This is a transcript of episode 130 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We’re joined by Steve Berez, partner at Bain and co-author of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos. Steve tells us some stories from his 30-year consulting career, illustrating missteps he’s seen in digital transformations like “You Folks Do Agile” and “Agile as a Quick Fix”. He advocates the metric of “team fun” as the best way to determine whether you’re doing agile right.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So we have a guest today and our guest is, you know, and I didn’t check how to pronounce your surname. It’s Steve Berez.

Steve Berez: Yeah, Berez.

Squirrel: Berez, excellent. And Steve is, amongst other things, I think a very long term partner at Bain and Company and has tons of experience working with very large organisations on their digital and Agile transformations. And he’s written a book, and I hope I can get the name of the book. Right. That is Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos. And we’re big fans of digital transformations and not big fans of chaos. So this sounded like it was a perfect book to talk about. So welcome, Steve. Thanks for coming on.

Steve Berez: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Squirrel: Sure. So what led you to write the book? What things were you bringing that you thought were new to the discussion about how to do Agile right?

Steve Berez: So I and my colleagues at Bain have been working with companies for 10 years or so on helping them adopt Agile values and practises and getting benefits from it. And what we were seeing increasingly over the last several years, especially, is Agile becoming more and more popular, more and more companies trying to adopt it, certainly more and more consulting firms trying to sell it to companies, but seeing a lot of disappointing results. And we were really worried that Agile was just getting a bad name. I mean, we would be going into companies saying, you know, we kind of like the stuff you’re talking about, about these small teams that are customer focussed and empowered to to to meet customer needs. But please don’t call it Agile because Agile has a bad name around here. We tried it didn’t really work. So, we’re worried that Agile was going to end up on the scrap heap of management ideas, kind of like quality circles or reengineering, because so many companies were trying it and having having a bad experience. So we wrote the book to try to change that, to try to ensure that individuals, readers and their companies were going to have success with Agile and really get the benefits that we know can accrue if you do it right.

Squirrel: And that’s so interesting because we see so often that exact same symptom of people saying, ‘Well, Agile just doesn’t work.’ That’s a very common thing that we see, too.

Start Small to Change the Culture

Listen to this section at 02:50

Jeffrey: That’s right. And you have the preparing for the podcast. You mentioned that typically when you come in, most companies have had some type of experience with Agile. So very often you’re in a place where you’re seeing the past disappointments. And what are the what’s an example of a typical problem that you might see that kind of sets companies down the wrong path?

Steve Berez: Absolutely. Well, one of the most common patterns we’re seeing is executives who hear about agility, read about it, maybe talk to a friend and get enamoured with with the concept that they also see that some of the most valuable companies in the world today are using Agile teams or they look at Amazon and look at Google, they look at Facebook and they say, boy, we’re starting to compete more and more of companies like this. So we need to do this. We need to adopt Agile. So they embark on a journey which is very typical of the way they already do change in their business. They launch a giant programme and they bring in a bunch of consultants and they design how their Agile company is going to look quite often they’re copying some other company and doing that. Spotify is probably the most common company is being copied these days. If you talk to the Spotify folks, they’ll say there is no Spotify model for agility do not copy us. It’s not going to work in your company. It works here because of many things that are unique to us, our culture, our architecture and many other things that they say not to copy.

Steve Berez: But, you know, unfortunately, many companies go down that path and they say to their employees, ‘you’re going to now be Agile. We’re going to break into Agile teams.’ Quite often they say,’Oh, by the way, we need 20% fewer of you since Agile is so much more productive. So we’re going to fire a bunch of you in the process. The rest of you have to reapply for your jobs. And if you don’t sign on to this, if you don’t have the right attitude as well, we don’t need you either.’

Steve Berez: So, I mean, it’s exactly the opposite of an Agile approach to to these kind of change. And that’s one of the many things that we’re arguing against and setting up different patterns for in the book.

Squirrel: So if you start out with a non Agile approach, then you’re not likely to get a very good Agile result.

Steve Berez: Exactly.

Jeffrey: And it’s not surprising that the companies know that they need to change their culture, but of course, they are trying to change their culture using the culture they have. So they come to the change, the transformation process, not in the end state, but in their beginning state.

