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Q&A with Zach Bonaker

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Zack Bonaker, Organization Design & Development // Business Agility.

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

It's often said that people naturally gravitate toward subjects they are curious and passionate about, and I'm certainly no exception to this notion. Following the completion of both my undergraduate and master's programs at San Diego State University (go Aztecs!), my early journey in software development took me through various roles, including customer support, programming, QA, and project management. Through these experiences, serendipitously, I found myself deeply immersed in organizational change.

During the late 2000s, when agile software development was emerging as a transformation trend, I actively sought out experienced mentors. These mentors not only shared their wisdom but also helped me expand my professional network. Through these connections, I developed a profound interest in systems thinking, delved into the realm of organizational design research, and gained a passion for workplaces that prioritize human well-being.

This blend of organizational science, agile-inspired practices, and team-centric management forms what I consider to be "Business Agility." At this point in my career, I have served as a trusted mentor to executives, leaders, teams, and individuals in many roles, ranging from Fortune 500 enterprises to startups. I proudly describe myself as a "Benevolent Troublemaker" – a catalyst for positive disruption and organizations that prioritize the human element.

How do you think the popularity of Business Agility has transformed companies over the past two years?

I believe we are at a pivotal juncture in the pursuit of the next major organizational competitive advantage. While inherently subjective, I am convinced we find ourselves in the "post-agile" phase of organizational behavior. As organizations grow weary of the agile industry as a one-size-fits-all solution, numerous leaders have come to the realization that tactical, team-centered transformation initiatives are fundamentally inadequate. Beyond the application of agile-inspired practices within teams, the paradigm by which a company is governed must include congruent people management, metrics and rewards, structures, and -- especially -- leadership.

Over the preceding two years, countless organizations have correctly recognized that a comprehensive, system-wide approach to transformation holds the key to achieving Business Agility. This realization has prompted leaders to embrace a non-deterministic mindset, leveraging feedback from both customers and the workforce to steer the course of transformation efforts. Furthermore, businesses that embody Business Agility have revolutionized their decision-making models, diminishing their dependence on managers as bottlenecks for decisions and instead empowering customer-engaged teams with ownership.

Leaders who remain oblivious to the significance of organizational design and development, those fixated solely on short-term tactical gains, and those who disregard the present socio-economic landscape, have missed the window to harness today's competitive edge.

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

When reflecting on my experience, two prevailing themes consistently emerge: Whole-system organization design and the implementation of holistic, concept-to-delivery lateral processes aimed at maximizing customer value.

One standout memory involves a company that purposefully engaged middle-management and individual contributors from all corners of the organization in "steering committees" dedicated to organization design. Under the sponsorship of senior and executive leaders, these cross-functional teams were entrusted with delving into the company's strategic landscape through various lenses, including HR, Operations, R&D, Architecture, and Sales. This approach, which encompassed the entirety of the organization, yielded inventive and inspired transformation possibilities and generated support mechanisms for change. Furthermore, the company embraced radical transparency, openly sharing every decision and deliberation. This included hosting accessible "debrief" discussions open to all employees, allowing them to pose questions and contribute their voices.

Turning to the second theme, when organizations commit to dismantling functional silos and engineer lateral processes explicitly geared toward enhancing the flow of business value, the resultant impact on effectiveness and efficiency is truly transformative. I've witnessed multiple functional departments collaborating to visualize the end-to-end flow of value. By defining these workflows as an organizational capability to manage, rather than independent functions, organizations identify sluggish or ineffective processes, bottlenecks, and initiate transformative change. 

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

Software development organizations and leaders should embrace the notion that agile-inspired technical practices serve as the fundamental driver of software agility. While common practices like iteration planning, retrospectives, and backlog management are easy to implement, they often can be performed without the current state changing at all. In contrast, transformative technical practices intrinsic to agile software development, such as continuous integration and deployment, test-first programming, and trunk-based development, are often overlooked.

This doesn’t surprise me, though. Shifting a software organization's technical practice culture necessitates a profound paradigm shift across the entire system. Accumulated technical risks may make relinquishing branches a scary thought, let alone continuous production deployments. Amid deadline pressures and a fully-utilized workforce, the capacity to transition sensitive technical systems becomes elusive. Combined with the need for training and lack of enthusiasm to change familiar coding practices, leveraging technical agile practices becomes a puzzle of embedded organizational behavior, intrinsic motivation, and tough economic trade-off decisions.

To surmount these challenges, recognizing that the path to software agility varies with context is crucial. Elevating technical practices to a first class organizational citizen is essential. Starting on just one specific constraint, such as ensuring safe trunk commits, can initiate a potent transformation tailored to your unique context and circumstances.


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