definitely be applied?
The most important thing for all of us would be agility in state administration. In San Jose, USA, they have applied scrum to management from one office, and as a result they are doing things that people really want and appreciate.
Do you see any negatives of the agile approach?
Poor implementation can plunge a company into a situation where it gets buried in its own organizational problems instead of delivering new products. An agile coach with experience can minimize these birth pangs.
Have you ever been involved in the transition of a company or team to agile practices? What did it look like and what were the results?
There is some kind of transition going on all the time. Whether it's to agile, to a stricter project methodology or in the digitalization of the company, so it depends on which phase one jumps into.
In Home Credit, I jumped into the transition of the entire company. IT was ready. We started from the board of the company, with Luděk Jírů himself as the big driver. Of course, we encountered resistance in the company, but we expected that. In such a situation, it is best to work with people who are more open to change and build success with them.
The same procedure is followed by the team. I've worked with over 10 teams in my time and have jumped in at different levels of their agility. And the first thing I always do is talk to each one in turn and find out how they feel about the team, what their motivation is, and what's currently bugging them about how they're functioning.
The biggest adversary of an agile coach is the natural resistance to change. And a person is only willing to change something in his life when it benefits him or solves a problem.
Are you also involved in agile business management? For which companies is it suitable and what can it bring them?
A true agile team cannot be created unless the company is also agile. So it's always about the company as well.
For me, it's all companies that want to move forward. Which is the nature of every company. Nobody wants to stand still. That suggests to me that agility is appropriate for all companies. Because qualities like flexibility and customer focus make it possible to survive in these volatile times.
In one of your articles, you made an interesting point: "Companies don't have ideas, people do. And collaboration between people from different fields makes good ideas great ideas." How do you think Czech companies are in relation to their people? Are they able to value and functionally connect them as their "sources of ideas"?
Thank you. I can't assess how Czech companies have it, but what I see around me, more and more companies are realizing that the strength is in people and not in robust processes. What we could work on is connecting people.
Just because we put people from different areas on the same team doesn't mean they will become that team. This is where common goals, sitting close together, and creating space for building relationships within the team can help. Companies often rely on one team building event a year, plus a Christmas party. I would instead recommend a more individual approach rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Are there any agile methodologies being developed?
What I see around me, so many large companies are jumping on the agile bandwagon, and there they don't do just scrum, they need to manage the whole company in an agile way. So there's a lot of growth of scaled scrum in various forms.
How do you see the future? Will a new revolutionary approach replace agile methodologies?
Rather than a revolution, I believe in an evolution, which is already happening. Building on the mindset that agile methodology, Lean, is benefiting from, so are other approaches like DevOps, Design thinking and many others that I am not yet familiar with and hopefully will soon. In the way they build on similar ideas, they complement each other perfectly.
Can we look forward to some more articles from you?
Absolutely. As soon as I feel the urge to share an idea again, I'll fill the internet with it. It's also a way for me to organize and validate my thoughts with the community.
Libor, thank you for the interview.
And for you, we have more reading tips. In addition to Libor's articles, don't miss our interview with Boris Bošiak, who was catapulted into the Forbes 30 Under 30 by the Reservio booking system.
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