Interview with Organizational Change Champion and Founder of Agendashift Mike Burrows

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Agile project management thought leader and founder of Agendashift Mike Burrows in an interview with TaskQue

Mike Burrows is an expert in implementing business outcome oriented strategy and transformation. He is the founder of Agendashift and has also authored two books that will be of interest to project managers, Kanban from the Inside and Agendashift). He has worn all hats in business and project management be it a manager, consultant, coach, trainer or a speaker. He has also made games like “Featureban” which is a Kanban simulation game so that project management concepts get easier and fun to understand. Mike Burrows has been honored with awards like Brickell Key award and community contribution, for his immense service and contribution to business and project management community. His company Agendashift facilitates organizations by implementing successful rapid experiment based process-evolution. He and his team at Agendashift help organizations in keeping their strategy and vision aligned with the culture of continuous transformation and co-creation. Now we would proceed with his interview.

Key Takeaways

Key takeaways from Mike Burrows interview

  1. Goal-focused change benefits
  2. Best way of writing a book
  3. Best project management games
  4. How culture works
  5. Wrong Agile widespread practice
  6. How to advance your PM career
  7. Effectiveness of remotely working teams

TaskQue: First thing, we would like to know Mike is what really inspired you in choosing the field of organizational change management?

Mike Burrows: My career started in software development, first in embedded systems (flight simulators), then software tools, and finally in the banking sector. I started out thinking that I would always find the most technically demanding work to be the most satisfying, but when I began to take on management roles I soon sound that people and organizations bring some very interesting and rewarding challenges too. I don’t for a minute regret my technical background (in fact I still love programming) but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to develop a new range of skills.

It’s not difficult to find inspiration in management, leadership, and change. It’s a privilege to create and sustain conditions in which people are able to find meaning in their work. So too is the chance to participate in guiding the organization itself so that becomes increasingly able to meet needs for all concerned.

TaskQue: You have worked great as an outcome-oriented change manager, what in your view is the biggest benefit of keeping organizational transformation and change goal oriented?

Mike Burrows: It really bothers me that even now, too many change programs are solution-centric and implemented in a style that belongs in the last century. These programs start with a predefined solution, work backwards from the solution in order to articulate some business justifications, strive to overcome resistance as the solution is implemented, and after the program has been completed, must live with all the consequences – the realization that the solution doesn’t live up to expectations, the resentment and disengagement of people that felt that they weren’t listened to, and the truth that the rest of the world has moved on meanwhile.

If you facilitate genuine agreement on outcomes and you take care to keep validating your assumptions as you go, change feels very different. People feel included rather imposed upon, and will contribute possible solutions. Decisions get taken at the right time when the necessary facts are known. Instead of a source of unwanted disruption, it becomes a way of working. And you know that you’re winning because you’re meeting meaningful objectives!

TaskQue: You have authored two books “Agendashift” and “Kanban from the Inside”, how do you find an experience of writing a book?

Mike Burrows: Writing has become so integral to how I work that I would find it difficult to imagine not doing it; fortunately I enjoy it. I find it helpful to put thoughts into words and then to rework them. I like to iterate between long-form writing (books and longer articles), blog posts, talks, interviews, and workshop materials, finding that frequent changes in medium help me to find better ways to express the message.

TaskQue: There are other project managers who write as well such as Johanna Rothman’s book “Manage it! Your guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management”, what remains as your core focus while writing any book?

Mike Burrows: To make it worth writing, each book must have one or two core ideas that sets it apart from others in its field. For Kanban from the Inside, it was the nine values (transparency, balance, collaboration, and so on) that I abstracted from the principles and practices of the Kanban Method (they have since been adopted into the method’s official definition). For Agendashift, they are outcome orientation and continuous transformation.

TaskQue: Games are a great way of increasing people engagement, I really loved that you created game “Featureban” to make Kanban concept a fun for people who wish to learn it. What more conceptual games do you plan to launch and on what subjects are they going to be focussing on?

Mike Burrows: I’ve had a lot of fun with Featureban and it’s gratifying to know that it gets played all over the world. There’s now a Lean Startup-inspired variant of Featureban called Changeban that still needs more testing but like Featureban I open sourced it from the beginning.

A very different kind of game is 15-minute FOTO, a coaching game that demonstrates a carefully chosen subset of Clean Language questions and has a practical purpose too, helping participants turn obstacles into outcomes that we can then organize in different ways. We play it twice in Agendashift workshops and it’s one of our most memorable tools. We’ve open sourced this one too.

These and related resources are available at www.agendashift.com/resources.

TaskQue: You have worn different hats in project management be it a coach, consultant, trainer or a speaker which role you enjoy the most?

Mike Burrows: It’s very hard to compare. As a coach/consultant, I’ve been an interim delivery manager for a couple of quite high profile government projects. When they’re going well it feels great, and it makes the more difficult times worthwhile. I no longer identify myself as a trainer but I do get a lot of pleasure from facilitating workshops. Speaking takes me around the world!

