Interview with Peter Stevens

In this edition we feature Peter Stevens, creator of Personal Agility framework and understand the power of Personal Agility to lead change. There are multiple challenges organisations and individuals face when undergoing change. Peter shares his thoughts on how Personal Agility can contribute towards driving successful change and shares his experiences with us.

Let’s read;

Q1. What is the story behind coming up with the Personal Agility Framework?

Peter: In 2016, I realized that while I was working very hard, I was not making progress on my business. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I had always compensated by working harder and longer, and I was burning out from exhaustion. I stumbled on an article in LinkedIn about the effective habits of people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. “Manage the minutes, not the hours,” it said. So I tried it, and discovered two things. 1) Compared to me, these people must lead very predictable lives and 2) my problem isn’t organizing my time, it’s having too much to do.

So I decided to try to apply Scrum to my life and started experimenting. I quickly discovered that while they were a good place to start, Scrum practices did not fit the challenges of leading a life, so I reinterpreted them. In particular, the mandate to produce a potentially shippable increment every sprint became a focus on doing things that support what really matters.

I shared what I did at every opportunity, and after a few months I started getting feedback. “This really works!” In October that year I asked fellow Certified Scrum Trainer Matarelli, “What really matters?” After thinking that one through, she decided to make significant changes in her life. We realized that we were on to something with tremendous potential to change people’s lives for the better, both at home and at work.So we decided to collaborate on a book together.

Q2. How Personal Agility can contribute to leading organisational change?

Peter: When a company says, “We want to be more agile”, what are they asking for?

When I look at the essence of the Agile Manifesto I see Learning, Collaboration and Purpose. It’s about activating our collective intelligence to solve problems.  Companies are striving to get better at identifying and meeting the needs of their existing and future customers.

I believe Personal Agility can help an organization on all three points.

Purpose. What really matters? If you ask that question to leaders and staff of a company, you will get more answers than people. Finding alignment is the hardest challenge of large organizations. The core questions of Personal Agility help you achieve alignment up and down the organization.

Learning. Creating and delivering successful products and services is fundamentally about learning, that is figuring out what the customer needs and how to create or deliver it. How do you learn? You ask questions. Personal Agility is based on a simple series of powerful questions and a few simple tools to understand and act on the answers. Personal Agility gives you the tools to develop and strengthen your company’s core competencies by learning through collaboration.

Collaboration. As organizations strive to become more agile, the conversations between leaders and staff focus more on the why, then collaborate to figure out what and how. Many people don’t know how to lead this kind of conversation. Personal Agility starts with why, then moves to what and how. You learn to figure out what really matters to colleagues, stakeholders or customers, so you can do the right thing.

Q3. Share your thoughts on keeping confidence during setbacks. Do you have any such experience?

Peter: Oh yes! When I first started, I thought I would have the book written in 3 months — it’s been 2 years! One thing I have discovered is that if you are not working on it, it does not get done!

In our book, Maria and I introduce the metaphor of the boat and the ocean. Imagine you’re sailing a ship on the ocean. Where is that ship? Where is it going? You need some tools for navigation so you can hold your course and apply course corrections if necessary.

How do you get to your destination? You need a force to keep you moving, a rudder and a sail  to hold the course, and a captain who wants to get there. Life is the ocean and you are the captain of the boat.

Sometimes you’ll get caught in a storm. Waves are crashing over the railings and you’re getting blown off course. These are the distractions, setbacks and emergencies of life. You are the captain, what do you do? 1) Don’t let the boat sink. If it sinks, game over. 2) Whenever you can, check your position and course. Make sure the boat is pointed to your destination.

Your goal is to arrive at your destination with your ship and your crew intact. Arriving at your destination is already a success! Ignore the naysayers and have faith in yourself.

Personal Agility gives you the tools to recognize when you are getting blown off course and to make corrections to achieve your goals. Add perseverance and you are good to go!

Q4. Most of the strategic plans never achieve execution. How do you think a leader can address this challenge?

Peter: A client of mine hired a traditional COO to transform his company. The COO started more initiatives than they had staff. Two years later, none of those initiatives were finished and the company and the COO parted ways. (This is where I got involved). My client agreed to take an agile approach himself. He and his leadership team applied Personal Agility and a lightweight version of Scrum to the challenge of improving the organization. Within 6 months, all of their key issues had been resolved and they could already see substantial improvement in their financial results.