Steve Berez: Jeffrey, that’s exactly right. And of course, we know the Agile approach is really the way that you’re going to get to agility and that typically starts with just a few Agile teams and probably starting with people that are already excited about the concept and want to do it. The pattern that we see works is to learn from those Agile teams, learn what works and what doesn’t work in your company. Testing and learning and viewing your customer, your employees is actually the customers of this Agile transition. Once you get a few teams that are working well, that you’ve tuned to be effective within the culture and other elements of your company, then you can start to scale. But the scaling is usually happening because other people are seeing the success of those teams and they’re saying, ‘ha, that’s pretty interesting. I’d like to do that. Not only are they getting better results they’re actually having a much better time doing it or having more fun. And that’s actually one of our litmus tests of Agile, whether it’s working, if the people doing it aren’t having fun, they’re not doing it right. It’s pretty much guaranteed.

Not a Quick Fix

Listen to this section at 07:03

Squirrel: Got it! I like that metric. I may start applying the fun metric more often, but I do want to challenge one thing, which is I’m not convinced and I’d love to be convinced because it would be much better if this were true. I’m not convinced that the executive who was playing golf with his friend and who hears about the wonderful results that somebody is getting, I’m not sure that person signed on to a cultural transformation. I’m not sure that person is thinking, gosh, what we really need is to have teams that are much more autonomous. That person might very well be thinking, what I need is to sprinkle some of this miracle cure on my organisation and then it will somehow miraculously get better. Do you see that or do you see that in general, the executives really are committed to a complete change?

Steve Berez: No, Squirrel what you’ve mentioned is what we call in the book: ‘You folks do Agile’ it is senior executives who see Agile teams as a way to get better results, but what they don’t see is anything that impacts their daily lives and they continue their command and control methodologies that have always, maybe not always entirely work for them, but it may seem seem like they work for them over time. So they use that same approach saying ‘you folks do Agile and we’ll set up teams, but I’m going to expect more out of you.’

Jeffrey: And that’s what we’re making the change. We’re making the change so we can get more done. So that’s why, as the executive I’m championing this in the first place.

Squirrel: And thank heavens the problem is somewhere else. It’s not me. Thank heavens I’m not at fault, because if I was at fault, then I’d have to do something different. Boy! That would be really threatening.

Steve Berez: Exactly.

Jeffrey: The challenge here, you say you start small, that sounds like a real challenge to that executive mindset. So they are looking to transform the way the company works. They want to be there having the kind of success that the big tech companies are having. You said Facebook, Amazon, Google, why can’t our share price do that? And saying, start with a small team. How is that going to get me there? That it feels like I’m just making a little tiny change when what I want is a big change. What is your response to someone who has that kind of concern?

Steve Berez: Yes. Well, that’s another pattern we talk about in the book. We call ‘Agile as a quick fix.’ And it isn’t, it isn’t a quick fix. For large companies that are successful, we see this as a multi-year journey and a company that expects to get results and get improvement in just, let’s say, a six month transformation programme are just being unrealistic. So they can get success in some places, but using the Agile approach by necessity starts with, you talk about a walking skeleton in your book, I think that’s a really good way of thinking about an Agile approach in a company just having a minimum area where you’re adopting practises, beginning to get results and understanding where the barriers are.

Steve Berez: A lot of what we talk about and doing our job right are the barriers that most large companies would face in adopting Agile. And it’s everything from our planning and budgeting cycles are at best once a year and sometimes sometimes multi year.

Steve Berez: So if we see a customer in need, it might take us a year or more before we can start working on that thing or we’re a bank or we’re an insurance company or healthcare company. We’ve got a lot of regulators that we have a compliance function and we can rapidly think about change, but we actually can’t execute it without months and months and months of compliance testing and work.

Steve Berez: And that’s always done at the back end of the process so it just just adds time. Or our human resources systems aren’t really allowing us to build a career path that rewards skills as opposed to just the number of people reporting to you and in a sense, bigger and bigger bureaucracy. So we talk about those barriers. And unless you actually test Agile in a company, you don’t know which of those barriers are going to hit and you don’t know how to overcome them.

Jeffrey: So you’re essentially learning and discovering about your own company as much as you are about how to perform Agile itself.

Change Can Begin Anywhere

Listen to this section at 11:51

Steve Berez: That’s exactly right. The two go hand in hand. And one of the problems we see is this cargo cult mentality. If we just adopt what Spotify is doing, suddenly we’re going to get those results or Amazon’s two-piece a teams or some other firm that is using Agile practises without understanding that those practises have been really carefully tuned and have grown up in a particular company environment. And we know from large companies everyone is incredibly unique.

Jeffrey: Yes, it reminds me a lot, actually, of what happened with Toyota and lean manufacturing, with the American car companies picking it up and doing cargo culting, but not bringing over the culture that went with it. And the separation of the learning culture at Toyota from the practises didn’t actually give you anything. You weren’t getting the results. As you say, it’s the practices the specific techniques they were using weren’t the point. They were the outgrowth of the mindset they had.

