CarahCast: Podcasts on Technology in the Public Sector

An Agile Approach with Atlassian

Episode Summary

Agile transformation is a journey, not a destination. The need for an agile transformation is becoming more critical to cope with the rapidly changing, ambiguous and volatile world we work in. Agile mentoring can help your organization become more dynamic, cross functional and successful than ever before. In Atlassian's new podcast, John Turley, Innovator for Adaptavist, explains the value of an autonomous and cross functional working environment. He goes on to discuss how Agile mentoring adds the necessary components that methodology and technology often lack.

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Atlassian Advantage Podcast series. Here's our next episode, an Agile Approach with Atlassian.

Sean O'Sullivan: Hello everyone. I'd like to thank you all for joining us again today for our latest podcast, discussing an agile approach with Atlassian and how agile at scale and transformation is critical to an agency's success. My name is Sean O'Sullivan, the Sales Director of the Atlassian team at Carahsoft and I'm joined today by John Turley, who works in innovation with Adaptavist. John, thank you so much for joining us today.

John Turley: My pleasure, Sean. Thank you.

Sean O'Sullivan: All righty. Well, we're really excited to have you here, John. Now the team at Carahsoft often receives many questions from our government customers asking about their teams and how they can benefit from an agile at scale and transformation approach. So I've got a couple of questions for you today that I want to start off with. Let's keep it kind of broad to start. What research, in your experience, John, and lessons learned have you seen when it comes to an agile at scale and a transformation approach?

John Turley: So I guess over the decades that now that I've been working in this space, we've clearly spent most of our time working on the technology, on the platform and certainly, at Adaptavist, that's what we've spent a lot of time doing. And when we're not talking about the technology, we've been talking about the methodology, the agile methodology very often, and it's clear that the technology plus the methodology don't equal an agile team, never mind something that you can scale to be an agile organization.

So there's something missing and there's something that's missing is, is missing at a time it's becoming more and more critical. As the environment that we're operating in becomes more complex, that is there are more moving parts and those moving parts are more closely interconnected. The environment is much less predictable and stable than it was. So we can't plan, I mean, the way that we used to. It's just not an effective way to work, or at least it's a less effective way to work for many people than it was previously. So the need for agile organizations is increasing to cope with the rapidly changing, ambiguous, fast-paced, volatile world that we work in, but tools and technology on their own don't do it. So there's a real need to know what's in that gap. Does that make sense, Sean?

Sean O'Sullivan: It does. It does. And it kind of lets me segue into my next question, John, when I think about it, right? So Carahsoft, we serve the public sector and our government customers, right? And they've been around for a while and they deal with changes every four or eight years. So I'm thinking about some of these, perhaps, archaic setups or those that are still working on figuring out what that approach is. So if you have those structures or those agencies that don't necessarily lend themselves to these cross-function workings, where do you start then? How do you go about changing them?

John Turley: Right. Great question, Sean. And the answer is wrapped up in what's missing from the current discourse around how to create agile teams and agile organizations. We asked ourselves a question. We started asking ourselves this question, or I started asking myself in 2016 and I've been working at Adaptavist for a little bit over two years now. And the question that we are asking ourselves is what else needs to be in the mix alongside the technology and the methodology in order to unlock agile cross-functional teams, the quite small teams of say 10 or agile organizations. And we think we're onto an answer, and the answer is this, we've got a hypothesis that we're testing, that in addition to the technology and the methodology, the social networks in our organizations are critical. We have to have the right people connected to the right people talking in the right way at the right time. Okay?

So we know successful cross-functional teams are those teams where somebody will get up from their desk and they'll walk across the floor and they'll talk to somebody who does a slightly different job, that is necessary for them to interact with to create value. And they work out together how to solve their problems. They collaborate deeply, and those patterns of collaboration form social networks and those social networks have got nothing to do with the formal network that is hierarchy, right? They've got to do with the lateral connections across silos of people in different functions. Those social networks are what create cross-functional teams. And some organizations are better at supporting the structure of those social networks than others. So that's one of the key elements, but on its own, it's not enough. If you have the right structure of social networks in an organization and the right technology and methodology, it doesn't suddenly mean that you're going to become an adaptive agile organization, right?