What was the key difference in approach? Focus instead of multitasking.

Today it is not uncommon for people to work on three, five, even six projects at once! Every time you add an additional project to work on, you double the time it will take you to finish it. By the time you are working on five projects at once, it will take you half a year to finish what you could have done in a week! By reducing multi-tasking you can dramatically reduce your time to market.

Software teams now use Scrum or Kanban to substantially reduce multitasking and improve project success. If management and leadership chose to apply the same principles to themselves and their own work, they could become much more effective at leading their companies to positive results.

Q5. According to you, what is the significance of listening with a goal of learning while undergoing a change?

Peter: Without listening, learning doesn’t happen. Without learning, change doesn’t happen. Without change, there is no growth.

Very often in conflict situations people will have the feeling that they are not being heard. A simple, effective strategy to defuse a conflict situation is simply to repeat what the other person is saying and then ask for confirmation if you have understood them correctly. This signals that you are listening, and more importantly, increases the other person’s willingness to listen to you.

Q6. What’s your view on ‘Lone rangers have a place, but never on a great team’?

Peter: This is an interesting comparison. I remember watching the original black and white version of that show when I was a kid. The Lone Ranger was the sole survivor of a team of 6 Texas Rangers that was betrayed by someone outside the team and then ambushed. So everyone has a backstory, and understanding that story can help you understand why someone does what they do.

The relationship between an individual and his or her team is extremely complex. I am sure I cannot do it justice in this space.  But I will share a couple of thoughts.

Every once in a while, I get involved in a case where someone does not fit into a team and the manager asks me, should I let that person go or encourage them to move on? If they are at the point where they are asking an outsider this question, then the situation has probably deteriorated to the point where the answer is probably yes, though they are usually 6 to 8 months away from taking action. Better to end in a disaster than a disaster without end.

I once had a case of a second line manager who had a bad opinion of one of his staff members at the team level and wanted to get rid of him. It turned out that the person in question was working for two directors (third level manager) with no clarity on who he was really working for at any given point in time. He was in a difficult spot and avoided commitments for fear of having issues with the other director. Once that ambiguity was cleared, he transformed into one of the pillars of the team.  

It is very difficult for an outsider to understand what is happening within a team. Like in the Lone Ranger example, outsiders can have a significant impact on the performance of a team. A lack of understanding is sufficient to cause wrong decisions. It is for this reason that Scrum Masters, like many team leaders, protect their teams from outside interference.

One pattern I see quite frequently I call “Snow White and the 7 dwarfs”. “Snow White” is as productive as the rest of the team put together. Snow White often does a lot of overtime, and all the most important customers or stakeholders want to work with them. All the team members want to learn from her, so they seek her advice and guidance. Snow White never has enough time:  “Why do I have to waste time with the dwarfs?”

I have never experienced a malevolent Snow White. They are usually highly motivated and dedicated people with a lot of knowledge and experience. The risk is that they are holding the team down, because everybody waits for Snow White’s pronouncements and only does what Snow White tells them to do. The team stops thinking. This is why Scrum does not define leadership roles within the development team.

How can Snow White stop being a bottleneck? Encourage them to mentor and teach other team members. Pairing if done properly is a great way to transfer knowledge. Or, take them out of the team and ask them to serve as a consultant while keeping the responsibility for the solution in the team. This approach turns juniors into journeymen very quickly.

They may also be driven to this behaviour by their bonus clauses. If someone is incentivized not to work with their colleagues, they won’t. Understanding the root cause of the problem is essential to fixing it!

Finally, some people think there is no “I” in a team. I disagree. There is certainly space for leadership and initiative in Agile teams, but it is not formal and hierarchical. A colleague of mine is both an agile coach and a hockey coach. As a hockey coach, she says that the worst thing that can happen is when the team says “We have to score a goal”.  More often than not, the team will spend the rest of the game trying to set each other up to shoot the goal but no one will actually take the shot. Someone has to take the initiative.


Peter Stevens is the creator of The Personal Agility System, the simple framework for doing more that matters. He is a Certified Scrum Trainer who has been inspiring companies and individuals to transform themselves for a better way of working since 2006. He has taught Scrum to over 2000 people, mostly in Switzerland, Portugal, Italy and India. In 2012 he partnered with Steve Denning and others to host a rethinking of management in Stoos, Switzerland.

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James F. Dalton, Robert B. Dalton, Eric T. Jones

Published In:

August 13, 2013.