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Q&A with Mark Kilby

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Mark Kilby, Remote Agile Leader, Mentor, Educator.

How could you describe your career path in few words?

I can actually describe my career path in one word: exploratory. Robotics and automation became an early passion, but I soon turned to software. I could tell from my experience with automation, that the need for understanding software would influence many industries. So I shifted my skills from hardware engineering to software engineering. That hypothesis turned out correct. We now live in the age of software everywhere.

After a decade in software, I soon realized that improved communication and collaboration skills within teams and between teams would be a key need. There were too many silos within organizations that trapped knowledge. So I retooled from engineering skills to the deep skills of facilitation, team collaboration, agile and lean principles, and building learning organizations. I then realized that middle and senior management needed similar help in communicating and collaborating across the enterprise. With this, I added large-scale facilitation and leadership coaching to my toolkit.

And much of my career over the last two decades has been with global organizations spanning many timezones. Originally, these were large organizations. But with the rise of Web 2.0 technologies, I worked with numerous startups and medium-sized organizations that realized the benefits of working with talent anywhere in the world.

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

I think a more important question is how has the last two years transformed companies and how have agile principles helped?

For those companies that truly understand the agile concept of “inspect and adapt”, they realize it’s not about any particular set of agile practices. Success in any transformation (agile, digital, AI, etc.) depends on what you are willing to question within your own organization? What could be better? What do we know is painful for our people? How can we make their working life better?

When the pandemic hit, those organizations that had the “inspect and adapt” mindset were challenged by many of these questions, but had the tools to navigate toward solutions. Those that didn’t tried to do the same things in an online environment that they did in an office. That was a painful experience for many.

Taking an agile approach in examining how we work means questioning anything in your organization and experimenting with better ways.

Also, for those things that are working well in our organization, do we understand why it works well? What are the conditions that bring us success in certain areas or certain types of projects? If you can learn that, you can transfer that understanding to other parts of the business.

Many assume agile practices just apply to teams. They don’t see the real benefit until they view the entire organization through an “inspect and adapt” lens.

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

The most rapid and successful agile transformation I was part of was with a global IT group that served a larger hardware manufacturing organization. Years ago, the manufacturing side of the business went through a lean transformation. So they had an understanding of organizational learning by running small pilots, having a group of senior leaders oversee the pilots and plan the next steps of adoption, and holding regular all-hands updates to inform everyone about the progress and pitfalls of the pilots. Most of all, the leaders gathered and shared the learning with the entire IT organization.

They finally decided that for their traditional setup of software for a new manufacturing line, they would follow their traditional approach. This typically involved a standard SAP deployment. However, for any custom software needs, they would take an agile approach to quickly explore the unknowns and use the findings to decide what worked best for the business and it’s numerous partners. This gave a significant boost to their partner support and helped grow the business.

I trained and supported the first two waves of agile pilot teams. I recall one SAP ABAP developer on one of the first pilot teams that was totally opposed to changing his well-defined development process. He surprised me by showing up in one of the second wave agile pilot teams. He actually came up to me during a break in the first meeting to share his excitement. On that first pilot team, he learned more from the other parts of the business than he ever did in his years of prior SAP projects. He didn’t want to go back to his old way of working because he appreciated the communication and collaboration and how it helped him do a better job. I heard similar stories from many of those pilot teams.

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

Agile practices will and should evolve in the future. The lens of “inspect and adapt” applies just as much to agile practices as it does to the organizations it helps.

The challenge comes from those taking a one-and-done approach and thinking they just install agile practices and no longer need to change. Adopting agile means you are willing to become a learning organization and look at all levels of your organization through the “inspect and adapt” lens. This doesn’t mean changing everything all the time. It does mean setting up systems to look at performance of different parts of the organization, where do we find struggles and wild successes, what can we learn from it, and how do we make adjustments to leverage that new knowledge?

Sometimes those challenges come from shifts in the market, shifts in our environment (politics and pandemics come to mind), or changes in technology.

The latest challenge comes from the leaps in artificial intelligence and large language models. There are many unknowns to explore as people try to determine if large language models represent simple technology parrots echoing simple answers. Or, does the knowledge of the large language models represent a deeper understanding that can be leveraged in multiple parts of the business? Furthermore, how can these large language models support other shifts in the world of work such as remote and hybrid work arrangements? Can LLMs help distributed teams stay better aligned? Can it let people know when communication and collaboration within and across teams?

These questions provide some exciting opportunities that should be explored. Those businesses that use the agile lens of “inspect and adapt” will likely be the first to take advantage of these technologies and develop key differentiators for their business.

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