Mr. Karl Scotland has established himself as a leading voice in the advocacy of Lean and Agile approaches worldwide. Having worked with organizations like the BBC, Yahoo!, EMC Consulting, Rally Software, Cisco and SDL, he’s been a pioneer of using Kanban Systems and Strategy Deployment for product development.
We had the pleasure of conversing with him and getting to inquire about some of the topics that he’s written/spoken about, to both expand our readers’ worldview regarding Lean and Agile thinking. Please read:
Q1. To start with, give us a brief introduction about yourself, and why you find Agile to be your preferred field of expertise.
Karl: I started my professional career as a developer, and after working on one particularly bad project began looking for better ways of working which could avoid all the late nights and weekends to meet unrealistic deadlines by cutting corners. This was in the late 90’s just as Agile was appearing as we know it today, so I soon discovered XP and Scrum, and began exploring a variety of new practices and techniques. I was an instant convert and have spent the rest of my career continuously searching for new ideas and learning better ways of working and helping organisations succeed.
Q2. You’ve recently written a lot about Strategy Deployment. Give us a brief description of its’ scale (and usage) in terms of big and small organizations.
Karl: Strategy Deployment is a general approach to aligning local organisational improvement initiatives with central strategy. The basic idea is that the best solutions emerge from those closest to the problem. For smaller organisations, at a smaller the scale, less formality and structure might be needed because it’s easier for everyone to communicate and collaborate around a common vision. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) can be a simple approach in this situation. On the other hand, at a larger scale, the need for clarity of intent is greater to keep improvement work coherent with the overall strategy while allowing decisions on what to do to be decentralised. This is where I think the X-Matrix and other A3 formats, combined with the idea of Backbriefing, can be very useful for communication and collaboration across a large number and wide range of people.
Q3. Elucidate some ways to deploy strategy in unstructured/ disorganized industries. Especially those that are more labour- intensive and have less measurable collaterals, in terms of products.
Karl: I like to refer to the Strategy Kernel that Richard Rumelt describes in his excellent book “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. He proposes that a good strategy consists of three core elements; diagnosis, guiding policies and coherent actions. So deploying strategy begins first with understanding what aspirations you have, and diagnosing what critical challenges or opportunities you need to address to meet them. That diagnosis leads to choosing guiding policies which will enable you to making decisions about what you should (and shouldn’t) do. Those choices then become your coherent action. I’d say that this way of thinking is relevant across all industries. The more complex the work is, the greater the need for the coherent actions to be discovered by the workers rather than defined by any experts.
Q4. You’ve mention that devising an X-Matrix, is an extremely contextual endeavor. Elaborate more on that a little bit.
Karl: Every organisation is different and will be facing its own unique challenges and opportunities. Especially in the current rapidly changing world. Simply copying what others have done to be successful is missing the understanding of why certain choices were made, and will at best leave you lagging behind. Therefore, organisations need to learn for themselves how to solve their own problems, in their context, rather than simply copying others’ solutions.
Q5. In your website, you mentioned a bit about a ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ organization philosophy. Which one would you ideally recommend for eager entrepreneurs who are introducing newer, more innovative products in the market?
Karl: I’d recommend doing both! Obviously if you only ever ‘think’ you’ll never get anything done, and if you only ever ‘do’ then it’s likely to be mindless copying or following orders. Having both means that you can carefully consider what action you might take, make a thoughtful choice, and then reflect on the decision. This leads to learning and improved decision making.
Q6. You wrote about impact mapping in your website. How would you suggest to deal with external factors/contingencies that can disrupt the flow and cause there to be wastage, in an otherwise perfectly mapped out routine?
Karl: With impact mapping, and in fact with any form of strategy deployment, we are making assumptions about how we think the world works. What we need to do, therefore, is test those assumptions, so that external factors, or other unknown and even unknowable conditions can be discovered early before they result in avoidable disruption and wasted efforts.
Q7. On a personal level, is there any particular Industry you’d like to analyse/ research/write/ comment on, or devise a Deployment strategy for?
Karl: I’m not so much curious about any specific industry than practicing across a range of industries. I worry that organisations that look for people with experience in their own industry are looking for experts with existing solutions they can implement. I’d rather help organisations by bringing in a naive perspective and coming up with something new and unique.
Q8. What are some of the requirements of being a good Agile coach? How would you advise other people to start getting around to building their careers in this field?
Karl: The main requirement is probably to have learnt the theory of why Agile works through real experience and practice. Just a theoretical knowledge isn’t enough and leads to what I call the Agile God Complex where coaches think their theoretical knowledge makes them experts who can prescribe solutions. Similarly, just practical experience leads to Agile Cargo Cults where coaches just copy what they have seen before. I would advise spending time working with Agile teams and organisations, engaging with the community by going to conferences or local meetups, and exploring and experimenting with a variety of different ideas.
Q9. Tell us something about your Keynote at Agile Gurugram 2018 and the workshop.
Karl: I’ll be talking more about the need for organisations to discover and learn what works for them in their context and introduce some tools and techniques which I believe can boost and enhance Agile Transformations. A3 formats such as the X-Matrix can concisely and visually create overall alignment. Backbriefing is a simple way of maintaining that alignment while allowing people the freedom to choose what action they should take. Experimentation generates quick feedback and information with which to continually learn and improve. Combined, these concepts allow Agile to be something which is participatory and co-created, rather than something which is imposed on people.
Mr. Karl Scotland has been a leading voice in Agile, and Agile consulting, having helped businesses become Learning Organizations with Strategy Deployment and Kanban. He’s the founding member of both the Lean Systems Society, as well as the Limited WIP Society, and the creator of Kanban Thinking, Ball Flow Game and the Lego Flow Game. Being a leading voice in the Agile field, he was awarded the honorary Brickell Key Community Contribution Award at the 2013 Lean Kanban North America conference.