As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sanjiv Augustine.
Sanjiv Augustine is founder and CEO of LitheSpeed LLC and the Agile Leadership Academy. He is an entrepreneur, industry-leading agile and lean expert, speaker, management consultant, and trainer. Augustine has served as a trusted advisor over the past twenty years to executives and management at leading firms and agencies. He is the author of the books From PMO to VMO, Managing Agile Projects and Scaling Agile.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
My first job was in high school, working in production support for an advertising company. I learned the value of getting things done on tight deadlines and with high quality. I’ve taken those early lessons into every job I’ve had since, including stints as an electronics engineer, software developer, project and product manager, management consultant, and now entrepreneur and executive. My introduction to agile methods was in 2000, when my boss hired me to manage 3 agile teams. Since there was little to no guidance about any management role in agile methods back then, I had to learn my job and had to develop a role for a manager on an agile team completely through trial and error.
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?
Well, not sure this story is as much about a mistake as it is about the situation back then. New to agile and desperate to learn, I asked my boss about learning resources. He directed me to one of the two agile books that existed 20 years ago, eXtreme Programming Explained. I read the book from cover to cover, but discovered that it had only a single paragraph about the role of a manager. I distinctly recall the line, “the role of a manager is to remove obstacles for the team and to bring the team pizza.” Long story short, I figured I could do both of these things reasonably well and ran with it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, we have had tremendous help from several people along the way. In the early 2000s, Jim Highsmith, Bob Martin and Alistair Cockburn, all coauthors of the Agile Manifesto, all extended their friendship and welcomed us with open arms. Together, they gave our team access to an inner circle of agile luminaries.
Over the years, we have more than a handful of key clients who have done groundbreaking work. They have initiated change efforts with courage and grace to deliver immense value to their teams and their organizations. We admire these intrepid leaders, and we love to share how they have led agile transformations.
A recent example is the CIO of a company who implemented agile at scale. She faced tough challenges in driving change, but gave us enough leeway to help her team implement agile quickly and very successfully. As her trusted advisors, it was exhilarating for us to help deliver customer outcomes that made a tremendous impact.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The entire Agile movement has a human-centered ethos at its core. As an intrinsically agile business, we have always been wired towards an elevating purpose.
Our mission has always been to make people’s work more valued, productive and fulfilling. This elevating purpose imbues everything we do, and drives us to make decisions that are based not just on what is good for us as individuals, but for our team, our customers, our communities and for our planet.
It has carried us for years and especially through the pandemic, when things became extraordinarily difficult across the entire world.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We help our customers improve their processes and their organizations so that they, in turn, can deliver business value to their customers. Improving revenue and customer satisfaction while lowering costs are typical business outcomes.
In addition, we help agile and agile-aspiring customers transform their organizations to develop business agility. In simple terms, this is the ability to adapt to change very quickly or “turn on a dime for a dime.” We do this through agile management consulting, coaching and training.
At a personal level, we act as trusted advisors to leaders at these businesses. We help them make the personal transition to agile and develop leadership behaviors that support and elevate their agile teams. For instance, we highlight the importance of developing empathy for customers and employees so that leaders can truly understand their needs. Once leaders understand customer needs, that knowledge can drive better prioritization and hard decision-making. Once leaders understand their team members’ needs, they can better support them, helping everyone in the organization.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
We believe that our entire world, and all types of organizations are currently facing a period of punctuated equilibrium. We are in a period of rapid change in our ways of working, with entire business models being disrupted worldwide. This was already in play pre-pandemic, and has been dramatically accelerated during the past year. While the technological disruption is towards remote work and virtual organizations, it is more of a structural disruption.
Organizations have been forced to become customer-centric and employee-centric at the same time. Delivering value in the form of innovative products and services to customers as quickly as possible is now the basis of survival. Ensuring that we have a vibrant and engaged workforce is simultaneously critical during the “great resignation.”
To deliver customer-centric solutions faster, legacy organizations are evolving rapidly to a product rather than a project model. They are rethinking traditional functional silos to move toward value streams that are aligned to customer needs. Small, cross-functional agile teams aligned to these value streams allow individuals within those teams to work closely together and deliver value constantly, raising engagement and happiness.
