As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Sublett.
Howard Sublett is the chief product owner at Scrum Alliance. Howard brings a wealth of experience in a variety of agile practices to this role, including serving as an agile coach and leader at several agile consultancies. As chief product owner, his primary responsibilities are to forge coalitions, to decide which products and services best deliver value to and serve customers, and to promote agile and Scrum principles and values in the greater community. He shares the C-suite with Chief ScrumMaster Melissa Boggs.
Before joining Scrum Alliance in 2018, Howard championed the SolutionsIQ culture as director of community development. As the face of SolutionsIQ, Howard could regularly be found building relationships at industry events and hosting the popular Agile Amped podcast series. Internally, Howard advocated for the individual and nurtured the company’s teams.
Howard is focused on people, who they are and what they need, and lives according to the mantra that strangers are only friends he hasn’t met. He is passionate about making workplaces joyful, sustainable, and prosperous with agile principles, practices, and values — and about sharing this message with the world.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I came from outside the world of software development or project management. I had never heard of Scrum, agile or agility until a friend of mine asked me to go to coffee to tell me about a job at a company called Scrum Alliance. I’ll be honest, I thought he was bringing me there to talk me into a multi-level marketing scheme. But then he started talking about the power of agility for business leaders and outcomes like delighted customers. I got interested really quickly. He took me with him to visit a company using Scrum. Once I saw the sheer happiness on the faces of the people working there, I was hooked. This was magic I wanted to be a part of.
And I still feel that way. I’ve worked for Scrum Alliance before, back when we created the first agile coaching certification. I knew how valuable coaching was but had never done it in any official capacity, so I left for a position where I got to work as a junior agile coach in Eastern Europe. After that, I helped build an agile consulting firm called Big Visible, stayed with them through two acquisitions (Solutions IQ & Accenture) then came back full circle to Scrum Alliance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During my time as a junior coach in Europe, I was called into a meeting with a senior executive team to help reach an agreement between senior executives. Normally, my senior coaches would handle but they were called away to another meeting in a different city. It was clear to me that everyone in the room had a deep understanding of software development, far beyond what I could understand, and English was not their primary language. They started describing their disagreement to me, and I swear between the language barrier and the technical jargon, I didn’t understand a single word they said. But I took notes like I knew what was going on. Then I asked them a question:
“Would you agree to try an experiment? Pretend like I don’t understand this topic at all. Explain it again as if I were a third grader.” They agreed. 10 words in I stopped them again. “OK. Even younger. Let’s pretend I’m a kindergartner.”
So this time, one of them began to explain the argument in a way that I, and everyone else there could understand. After a few minutes, the other executive interrupted and said, “Actually, we’re not solving that problem at all. We’re solving a totally different problem.” They called in the product owner and asked him which problem he needed solved. He chose one. And we were able to move forward.
I got all of the credit but I was scared to death the whole time.
What I learned was that all system problems are really human problems, mostly caused by a lack of communication. When you get to the heart of what’s going on, people are amazing and can solve really complex problems.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Dan Pink’s Drive really shifted my own mindset about what motivates people to do the things they do.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The world of business was complex and unpredictable long before we had ever heard of COVID-19. So I realized early on that the only thing I can do is do the next right thing. I ask myself, “what’s the next smallest increment that I can make towards a goal?” And I do that. We can’t plan for years in the future because we don’t know what’s coming. But I can always choose the next right thing.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I don’t think any of us have ever faced something this global and widespread, affecting every socio-economic group. The daily threat of illness and the daily reminders of lost lives and lost income have us all on edge. People are triggered faster; people are less productive. I’m giving everyone, including myself, a bit more slack. We’re all more likely to react differently than we would normally.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In late February, we hosted an open-house for our community to come and see our beautiful new office space. A few weeks later we were 100% virtual. The teams have done a marvelous job of adjusting, but it hasn’t been easy.
We’ve always hosted large, impact in-person events we call Gatherings. We had one scheduled in New York City in early May but had to cancel due to the pandemic. Now we have to re-imagine that whole idea; How do we create a way to build relationships, knowledge, and community when we cannot be together? Or if we have to be six-feet apart and wearing masks?
