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Q&A with Mark Cruth

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Mark Cruth, Modern Work Coach @Atlassian.

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

My career path is best described as a series of open doors and windows that I’ve decided to walk through. My first job was as a developer on a Scrum team, and from that moment I was hooked on the power of agility. An opportunity quickly came up to become a Scrum Master for a new team, so I took it and never looked back.  

Throughout the last 15 years, I’ve moved within and across organizations towards new problems that I feel would be fun to solve in the agility space. I’ve worked as a Scrum Master, Product Owner, Agile Coach, Team Leader, and the list goes on. As opportunities come up, I would tend to say “yes” more often than “no” because for me it’s not about the career ladder and ensuring I have a nice title like “director” or “vice president”, it’s about growth and challenge.  I’ve found that even if an opportunity feels like a step backward, it’s likely going to teach me something new, so why not say YES? And the neat thing about following opportunities focused on growth and challenge is that it leads to opportunities you would have never imagined you’d have…  

My current role is a great example of something I never would have imagined I’d do. As a Modern Work Coach for Atlassian, I have the opportunity to not just work with teams to build good practices, but part of my directive is to share my stories and learnings all over the world. If you had told me 15 years ago that this would be my job, I would have called you nuts! 

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

Over the last two years I believe we’ve seen a renewal in real agility… like agile manifesto level agility… within organizations because they’ve realized that using a framework like Scrum, SAFe, LeSS, etc. and hiring external consultants won’t fix their issues. Now I’m not hating on the more structured ways of practicing agile, but with the proliferation of frameworks, certifications, and people slapping “agile coach” on their LinkedIn profile, organizations are realizing that the $25 million “transformation” they were sold is not actually changing anything. 

I’ve found myself wanting to go back to the idea of little “a” agile vs the big “A” Agile. Little “a” agile was all about the speed of the game, continuous feedback, and experimentation… if I’m honest, I think XP was the only real framework that embraced this idea. Big “A” Agile on the other hand focused on ceremonies, synchronization, and roles…and yes, those are important things to consider, but they’re not the point…those should all be in service to getting working software into the hands of customers. I believe many organizations today are looking at agility the same way…with the contracting economy and the need to move quicker, they’re realizing that frameworks can provide some inspiration, but without focusing on actual agility and owning how they work, nothing will actually change.

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

A few years back I worked with a financial organization that was looking to move 2,500 technology team members and 1,000 business team members to a more agile way of working (faster feedback, more experimentation, less WIP, etc.). When the effort kicked off, we didn’t start by rolling out Scrum teams or setting up backlogs…we started at the top with the CEO of the organization. We knew that if any sort of change was going to stick, the CEO needed to be bought in. We ran him and his leadership team through training and worked with them to understand and align on the goals and plan for the transformation. From that point on everything just seemed to fall into place. There was a surprising lack of resistance to the change across the organization thanks to the fact that CEO and his leaders worked with their parts of the organization to drive home the “why” behind the change and express their support for it. We approached the transformation with top-down buy-in as our first priority, which was different compared to any other transformation I had been part of…and I think that’s why the change has stuck around.

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

I don’t think agile will ever lose interest in the world because of its promise of efficiency and effectiveness for organizations. I do believe that HOW agile manifests in the world will and should change. Much of today's big “A” Agile efforts have focused too heavily on standardization vs adaptability, leading to an army of change agents that only know how to change one way within an organization. If the last few years have taught us anything, adaptability will be the differentiator, and existing frameworks and practices will only survive if they can adapt (it’s sort of ironic).

One quote that always comes to mind when I think about the future of agility came from a fellow coach when we rolled out SAFe in a previous organization. On the day that we launched 25 Release Trains across the organization, he told our team… “Today we launch SAFe, and today we also start tearing SAFe down.” We recognized that SAFE gave us a pattern to start with, but once we started once we exposed it to oxygen… the only way we would be successful in the change would be to adapt it based on our continuous learnings and needs. At the end of the day, that’s what agility is all about in my opinion. 

Biography Section :  

Focused on practice over theory, Mark is a pragmatic modern work designer and coach. With over a decade of experience experimenting with teamwork practices at places like Boeing, Nordstrom, Charles Schwab, and Rocket Mortgage, Mark's mission is to inject modern ways of working, a transformation mindset, and the power of expert storytelling into everything he does.  Today Mark works as the Principle Modern Work Coach for Atlassian, a company focused on unleashing the potential of every team! Mark spends his days coaching both Atlassian and customer teams on new ways of working, then sharing what he's learned at events around the world!

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