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Q&A with Brad Nelson

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Brad Nelson, Agile Coach, Speaker & Host of The Agile For Agilists Podcast.

How could you describe your career path in a few words?

My career path unfolded organically. As a child, I was a voracious learner, often teased for carrying around encyclopedias. My interests spanned history, philosophy, psychology, and eventually technology. I delved into website creation and graphic design in middle school, progressed to building computers in high school, and even interned as the sole web developer for a studio in my senior year. Once in college, I became disillusioned with programming, and found myself in Lean Manufacturing, oblivious to the dawning of the Agile movement. I didn’t have the words I have today, but I showed a natural aptitude for growing high-performing teams through waste elimination, decentralized decision-making, and cross-functional collaboration. Over the years, I picked up technical roles where I could, fell back on lean manufacturing to survive, and frequently found myself in leadership roles. 

In 2014, I made my entry into corporate software development at Meijer, starting as a tester for an Agile team. With no traditional project management indoctrination and armed with a foundation in Lean, I evolved quickly into a Business Analyst, Scrum Master, Designer, Product Manager, Agile Coach, Consultant, and ultimately, a Manager. This journey illustrates my T-shaped growth, a testament to identifying opportunities and continuous learning

How do you think agile practices have transformed companies over the past two years?

The quarantine imposed constraints on industries, compelling adaptation and experimentation, surpassing productivity targets despite imperfections and the emotional toll of a global pandemic. This aligns with the understanding that constraints stimulate innovation, and effective change occurs by altering systems. While humans resist coercion, they naturally adapt to their environment, making environmental changes more effective at promoting change than direct mandates. For many organizations, the quarantine served as a catalyst for adopting better ways of working. However, amid economic decline, some reverted to pre-pandemic control models, a common response to a perceived loss of control. Paradoxically, increased control tends to diminish performance, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the same time, technological advancements have enabled unprecedented levels of responsiveness. Digital products are now more secure and robust, with teams capable of pushing multiple updates a day. The primary barrier today lies in management, highlighting the need for organizational adaptability and leadership that embraces change rather than clinging to outdated control-oriented models

What successful cases of agile transformations have you had the opportunity to observe that have particularly stood out to you?

The term 'agile transformation' implies an end state, but treating Agile adoption as a project often leads to unsatisfactory results. Agile is not about learning something once but about perpetual learning. Likewise, it is not about an improvement, but continuously improving. It is less about implementing practices or frameworks and more about principles and values. I was fortunate that my first experience in Agile at Meijer was exceptional, when many agilists may not have experienced working in a truly high-performing organization. This is why answers to this sort of question are often met with vague responses or the citing of other people's work. While some teams and departments exhibit high agility on a micro level, I have yet to personally see a Fortune 500 company holistically demonstrate Agile behaviors. The most progressive areas tend to be in "digital" or "eComm" teams where the technology evolves quicker demanding continuous learning. Unfortunately, the term 'Agile' has become a buzzword for consultants and a promotional spin for organizations to sell. Behind the curtain, even the mightiest organizations may disappoint. If one wants to observe true agility, look for Lean startups, where the need to adapt is acute and the right behaviors are present from the start.

Will agile practices continue to generate interest? What challenges do you see in the context of deploying these practices?

The challenge is an industry fixated on practices and archaic leadership styles. There are no practices in the Agile Manifesto, only 4 values and 12 principles. There also is no such thing as a best practice, only a good practice. And while there are plenty of good practices today, they may not be good tomorrow because 'we are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.' Practices that promote flow, feedback, and continuous improvement will continue to serve us.

The first principle of the Agile Manifesto clearly defines our highest priority as the delivery of value. Therefore, our interest ought to be in disciplines that promote value creation, such as Product Thinking and User Experience. Our largest focus though should be on leadership, because they are the ones responsible for deciding what the organization values and they are directly accountable for the culture within the company. Without those two things, no amount of practices will save you.

How do you envision the future of Agile in the next five years, and are there any emerging trends that you believe will significantly impact the Agile landscape?

I perceive a notable shift in the industry away from the term 'Agile.' While the underlying sentiment remains relevant, practitioners are increasingly emphasizing the broader concept of change. The key questions revolve around how we can respond to change more effectively, enhance change resilience, and facilitate organizations in embracing change.

Traditional companies may persist in misguided attempts to scale through costly SAFe and Scrum@Scale transformations instead of prioritizing portfolio management and value stream mapping. However, forward-thinking companies are turning to lighter-weight approaches like Kanban, FaST, and LeSS. Scrum will remain popular but might witness a reduction in its footprint.

DevOps, ProdOps, and Product Management will continue to grow. Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Artificial Intelligence (AI). While it is still too early to gauge AI's full impact, there is hope it will enhance rather than detract from our lives. 

Large organizations, shaped by remote work, currently maintain a disparate workforce. However, with the initiation of return-to-office plans, I foresee a trend toward localized teams. This aligns with the broader industry trend of switching between outsourcing and in-house operations every few years. With a return to in-house teams we may see an increase in custom development again.

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