Interview with Jeff Lopez-Stuit

We conversed with Jeff Lopez-Stuit recently on challenges for Agile Coach. Jeff is a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach and helps organisations and individuals to improve their ability to improve.

This discussion has brought up interesting information on why organisations need Agility, how to make everyone in organisation accept, respect and understand Agile, how to be customer ready, and common mistakes made in Agile assessment.

Q1. Why organizations need Agility?

Jeff: Learning to practice Agility well can give any organization the ability to continuously create and improve focus, delivery, and operations in such a way that it can be an unstoppable force for the good of its customers, employees and the world. Agility is a powerful shift in the way humans can make and use things.  We’re entering a time when even some of the most ordinary objects can have some kind of intelligence and communication built into them.  Learning to focus on the most valuable way to utilize these new powers is why learning and practicing agility are essential.

Q2. What are the challenges to find managers with leadership qualities, business acumen, and customer management skills?

Jeff: Last year, I coached at a medical technology company in the United States that had been founded by a man who was brilliant at identifying great leaders and managers. So brilliant, that it seemed like he could look at people standing on the street and see leadership potential in them. He used that gift to build his company from nothing to over $4.5 billion US over the course of his lifetime.  When he saw leadership and management potential, he wasn’t looking for a list of business skills:  he could see who they were going to be as managers and leaders, if they could quickly adapt themselves to changing conditions, and if they wouldn’t let impediments get in their way.  His approach to business was to inspect and adapt, and he looked for people who could practice that and grow with him.

For current leaders and managers, the challenge is to not drag your past along with you and try to map what’s being asked of you now to how things worked in the past.  Being uncomfortable with new and unknown situations, allowing people to work in teams and create their solutions, and facilitating communication instead of controlling it, are all fundamental skills that agile leaders have to learn.  But before that, cultivating the ability to leave the past in the past is the most important skill to practice.

Q3. How to have everyone in organization accept, respect and understand Agile and its practices?

Jeff: The best way to inspire an organization to start practicing agile is to have a powerful vision and mission for a business future that includes agility, invite people to join in that journey, give them the space and support they need to learn and practice, and then believe and expect that they can be accountable for owning the delivery of the mission.
The most important element for a leader is a powerful conversation about the future that they can influence and coach an organization to own for itself.  Too many companies try to adopt agility by inflicting a framework on people in hopes that they will all “become more agile”. Any attempt to improve performance has to have a context for why it’s happening, and an invitation to join.

I need to point out that this is the great contribution that Daniel Mezick has made through Open Space Agility.  It’s a very powerful approach to allowing an organization to own its own future through practicing agile.

Q4. Share your views on 3 major challenges for new age coaches. How to overcome these challenges?

Jeff: The biggest challenge is to keep focus on doing good agile and helping others do it.   Lack of experience and rigor in agility is the biggest threat to the agile coaching profession.
Unfortunately, there’s been way too much emphasis in agile coaching education on things like team and organizational dynamics, cultural transformation, and mindset, and not enough emphasis on agility itself.   There are fundamental skills needed to practice and lead agile teams and organizations, and those skills must be mastered before attempting to coach a team. Most people learn these skills when working as a Scrum Master or Product Owner.  Alas many people move on to try to become agile coaches before they master the fundamentals. Practice, practice, practice the fundamentals every day, in both your personal life and your team. That will lay the foundation for being a great agile coach.

Choosing your path and focusing your personal growth and development efforts to it is a major challenge now, and unfortunately, the agile community isn’t helping aspiring agile coaches do this.  Every week there are new certifications and training programs that compete for your focus and money.  (Disclaimer: I am a certified trainer in the Scrum @ Scale framework). An aspiring coach needs to be very careful to choose only those programs that will help them become a better practitioner.  I can’t tell you how many aspiring Scrum Masters I’ve met that have a huge list of certifications printed behind their name but can’t facilitate a sprint planning meeting if their life depended on it.  Believe it or not, attending a local meetup group to share experiences and practices can be a much more powerful way to learn than by attending a big-budget certification program.

The last of the three challenges is to stay open to iterating yourself.  In fact, learn how to iterate yourself faster than the tools, technology and processes that are being thrown at you every day.  You can’t help an organization with transformation unless you personally have mastered the ability to transform.

Q5. How can an organization become customer ready to receive changes quickly?

Jeff: The best way to learn to serve customers with agility is to invite those customers on the journey with you.  Involve all your customers to create the product backlog with you and invite them to all sprint reviews to get direct feedback from them.  As the agile manifesto implies, work with them every day.

In the best agile organization I’ve worked with, we invited the customer into a few hours of training to introduce them to the foundations of agile practices at the start of the program.  We showed them from the first contact the value they would get from participating directly and daily in the development process and from providing iterative feedback on real working stuff.  We gave them space to ask all the questions they could come up with. Then, that very afternoon, we invited them into the first user story workshop. The customer was overjoyed, because for the first time, they had an opportunity to work directly with the team and get honest visibility into the work that was going on.  Partnership, transparency, and frequent feedback caused them to pivot their entire strategy from what they thought they would be doing into something that was immediately valuable.

