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Q&A with Dennis Mansell

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Dennis Mansell, Entreprise Coach.

How could you describe your career path in few words?

My career started as a professional sailor in the UK and the Netherlands. I worked for various companies and private individuals as a yacht skipper in Northern Europe, South East Asia and around the Mediterranean. When my wife started her internship as a doctor, I settled down in the Netherlands. I started a sailing training center for kids, adults and yacht-racing teams and worked as a contractor on IT projects.

When we decided to have kids, I had to make some difficult decisions. I sold the sailing school and decided to work as an IT project manager full time. Having made some expensive mistakes with some projects in the past, I had stopped using PRINCE2 in favor of Scrum a few years before. I found work at a startup in the Netherlands and having experience in large projects and multiple teams, I went from there to one of the Netherlands' premier digital agencies.

That was almost ten years ago, I decided not to get stuck in one market, mainly out of curiosity. That has given me experiences at government institutions, banking and insurance, technology and e-commerce with organizations ranging from one team to hundreds of teams.

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

I don't think agile practices transform companies. Transformations are usually a push to modernize companies that are stuck. By changing the structure and the way strategy is executed, the hope is that a company's culture will change. One sign that that is happening is that teams start having the autonomy to choose how to work. When they start splitting their problems into small experiments and feel they are part of something larger than themselves, we call them agile. However, merely standing next to a board full of sticky notes every morning, or calling your projects 'Epics', won't get you there.

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

What particularly stands out in the agile transformations I've seen is how different they are in retrospect, to the plan that was made at the beginning. At a client, the company had adopted a scaling framework and had followed the recipe to the letter. We changed the purpose of the transformation from being about following the recipe, to actual, measurable changes in how well and how often they served their customer.

What stood out to me was that the pace of change is not determined by the people at the bottom of the organization, people and teams can adapt quite rapidly to new conditions. Rather, those that set the conditions need to change their view on human nature, trusting their employees to have good intentions. This can take a long time, even a generation.

In this case, we had the advantage of a management team who was willing to look at the entire system and relinquish power: HR, Finance and PMO were all changed, whilst the managers refrained from telling the product teams what to do. This is not to say that a lot didn't change for the product teams too, but they had the space and the motivation to learn to focus on the customer.

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

I think that we are in the tail end of agile transformations but that this is largely an issue of what we mean by 'agile'. Some organizations have managed to reinvent themselves and will survive. But many haven't changed and are just looking for the next fad. The rest is up to much larger, societal changes that are still taking shape.

The fact that this question is formulated as 'deploying practices', as though this is about installing some new package of attitudes and behavior, is a perfect illustration of what I mean. What is currently meant by 'agile' is in a gray area where some parts of our economy function as complicated industrial infrastructure, yet in the other part, innovation requires adaptable, resilient teams. It used to be the case that agile referred to the latter, increasingly it has come to mean the former.

In the industrial part, reliable, predictable and scalable organizations will win and so will scaling frameworks. But innovation takes place in creative, unpredictable and less efficient teams of humans. If our political systems are able to ensure equal opportunities and less market capture with more democracy and by decentralizing capital, I think there is a future for agile teams. However, given the crises in democracy, climate and economic inequality, we may just as easily be heading for a period of post-liberal feudalism with very little need for self-managing teams.

So, the question is more whether market conditions will largely favor creativity and resilience or predictability and efficiency. I'm not sure which of those will be called 'agile' in the future.

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