Prior to COVID-19 all our entry-level certification courses were conducted in-person. The global shutdown completely changed this, too. In two weeks, our entire company pivoted to enable live, online courses. In that same two-week period, many of the independent trainers in our community created engaging, interactive, fire-igniting courses that they could conduct live over the Internet. We saw Net Promoter Scores of 80 to 90 right out of the gate, which is astonishing. I’ve been really pleased with how adaptable everyone involved has been in helping us to continue to meet our mission in a virtual world
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One of the benefits of having an agile mindset, is that I’ve been aware for quite a while that we live in an uncertain world — that looking too far into the future isn’t realistic. Plans that change, markets that shift — those are things that companies that are truly agile understand.
It’s strange to imagine how something like Scrum, born out of software development, can help in a pandemic. Take as an example, a simple ordered list with three columns: To Do. Doing. Done. And it’s ordered, meaning that it is sorted by priority, so the most important items are at the top
Having that list is a visible reminder to ask, What’s the most important thing I can do now. Focusing on that one thing and moving it to done brings order to chaos.
When everything feels out of control, the tactlessness of a piece of paper or Post-It notes up on a wall helps you feel more in control. Pre-COVID, my wife and I made a simple list with Post-Its on my home office wall to help us make sense of our massive to do-list when our two sons planned their weddings within two months of each other. Having a visible list made it simple for us to walk in at the beginning of each day, take one or two things toward the top off the wall and move them to done. That kind of focus is invaluable.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
One opportunity we hadn’t counted on was that being purely virtual is allowing us to reach people who we could not before, because we didn’t have someone who could travel to a particular location. Now, when no one can travel, we can actually reach those people fairly easily, as long as they have an internet connection.
We are also learning the beauty of having multiple people from different cultures and countries who are able to participate in the same course at the same time. Participants from London, Pakistan, and Chile can share stories together in real time of what’s happening in their world of agility. Being virtual has helped us to unite people across borders, cultures, and time zones. It’s not something I would have imagined before, but it has been really impact.
This same lesson — that amazing and unexpected things can happen when you do things differently — is one thousands of companies are learning right now. The opportunity to embrace new ideas is a hidden silver lining of this difficult time.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on our lives. When it comes to work, after proving that people can effectively work from home, I believe there will be an increase in remote work across industries. For example, Twitter recently announced that all employees can now work from home 100 percent of the time moving forward if they’d like to.
Socially, I believe we might see changes in the way we travel and come together. The next time I get on an airplane, instead of just going through TSA, I can imagine that I might have to also go through pre- and post-trip health checks. I can imagine music venues that used to seat 30,000 only allowed by law to seat 10,000, so that people can safely distance from one another. I also see a rise in the desire for human connection. I think before, we took it for granted that we’d always be able to get together and have a drink or a meal or a conversation. In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen people sitting on their front lawns having picnics just so they can say hello to their neighbors.
The beauty of humanity emerges through crisis. People will want relationships after we’ve gone this long without them.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Scrum Alliance is a mission-driven organization: we want to create a world of work that is joyful, prosperous and sustainable. The mission itself isn’t going to change Post-COVID, but how we achieve that mission might. For years, our work has been very focused on in-person events (training classes, coaching, community events) We’re likely going to have to continue to reimagine ways to do more of that virtually.
The post-COVID workplace is still going to need to be joyful, prosperous and sustainable. If anything, companies are going to be more aware than ever of how much they need a company filled with people who are able to adapt in response to change, so that when the next thing comes (and it will), they have a more agile, more adaptive system in place.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I guess I’d give the same advice now as I would have before all of this started. Companies need to be adaptable to be resilient. So build agile companies and foster agile mindsets. Don’t wait until after this is over to do it — start building now.
If you’ve got the reins of the business and think you can forecast 7 years in the future, you’re fooling yourself. If COVID has done nothing else, it’s proven that. Business must be able to adapt and change.
We didn’t ask for radical change, but it’s here. Now is the time to think about upskilling — whether for you as an individual, leadership team or across an entire company. I encourage people to start learning agile principles and values, as well as frameworks like Scrum that support them. There are online resources that can help you take the first step in becoming a truly agile organization, ready to take on whatever the future holds. As the saying goes, you can’t control which way the wind is blowing but you can pitch your sails in that direction.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My Dad was a banker for 38 years. I grew up in a small, modest 2 bedroom house. We didn’t have a lot but we had plenty. I remember very clearly worrying as a teenager about my future. “What do I want to be when I grow up.” I couldn’t figure it out, so I went to my dad. He told me this:
“It doesn’t matter what you want to be, as long as what you are is a man of integrity, a man of honor.”
I’ve never forgotten that. It’s who I am — it’s in my DNA.
How can our readers further follow your work?