Another example is a client that required all of their teams to have real paying customer present at every sprint review.  Teams at that company often had multiple customers present – even when those customers were competitors! The customers knew that they sprint review was their best opportunity to get their feedback build into the product, so they were willing to sit side-by-side with competitors and have conversations with the team.

Q6. Briefly share some common mistakes made in Agile assessment.

Jeff: The most common mistake these days is to rely too much on metrics and dashboards to guide your actions before a team or organization knows how to practice agile well.  To paraphrase something we teach at Scrum @ Scale courses:  if you can’t prioritize, cool dashboards will only make you look beautiful as you fail.  If you can’t deliver, fascinating metrics will only keep you busy calculating numbers while you fail.

During assessment, agile coaches often forget the very thing from the Agile Manifesto that we teach people:  the most effective means of communication is a face-to-face conversation.  You need to learn how to walk around an organization, observe what’s going on, and have conversations with people about what their work and lives are like.   Swim in the waters of the people that you’re seeking to help. Orient yourself to what’s going on with people inside their own space before trying to assess them. Only then can you establish a good foundation upon which to assess which path to follow with your client.

All of the work an organization takes on to learn agility happens inside a context:  the team, the organization, and the civilization people live in. Assessments often ignore this.  This is why I never use an off-the-shelf assessment tool. Assessment tools often constrain a coach’s ability to help your client observe and orient themselves to where they are, and where they can go.

Q7. What is your advice to new generation of Agile Coaches?

Jeff: First, stand for something larger than yourself:  something larger than you can comprehend achieving at your current state of coaching experience and practice.  Take up that thing and make that thing your life.  Don’t settle for being an agile coach alone: stand for something extraordinary in the world and let what you’re standing for flow through everything you’re coaching.

Second, master your agile coaching craft through practice.  Whether it’s Scrum, Kanban, or any other framework, the core practices of what you’re coaching need to be modeled in your own behavior.  For instance, if you don’t have a personal backlog for your own development that anyone can see, you’re going to have a hard time influencing teams and customers to adopt that same behavior.  Do agile well in everything you do and hold the space that you’re coaching clients do the same.

Finally, don’t settle for whatever constraints or impediments that will inevitably appear in your way.  Be completely unreasonable in what you’re standing for on behalf of your clients as you’re coaching.  The practice you’ve done becoming a great agilest will support you in this.  Be ready to break through the boundaries of what your prior conception of being an agile coach is.  Even be ready to break through the boundaries of what the agile community or what some certification body tells you being an agile coach is.  There is a strong tendency in professional education to commodify and standardize agility, so it can be packaged and sold. Don’t buy in to that.  Learn from it what helps you, and then navigate your own path.

This is still a very young profession, and it’s quickly becoming a very global profession.  The world needs you to contribute all your creativity and commitment to improving the practice of agile coaching.  Agile itself is a means to do this. Stand for something great, practice delivering it iteratively, and share it widely and often to the whole world.  Repeat that early and often. Through iterating and improving your agile coaching practice, you’ll improve yourself, your clients, and the world.


Jeff Lopez-Stuit is a Certified Enterprise Coach who has trained and coached individuals and organizations all over the world to improve their ability to improve. He guides organizations to exploit the fundamentals of Agile to leave behind the inadequate structures of the past and establish an environment that enables continuous delivery of the highest value for all.

Jeff has been invited to present at global agile events throughout North America, Asia, and Europe, as well as speaking frequently at regional Agile conferences wherever he is working.


Interview with Jim Benson

In our recent conversation with creator of Personal Kanban Jim Benson, we delved deeper into his inspiration behind Personal Kanban. We then discussed through challenges for a team to reach its potential, and how to have highly motivated, empowered, and higher performing team members.

It was an enriching experience to converse Jim. Let’s read;

Q1. Why Personal Kanban? Briefly share your inspiration behind the same.

Jim: Now over a decade ago, we had a small software development shop that was doing some large-scale work. We were creating enterprise scale software with a team of 10.  While we were doing well in quality and customer satisfaction, we kept “misplacing” work. We’d start things, get interrupted, and then forget to finish the tasks.

In our StandUp Meetings, we usually asked “What are you working on?” One day we asked a different question, “What do you have that is unfinished?”  The answer surprised us. Everyone had many unfinished tasks.

So we started looking for a way to know not only what was on people’s “To-Do” list, but also what tasks did they have that they were waiting for others, that were on hold, postponed, or simply abandoned.

We tried mind maps, this strange circle diagram, lists, until finally developing Personal Kanban.  

Q2. What are the challenges for a team to reach its maximum potential?

