Six Agile Executives to Study

Whenever agilitistas get together they lament that their attempts to improve an organisation are thwarted by the executives. Not by an active attempt to undermine an agile transformation, but rather a lament that they unwittingly destroy the improvement in the same way that a five year old destroys their parent’s favorite rose bed in an attempt to build a mud castle. This might lead casual observers to reason that all executives are ignorant, uninformed and self obsessed. I may be an exception to the rule but I have been fortunate to work with a number of inspirational executive. I have learned a huge mount from them over the years. Many of the practices I have adopted came from them. My only lament is that they are not studied as closely as they should be. Instead the agile community is obsessed with promoting “celebrity executives” who have never delivered significant agile change, or done the things they talk about.

This post is about those executives who I have been fortunate enough to work for, executives who have profoundly impacted the way I work, think and the way I look at the world. I have worked for some duffers but rather than focus on the mediocre, I chose to celebrate the genii. The common differentiator is that these exceptional executives were not afraid to do the right thing, they were not obsessed with hitting the targets on their balanced score cards. They all focused on brilliance and refused to compromise. Each of them realised they were sailing in uncharted territory and managed that uncertainty rather than follow the rest of the flock like sheep… or lemmings. Once a practice was established they would adopt it but they were smart enough to realise when they should go it alone.

A number of these executives were difficult to work for. Mainly because they had a vision that was not the run of the mill, and we often got things wrong as we attempted to execute on the the novel using our old tired perspective.

In chronological order:

Andrew Green

When I moved into Andrew’s world I was a fully fledged Waterfall developer and business analyst / project manager. Up to that point in time I had been a slave to the process. Andrew’s team were different. We focused on the customer, and we focused on speed. We focused on getting stuff done for the traders and those that supported them on the trading floor. Shortly after I joined in 1997, stacks of four or five PCs appeared at the end of each trading desk. On top of each stack was a single monitor and keyboard and a switch to select which PC box. These stacks were the fore runners of Grid computing.

Al-Noor Ramji

Al-Noor stands out even in this crowd. He demanded several challenging things from his department. You had to deliver value to the customer every three months or he would pull funding. I remember the all hands when Al-Noor declared victory and his speech “It took three or four years and the hardest part was convincing the business, but we’ve done it”. Al-Noor set very high standards for his department that he would not compromise on. Everyone needed a masters degree and everyone needed to attend an all day assessment centre, where they had to score in the upper quartile… a bar that continually raised. In addition, EVERYONE had a final interview with Al-Noor. This broke down the power distance index and meant that everyone had met him personally. Everyone could stop in the corridor and tell him about a problem he needed to know about.

During the dot com boom, Al-Noor challenged his team to think like start ups and regard the bank as an incubator. I know of at least two successful companies that spun out of Dresdner as a result.

Al-Noor was also incredibly loyal to his people. When I was made redundant, he met me to explain how I could go about getting a job in his new department. This was a man in charge of a department of ten thousand people and he took the time to meet with one junior person.

JP Rangaswami

JP took over from Al-Noor who had moved to QWest. Personally, JP had the biggest impact on me as a person. He drove me to learn about how to do my job, he drove me to think. It was during this period of my career that Paul Simmons introduced me to the eXtreme Tuesday Club. It was because of JP that I valued it. JP had me read “Agile Eco-Systems” by Jim Highsmith, “The Social Life of Information” by John Seeley Brown and the Cynefin White Paper by Dave Snowden. It was during this period of time that I started to use Staff Liquidity and early versions of the skills matrix. We created the practices that would become “Break the Model” and wrote the “A project creates value when we increase revenue, reduce cost or protect revenue.” paper. The first two from “The Goal” and the third from the Global Debt Business Manager at Dresdner.

JP was incredibly accessible to everyone in the organisation and this had a profound effect on the culture. He encouraged people to think and to learn.

To this day, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein is still the most Agile organisation I have worked for.

Mark Gillet

Mark is a genius. He drove Skype to adopt Scrum but realised it was not enough. He understood that the organisation needed a definition of value and created the Value Cascade (Hierarchy). Mark also understood that the application needed to be redesigned in order to create the right agile organisation in order to deliver value. Mark understood the need to fund teams instead of projects. My prediction is that Skype will come to be known as the Zerox PARC of Scaled Agile.

Lee Nicholls

Lee is an executive who has actually studied Agile and Lean. It is very intimidating meeting an executive who has an understanding of Agile and Lean that surpasses that of many coaches. He managed to distill all of his knowledge into a single simple strategic goal for his organisation. Reduce lead time by 50%.

Jim Bannister

Jim showed me what the Product Owner team of the future will look like. He created a department with skills and experience that I had never experienced before. He did not just pay lip service to some of the hip and groovy product memes. Instead he created a team with skills and experience that I had never experienced before. He has a practical hands on approach to product that uses techniques that I had never seen before.

If you get the chance to work with any of the above, I would heartily recommend it. It may not always be comfortable, but you will learn in ways you do not expect.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

5 responses to “Six Agile Executives to Study

  • KentMcDonald

    Hey Chris, thanks for sharing.

    I’m curious if you have already written up some of the characteristics of the Product Owner team of the future in this blog or elsewhere.

    If you haven’t, would you consider doing so?

  • Mike Woodhouse

    A while after a spell developing for his back-office at CSFB, I had the entertaining experience of having Al-Noor to offer me a job at Dresdner despite my lack of a completed degree (he did stipulate that he wanted me to complete it, to be fair). I didn’t take it – largely uninspired by the half-dozen or so management interviewers I met.
    Nowadays, having crossed over to the “user” side, I’m watching with interest to see how JP gets to grips with the massive inertia-laden monolith that is Deutsche Bank. So far, so not much, but it does take a long time to turn an oil tanker.

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    […] Risk, and the business leadership will cover Deliver Value and Sustainable Quality. Something that Andrew Green, Al-Noor Ramji, JP Rangaswami and Lee Nicholls have been doing for […]

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    […] all levels of the organisation. They make it easy for anyone to tell them about risks and issues. Successful executives in Agile organisations make themselves accessible. Individuals do not abuse the option to access power, they respect the […]

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    […] Al-Noor Ramji understood the value of the network. He successfully moved from Swiss Bank to Dresdner Klienwort Benson to QWest to BT, and each time a chunk of his team followed him. […]

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