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Q&A with Simon Girvan

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Simon Girvan, Agile Coach & Principal Consultant @Ivar Jacobson International.

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


I started my career with a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering designing digital circuit boards, but that quickly evolved into firmware then software. After a few years working in and then leading software teams, I became interested in agile ways of working and began applying them as I moved into more leadership and management jobs. In each role, I was able to bring an agile mindset, even when designing pay systems or setting up new business processes. After 25 years in the UK public sector, I moved to the private sector where I am a consultant for Ivar Jacobson International, specialising in helping teams and organisations improve their ways of working. 



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


If they didn’t already know, the Covid pandemic really brought home to companies that today’s world is unpredictable and complex. And when situations are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous traditional, long-term linear projects just don’t work - Agile approaches are essential.

Companies that had already recognised that found that they adapted more quickly to the changed situation because they were already geared up to react to change; and those that didn’t struggled. 

The other trend I have noticed is that companies that began their agile transformations a few years ago are finding that it has got harder. Once the excitement of the big, high priority transformation programme has waned, the realisation hits that agile practices are hard. What worked for the first team or two doesn’t work for the sixth or tenth, and they don’t know why. So, I think there is going to be a trend in organisations seeking to work that out by tailoring or customising their ways of working to cope with more variance and different styles of team. And, of course, that makes it even harder! 


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

The ones that stand out for me are organisations that recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will never work. It’s really common to seek an approach or framework that all your teams will follow because that makes sense and it fits with the traditional project and programme mindset. The transformations that stand out for me are those that reject that notion, especially when they do so at the start! It doesn’t mean they can’t have consistency and alignment, but they also recognise that teams need autonomy to pick the right practices and approaches for their way of working.

Often they create some consistency at the programme or portfolio level, but once the teams know what goals they are working towards, they can choose how they want to work. We’ve found that using Essence to create an ecosystem of practices that teams can choose between can work well, and the best known example is probably The Spotify Model. It’s often misunderstood by focusing too much on the organisational structure (squads, tribes, etc) but done properly, it’s very powerful. 


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

The problems that agile emerged to address haven’t gone away - in fact they have increased. The benefits of an Agile Mindset have never been more important or more relevant. The problem, however, is also the same. Despite appearing simple and even ‘common sense’, agile approaches are still notoriously difficult to apply well for a number of reasons. Agile challenges convention, time-honoured ways of working in almost every direction. The right-hand side of the Agile Manifesto describes how most organisations are designed and incentivised to work.

So, applying agile doesn’t only mean understanding what agile is, learning some new techniques and accepting that the left hand side values are to be valued; it also means resisting decades, even centuries of ‘best practice’ that recommends the exact opposite. The Agile Manifesto is only 68 words, but on my and Lynda Girvan’s book ‘Agile From First Principles’ we take 26 pages to describe that, and much of that is explaining range challenges of applying those values.


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