TaskQue: In working as an interim delivery manager for UK government projects, what significant differences you found in a culture as compared to other projects you have handled?

Mike Burrows: In these projects, you’re dealing with two cultures at the same time. There’s the fantastic team culture, in which internal staff and people from outside work side by side and sharing a high level of commitment to the strategically important principle of meeting user needs. Then there’s the more traditional culture, in which the relationships between customer and supplier and between different suppliers can be more adversarial than collaborative. I remain optimistic that the new style will continue to influence departments and agencies from the inside.

TaskQue: You have stated that “We seek to avoid the self‑defeating prescription of Lean and Agile techniques in isolation”, which principles of Agile methodology you consider do not align with achieving business outcomes?

Mike Burrows: Good question! We have since tweaked the wording:

Instead of the contradictory and self-defeating imposition of Lean and Agile practices, Agendashift helps you keep your vision and strategy aligned with and energized by a participatory culture of co‑creation and continuous transformation.

Whilst it’s true that the Agile manifesto says a lot more about teams than business outcomes, that’s not the issue here. The thing that we find contradictory and self-defeating is the imposition of Agile. As Daniel Mezick might say: for Agile to work you need engagement, so why kill engagement with imposition? Makes no sense!

TaskQue: Certifications are a great way of enhancing one’s skills, what certifications would you recommend project managers for achieving better results in their projects?

Mike Burrows: Certifications for their own sake are of very little interest to me. Don’t over-invest in a single framework, follow multiple passions, stretch yourself!

TaskQue: You are an outcome-oriented person, who believes in aligning strategy and vision, what common problems do you encounter in streamlining processes as per goals?

Mike Burrows: The two problems that I encounter most often:

  1. Sub Optimization – in which each part of the organization optimizes their part of the process to the detriment of the organization as a whole – seen at its worst in organizations that lack effective mechanisms to maintain alignment to common goals. When approaching this one I look not just at cross-team collaboration but also at the organization’s feedback loops.
  2. Lack of accountability – when it is too easy to say one thing and do another, paying lip service to common goals whilst pursuing a different agenda.  Readers of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team will recognize this one; for a great real-world model of “mutual accountability,” I wholeheartedly recommend L. David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around!.

These problems are of course related – make progress in one and it’s likely to have benefits in the other.

TaskQue: Currently remote working teams trend is surging, what are your views on the effectiveness of remotely working and connected teams?

Mike Burrows: A few years ago I managed a department of around 100 people spread across four continents. That was an appropriate configuration given our need to be close to our customers, but it isn’t easy! To make it work we had good lines of communication, good communication tools, and good information systems. Without those, I think it would have been impossible to achieve the coherence and levels of mutual support that we enjoyed. Given the hidden costs, I certainly wouldn’t advocate distributing a team unless the case for it was overwhelming (doing it for marginal cost savings is a recipe for pain).

TaskQue: You have been working and blogging for quite long, what personalities inspire you most in projects and business community? Please name some.

Mike Burrows: I’ll start with some respected authors who have influenced my recent work most especially (in some cases re-reading classic books I have read before): Edgar Schein, Richard Rumelt, Robert Greenleaf, and Donella Meadows. A more unusual choice would be Caitlin Walker. Of the three books I recommend on Clean Language, hers was the one that most inspired me to integrate Clean Language into Agendashift.

All of these authors appear in my recommended reading list at www.agendashift.com/reading.

TaskQue: Business consultancy and bringing goal-oriented change is your specialty, please share some of your success tips with us about how to gain results while working in an agile-based environment?

Mike Burrows: Start with needs and finish with validation! If you don’t have a good understanding of what needs you’ll be meeting, what chance do you have of achieving meaningful outcomes? Don’t take requirements at face value. Don’t think that it’s enough to solve problems. Check that you’re actually making a difference. Of course, this applies not only to Agile environments.

TaskQue: Keeping professional life aside, what leisure activities have you adopted for maintaining work/life balance?

Mike Burrows: Music and the Derbyshire countryside. I play the piano most days, and we live on the eastern edge of the Peak District national park in the UK. It’s beautiful!

TaskQue: Workstation has a great impact on productivity and mind? I would be really glad if you could share an image of your workstation with us?

Mike Burrows: I wish I could! We’re converting our double garage into an office and spare bedroom. It should be finished before Christmas.

TaskQue: TaskQue is a team collaboration cloud-based application which empowers project managers in managing their team remotely, what is your view on applications like TaskQue? How much effective do you find these applications in streamlining organizational processes?

Mike Burrows: I can’t speak to TaskQue specifically, but as I mentioned in my answer to your question about remote working, it’s important to have good information systems. I find them vital even in collocated environments where sticky notes and whiteboards rule.

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