These Agile structures and ways of working are causing mass shifts in organizational structure and eliminating an entire role — that of the traditional Project Manager. In a dynamic environment, the role of project managers and other middle managers has clearly changed from command-and-control to leadership-collaboration.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
I have long been a part of the project management community and have been writing and speaking about the “Lean-Agile PMO” since 2002. More recently, our company LitheSpeed took a closer look at project management offices (PMOs) and how they can evolve to support agility rather than hinder it. In partnership with our clients, we developed the Agile Value Management Office (VMO) as an organizational construct to implement lean portfolio management and support adaptive governance.
Lean portfolio management ensures that all work in a product or service portfolio is prioritized and aligned to business outcomes, and that business value is constantly delivered, tracked and measured across the entire organization. Adaptive governance ensures that risk, legal, audit and security concerns are addressed in an integrated manner.
The Agile VMO enables an organizational pivot from a rigid legacy organizational model that is slow to respond to change to an agile, adaptive operating model that is fast and resilient amidst today’s volatility and uncertainty.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Agile transformations, like other change initiatives, result in disruption. When we heard from a client that project managers were “running for their lives” as their organization adopted Agile methods, we knew there was an urgent problem to solve. We felt that, in the headlong rush to agile, many organizations were “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” We believe project managers and the project management community are valuable and in fact vital to the shift to agile, it is just a matter of leveraging their skills for the right things.
Along with other middle managers, project and program managers have the skills to contribute tremendous value at the program and portfolio levels, and as such, they have a natural place in the Agile VMO. They can support agile teams and rapidly enable the pivot to a new agile operating model.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Very well, among the early adopters. The Project Management Institute (PMI) , which has itself embraced agile methods, is very bullish on the Agile VMO. Scott Ambler, Chief Agile Scientist at the PMI has deemed our book From PMO to VMO — Managing for Value Delivery a” game changer” for PMOs and project managers.
Many leading organizations that are fairly mature in their agile journeys are adopting the VMO as a means to accelerate the transition end-to-end across business and IT to an agile operating model. For example, rather than being tied to rigid annual funding, they are able to implement flexible quarterly funding. Rather than delivering wasteful product features and services that customers don’t need, the VMO aligns the organization to deliver exactly what customers need, when they need it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
In our estimation, the most critical role of a leader is to lead with clarity of vision, constancy of purpose and personal authenticity. Having clarity of vision requires keeping up with things in a turbulent business environment. Constancy of purpose requires always aligning to an elevating set of values. Personal honesty and authenticity are non-negotiable since people do not follow leaders they do not trust.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to boost morale is to lead with a clarifying vision based directly in line with the organization’s elevating purpose, set clear realistic goals, and then support the team to accomplish those goals.
Supporting the team can range from always showing appreciation, providing congratulatory as well as constructive feedback, honestly communicating challenges and empowering team members to deliver rapidly and consistently.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Always take care of your team, and stay aligned with your customers and true to your elevating purpose.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Absolutely. The overarching issue here is complacency. When faced with what Clayton Christensen termed “deadly attacks from below,” leaders remain complacent. That is, a disruptive technology enables competitors to enter a previously stable space with an innovative alternative that is likely lower priced as well. Think Apple’s iPhone in juxtaposition with Blackberry and Nokia. The common mistakes are not investing in constant innovation like 3M, trying to ride things out with existing cash cow lines of businesses and the lack of strong leadership to counteract the threat. A counterexample is Satya Nadella’s highly successful leadership to reinvent and reposition Microsoft with its move to the cloud, and a reorganization of the entire company around that move.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Empathize. Stay close to our customers and our teams to understand what they really need, not just what they say they want.
2. Connect. Connect with our teams and our customers. Discover their true issues and then align solutions to those.
3. Lead. Lead the organization with courage and purpose in the delivery of those solutions.
4. Deliver. Deliver solutions quickly and be ready to adapt them. Understand that nothing is guaranteed, and uncertainty and change will remain.
5. Adapt. Perhaps most importantly, be ready to “change on a dime, for a dime.” Adaptive change needs to be wired into an organization’s DNA for it to pivot and stay relevant when faced with disruption.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Andy Grove’s mantra “only the paranoid survive” has been something we have carried for years as animating advice. It has driven our business philosophy to constantly innovate, rethink and reorganize.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our latest book From PMO to VMO: Managing for Value Delivery is available now.