What we also find is the mindset is critical and the agile mindset is something in the agile space people have talked about for a number of years without, I think, really knowing what it is. And we recognize that the way people think the way they make their meaning in the environment in which they're working is a critical element of whether they're able to work in cross-functional teams. To begin with, this was just something that we recognized intuitively from decades and decades of collective experience. And we went to speak to psychologists, adult developmental psychologists, about mindset, really. And what we learned is that an individual's psychology, their mindset, moves through observable stages of complexity. And some of those stages are more suited to cross-functional work than others. And we found that, on the whole, in the research that's been done over the last 30 or 40 years, the majority of people working in software teams, never mind sort of senior levels of executive leadership, don't have a mindset that is suited to cross-functional work, which is one of the reasons why we don't suddenly get this outbreak of cross-functional working just because leaders ask for it.

So we've got network structure and mindset, they're critical, but there was a third element as well that we found crucial to locking, or high-performance in cross-functional teams, and that's motivation. Some people in some organizations rely heavily on control and compliance to get things done, and that's fine in a hierarchical world, in a functional world. But across functional world relies on autonomy, not autonomy as in acting completely independently. Obviously that doesn't help an organization move towards their goal. Autonomy as an acting of one's own volition towards a commonly held vision or set of beliefs, right?

So control undermines autonomy is what we discovered. Again, from talking to psychologists about something called self-determination theory, and we have to learn how to shift the balance of control that exists within an environment and the degree to which people choose to comply with that control. We just have to shift away from that a little bit more towards autonomy and supporting autonomy. And they're the three missing ingredients, so that together, with the right technology and the right methodology unlock, not just performance in cross-functional teams, but increases in employee engagement and in wellbeing. And that's really the hypothesis that we are researching. And I'll kind of repeat it because it might've got a little bit lost. The structure of your social networks, the mindset of the people in those networks, and their orientation towards control and compliance or autonomy, they're the three missing parts that essentially give us high levels of employee engagement when they're present and high levels of performance. That's sort of the hypothesis that we've been researching, over the past year, I guess, seriously researching that idea.

Sean O'Sullivan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now when I think about the public sector customers that we service and some of the questions that I've seen come across my desk over the last four years that Carahsoft's been a distributor for Atlassian, I see a bit of a debate when it comes to, "Hey, do we start with the small teams and kind of work our way up or does it begin with a top-down approach, at the executive level," right? Which is even a bit more complicated when we look at the public sector and the changing of the guards that happen every four or eight years. Is there a middle ground that you would say there, John, in terms of, "Hey, we need to make sure that our guys they understand the processes and that the executive level meets us halfway," or is it, do you think it gets a bit more onus on the executive folks to make sure that that approach is taken into account? If that question makes sense.

John Turley: The question makes complete sense. And it's a question that we get asked a lot as well. It comes a lot. Where do we start as a bottom up approach or top down or is it inside out? And what does that mean? And so on. And the answer that our research is pointing as to is an either or both or neither. Actually what I mean is you can start any way you like. You need to start wherever the ground is ripe to unlocking agile cross-functional ways of working and you need to scale from there.

So if you have a very enlightened CEO who understands the underpinning the way the organization works is the power dynamic and they're willing and able to change the way the power dynamic is structured that's a very, very powerful way of changing an organization, but it doesn't, on its own, change the organization, the people in the teams have to start to change the way they work and they can't start to work in a more agile way because they're told to by the CEO, because then it would be a top down approach to becoming agile. And that's a little bit of an oxymoron. So start wherever you have, wherever you stand, whenever you're standing there, right, and unlock the change where the change is ready to be unlocked. And that could be with a team. It could be a bunch of teams. It could be a department. It could be the whole organization. And you need to tailor an approach accordingly, but you still need to be looking at the network structure, the complexity of mindset, and the motivational orientation to unlock it wherever you try and start.

Sean O'Sullivan: Perfect. No, no, no. That's a great answer there, John. Now if I take it back for a moment, so the only question I have left today, we let's say we've got a lot of new folks that are entering the public sector, right? And maybe they're not as familiar with the agile scale, agile transformation, whatnot. If we had to break it down simply for them, right, that when we look at the old approach, what are the overall benefits, right? What is the initial pitch to them to say, "Hey, here's why you need to look at this approach," right? And obviously in conjunction with solutions such as Atlassian software, but not even the software itself, right? But what is the overall pitch to these guys to let them know, "Hey, this is the way ... This is the future, right, and this is the way we need to move forward in order to be a more efficient team"?