Steve Berez: Right. Right. And I know that you guys have written about this idea that even at the team level, you can set up sprint reviews and sprint retrospectives and daily stand ups and so forth. But if you’re not having the right conversations, if the people aren’t communicating, if they aren’t building trust and reducing fear, again, you’re not going to get results. That’s just at a micro, one team level, let alone when you think about that across the whole company.

Squirrel: And how do you find receptivity? So my imagined executive on the golf course who’s just heard I want to sprinkle the powder on the team. When you show up, you’re kind of giving that person a wake up call. Did they fire you at that point and say, ‘go away, this is too hard’ or do they say ‘drink, Steve, come in, help me to become a different person leading a different company?’

Steve Berez: Yes. Well, I wish I could say that every executive immediately gets it.

Squirrel: I was hoping you’d say that so I could find out what you do.

Steve Berez: Part of the reason we wrote our book is, is because we do think that can actually help build awareness. And we also recently published an article called the Agile C Suite, which is an easy way for an executive just to spend 20, 30 minutes and just get an overview of how they can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem if they’re thinking about their company becoming more and more Agile. But that’s your question of what do you do when an executive doesn’t really get it?

Steve Berez: Again, for us, it comes back to an Agile approach. So we might say, look, you might not buy into all of this, but lets just set up a few teams know, try to get them to have the autonomy and the conditions for success that we’re describing here. Let’s see how it works. Let’s see what you learned from it. Sometimes it takes more than a couple of teams might take a little further than that, but over time we typically see a tipping point where even the sceptical executives are seeing enough success in the places where they’re doing it right to start to say, ‘OK, maybe I am willing. I broke some rules to make these teams work the way they are. But now maybe it’s time to change those rules.’

Jeffrey: And I think that’s actually a very interesting point. I can imagine that’s the point where they start having real skin in the game for the transformation when they have started to make you say, breaking some rules on their own. Now, if they can see that their contribution towards making it successful. Oh, I can actually do something here that helps people be successful by giving them some deviance from our normal process. Now it starts to become my process because I’ve allowed them to do that as opposed to it violating my process.

Steve Berez: That’s exactly right. I worked with a large retailer several years ago which showed you don’t always have to start at the top. Sometimes you can start in the middle. You just need some leader who has enough influence over part of the organisation to at least set up. Just get the engine running, just start start something with a few teams seeing the results that this company had a leader in the digital area and digital channels, which was really not working well at all at the time. So they were up for a significant change and they converted from, believe it or not, a waterfall process in digital to Agile to also paying attention to the architecture, making it more modular and building better skills, rewarding engineering talent and respecting engineering talent the way they have in the past. They were having such good results over about a year, year and a half, that in digital that the CEO said, ‘boy, that’s the only part of the technology organisation that’s working. Why don’t we adopt that across the across the rest of the organisation?’ So in that case, it started kind of in the middle. But then over time, the success is what drove the change of heart and mind of the senior executives.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Well, I imagine that’s inspiring to some of our listeners who may find themselves in the middle. And we have some at all levels in the organisation. The idea that you could start that kind of shift without necessarily being the leader is helpful. And of course, if you are and you’re sitting listening to this thinking, gosh, what can I do? Maybe talk to Steve about how you can get there or certainly read Steve’s book to find out how you can actually make that shift in your own thinking and start to have a different approach and Agile approach to building Agile rather than the magic powder approach, which doesn’t seem to work out so well. Steve, if people did want to read your book, where would they get in touch or talk to you? Where would they get in touch with you? What’s the best way to get more Steve?

Steve Berez: If you just go to you’ll find their references to the book links to me and anything else you’d like to know from us on the subject.

Squirrel: Sounds fantastic. That’ll be in the show notes, of course, as always. So if you didn’t manage to write that down, if you’re driving, don’t don’t write it down. Wait, stop and look it up. I always worry about our listeners who drive and listen to us. Great. Well, thanks, Steve, for being on with us. If folks would like to get in touch with us, of course, we’re also in the show notes. Everything for us is at So feel free to go there and get in touch with Jeffrey and me. Ask us questions. Maybe we can pass those on to Steve if it’s helpful and pick up some of these topics in the future. They’re certainly very interesting to us. And of course, we also like it when listeners come back to us every Wednesday. This is episode one hundred and thirty, I think. So we’ve got a lot more coming. You’ll be able to hear us next week, but you’d probably need to hit the subscribe button in whatever application you use and that would help you to come back and hear us again. Super well.

Squirrel: Thanks to Steve and Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thank you Squirrel.

Steve Berez: Thank you, guys.