Jim: Ohh, so many…

Overload: Most teams don’t know their capacity and therefore don’t know how to avoid being overloaded. Between the desires of business, the needs of the customer, and our own enthusiasm, we quickly become overloaded.

Agency: Many teams are discouraged from changing their processes, their culture, or the work that they are doing — even when they know very well that such changes will result in a better product and a happier team.

Silos: Teams find themselves structurally or functionally removed from the rest of the business.  For example, they might be in the Software Development group and never work with people in Customer Support.  This means that we cut teams with one type of business intelligence of from other teams. The moment we cut teams off from understanding the whole business, they will make uninformed decisions.

Big Projects: We usually make projects as large as our enthusiasm, or maybe our egos.  Projects that are large have large problems. Problems scale. When we are a team working on a huge project, we spend most of our time managing the relationships between stakeholders, logistics, and interactions of the components of the product, and not the on building a quality product.  

Unfortunately, I could easily list 25 major challenges of teams.  We have built a world in which most of our costs are rework, meetings, and self-manufactured confusion.

Q3. How to increase chances of having highly motivated, empowered and higher performing team members?

Jim: This is a much more pleasant question.

Constancy of Purpose: Does everyone know what they are doing, who they are doing it for, what their personal role is, and what needs to be done? If people know these things they know how to help make the work and the product better. If they do not know these things, they wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Agency: Once someone knows what they can do, they need to be allowed to do it. Solve problems, improve the product, make changes, engage in improvement… be a professional. People come to work to be a professional, they are usually treated like “workers”. People are motivated, strangely enough, by being allowed to be motivated.

Situational Awareness: Do people know what is going on in their team, their company, and sometimes even at the market?  If not, they will be reluctant to act. We need to know what is going on in order to have context for our work. When we understand what is happening around us, we make better decisions and can act with confidence.

Q4. What defines an Improvement?

Jim: What I like to ask teams is “What upsets you?”  

As professionals, when we go looking for an improvement, we will try to be very analytical and look for something of very deep business value to improve. We focus on the emotions. As a professional, things that get in the way of us doing our best job upset us. We get sad or angry or frustrated. Yet often, those aren’t the things that people try to improve first.

So, in my mind, the best improvements are ones that remove frustrations from the daily lives of professionals trying to create value.

Q5. What are the situations when Personal Kanban works the best?

Jim: Any situation where work is hidden or workflows are complex. This extends from us as individuals having too much work to do (we hide work from ourselves) to large endeavors with many steps and many tasks in flight.  

When we see our work, we understand our options, can better select the right thing at the right time, understand what it is that we are completing, can share that information with others visually, track our actions in real-time (so we don’t forget things), and see what we’ve completed.

When we limit our work-in-progress, we see our capacity, don’t overload ourselves or our teams, focus better, and promote quality completion.  

Q6. Share your idea of managing the change.

Jim: Managing change is like managing a river.

You can try to build a dam, the dam will eventually break. You can try to channel it, a flood will redirect the river. You can try to swim it’s rapids and will eventually drown.

Or you can let the river be a river. You can fish in it. You can swim in it. You can admire its beauty. You can understand that you don’t control it.

Change is the only constant. Things change. So, rather than manage change, we should embrace change as a collaborative force in completion of our work.

This is another reason to use a Personal Kanban. Seeing work as it flows along the path we assume it should, shows us where it does not. It shows where and when things change and why. It allows us to incorporate changes in the market, in corporate structure, in team dynamics elegantly.  

I see “managing change” as a path of the misled. Incorporating change, that I can get excited about.

Q7. What is one thing you want to change in how Personal Kanban gets implemented these days?

Jim: In the last 10 years of watching the global usage of Personal Kanban, we have seen it used:

  • by mothers with children working together to manage their disabilities,
  • By Fortune 10 companies to deal with an immediate near-death crisis,
  • By hospitals to understand who they are helping every days,
  • By therapists to help kids with ADHD or Autism focus and achieve their potential,
  • By construction firms to build skyscrapers,
  • By software development teams to build the digital infrastructure of the modern world,
  • By families to plan both chores and quality family time,
  • By amusement parks to plan actions during times of high volume,
  • And the list goes on.

Simply said, I’m humbled and moved by how this simple tool has touched and improved so many lives and I would not change a thing.

Q8. Please share your mantra of success for a world of uncertainties and advancements.

Jim: Well, you certainly saved the easy question for last. I could write a book on this one…

But, a mantra.

Everyone wants better.


Jim Benson is the creator of Personal Kanban, a public speaker, consultant and an author. He is an expert in effectiveness for individuals, teams or organizations. Jim has worked with Fortune 10 companies, major world governments, and the most dynamic startups. He is a frequent speaker at global conferences, and enjoys helping people and teams work out sticky problems. He has authored books like ‘Personal Kanban : Mapping Work | Navigating Life‘, ‘Why limit WIP?‘, ‘Why plans fail‘, etc.