John Turley: To put it, I guess, maybe kind of bluntly, but whatever your organization is, public or private sector, if you want to survive, never mind thrive, in the 21st century, the old ways of doing business don't work anymore. You need to be cross-functional and dynamic so that you can respond to the opportunities and threats that emerge in the environment. The old ways of doing things are not dead. Hierarchy and bureaucracy and control will remain very, very relevant and very important, but they need to be relaxed, so the autonomy and cross-functional working can emerge because they're so much more able to adapt to the changing environment around an organization.

Adapting and changing to market forces, whatever the market might be and whatever those forces might be, is too difficult, in a very ambiguous complex world, it's too difficult to expect somebody at the top of an organization, whatever top means and whatever the organization is, to be able to look at the market, to have all the information they need, make the strategic decisions about where an organizational to be going, and then somehow communicate those decisions down the hierarchy so that people in the teams can execute. And then the messages from the execution can come back up the hierarchy. And then the person at the top of the hierarchy can work out whether you've been successful and adjust and go again.

It's just too slow and clunky and cumbersome just to ignore the fact that the application of control is necessary to do that makes people miserable. It's not a very fulfilling way to work. If you want it be adaptive, if you want to be dynamic, if you want to provide high levels of customer service and have highly engaged employees with high levels of wellbeing, you need to be operating in autonomous cross-functional self-organizing teams.

Sean O'Sullivan: Right. And considering, obviously, the public sector is one of, if not the largest employers across the world, right, and just, I think, achieving that level of transformation is going to take a lot of different factors like you brought up today that to ensure that success, right, and ensure that we kind of all stay ahead.

John Turley: But the key thing there, Sean, that that this kind of transformation is a journey. It's not a destination. That's a little bit of a cliché because people say it a lot, but it's true.

Sean O'Sullivan: Right.

John Turley: Right? But as soon as we start to make the kind of changes that unlock autonomy, value is realized, and that value makes the world a little bit of a better place, right? Governments, or either national or local, are then providing better services to the people that they need to be providing services to. And that that's a really key approach to an agile approach to an agile transformation is that you start to unlock benefits quickly almost from the very beginning, not all at the end when it done, because an agile transformation is never done. Once you've built an adaptive organization, or I should say, once you have created the conditions in which an adaptive organization can emerge, it will continue to adapt to the ever-changing environment that it finds itself in. And that work will never be done.

Sean O'Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, I don't think it's at all John. I mean the journey, right, not a destination. I think that's an important message often times, right, where we see our customers think that just by having one engagement with a great partner, such as Adaptavist or just procuring that latest piece of great software, that the mission's complete and they've achieved that agile transformation. And then quite simply, as you just said, right, that's not quite the case.

John Turley: Yeah. And for the large part, we know that it's not quite the case. Human kind knows that that approach doesn't work. We just haven't quite yet figured out what a better approach is, which is why the research we're doing into that gap to try and find these missing components, if you like, is, we think, so important because it drives the way we lead our consulting engagements and our product development and so on. And this is all just as true in the sort of government sector as any other sector. And in fact, maybe more so because the existing culture needs to be merged with a new adaptive culture to provide better services to people. And I think as Jack Welch said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast every time."

Sean O'Sullivan: I like that one. I don't think I've heard that before. That's very well said. Well I mean, hey, thanks, John. This has been a really, really informative session today. Where do you suggest our listeners go to learn more about any agile at scale and transformation?

John Turley: Our website is the place. We got all sorts of blogs on there written, some of which have been written by me, some by my brilliant colleagues, working in this space. There's a whole bunch of us. We've got a number of talks about what we do, which can also be found on our website. I think some of them are on YouTube as well, or of course, give us a call.

Sean O'Sullivan: Great suggestions, John. And hey, thank you again so much for your time today. This is great valuable information.

For our listeners today. Please check out John's suggestions and the resources, like I mentioned, a moment ago on Carahsoft's Atlassian Advantage site. Feel free to give us a call anytime with any questions. You can always contact us at atlassian@carahsoft.comor you can always reach us on our number 833-547-2468. John, thank you again. Really, really great session today, and I really appreciate the time.

John Turley: My pleasure, Sean. Thank you so much.

Sean O'Sullivan: Thanks everyone. See you next time.