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Howard Sublett of Scrum Alliance: “Why it’s important to get comfortable failing”

Get comfortable failing. When things are changing rapidly, you don’t have time to over-engineer a solution or research every possible solution. You have to build, measure, learn, then build again. Not everything will work immediately, but you can learn from everything you try. Aspart of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant […]

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Get comfortable failing. When things are changing rapidly, you don’t have time to over-engineer a solution or research every possible solution. You have to build, measure, learn, then build again. Not everything will work immediately, but you can learn from everything you try.

Aspart of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Sublett.

Howard 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.

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 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?

Ididn’t come from the world of software development or project management and so I had never even heard of Scrum or an agile way of working. Then, one day, at the urging of a friend I visited a company that was using Scrum to see how it worked. Once I saw the happiness of the people working there, I was hooked. I wanted to be a part of that magic. 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 — SolutionsIQ & 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?

On one of my first coaching engagements, we made a big deal about how we, as coaches, needed to make all of our work visible. By that I mean, we wanted to put up our task board and update our progress charts every day — and make it all very big, so people would really notice it as they came by our workspace. Basically, we needed to show that we were living what we were teaching. I think a secondary motive, to be honest, was to show them how good we were, how agile we were. But if anything, what we showed them was, we weren’t that good!

We completely failed our first sprint. Our burndown chart was essentially flat — meaning we didn’t complete much of the work we’d committed to. Our tasks stayed in doing for days at a time, most never moved out of To Do, much less to Done. It was embarrassing, to say the least. But, we were able to use that failure to demonstrate transparency, to say, hey, some iterations are like that. Sometimes things go wrong, even for those of us who have been doing this agile thing for a while, and it’s OK. You just start again next time and do better.

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?

One person I watched through their personal journey, going from someone who didn’t fully understand agility to someone who fully embraced it, was John Rudd. I watched him go from someone primarily driven by numbers to someone who was driven by human needs, which translated into corporate success.

I heard a story about him in his first building. He had a big fancy desk in a big fancy office. The team came to him and said, “John, this isn’t how it works in a flatter organization. You need to be out on the floor with the rest of us.” When they came back the next week, John’s big fancy desk was out in the middle of the floor, surrounded by tiny cubicles. They said, Well, at least he’s making an attempt. Soon, John’s desk was the same as everyone else’s. He taught me a ton about putting people first.

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?

I wish I had been here when the organization was founded. But our organization was founded to make an impact on the world of work. We were born out of the agile manifesto movement from 2001 and became a non-profit in 2006 with the goal of bringing a much more human way of working to the world, far different from a top-down, waterfall approach where the workers who were delivering the value to the customer had no say so in the work they were able to do. We wanted to show them a more progressive, more agile way of working. One where the people doing the work are the most significant people in the organization.

Our mission is to inspire and guide people and organizations with agile principles and values, in the hope that we can help our members create a world of work that is joyful, prosperous, and sustainable. As a non-profit, we need revenue to pay our bills, but we are able to invest any and all profits toward that mission.

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 are a not for profit membership organization designed to help our members bring humanity to the workplace. We set the standards for what it means to be a trainer in the space, what the content needs to be for certification courses. We create events that are designed for impact, for bringing people together to learn and grow and be part of a movement.

Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?

Sometimes a disruptive technology just needs to be embraced. 2020 has been the year of disruptions. We were forced this year to look at one immutable truth we had about our courses: they had to be in person. Because we prioritize individuals and interactions, we historically had only allowed in-person courses. Over the years, improvements in technology had made online courses more prevalent in our industry — and that had meant more competitors in the space. But it wasn’t until 2020 when we could truly no longer be in person, that we were truly forced to embrace that same technology to serve our members.

What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?

In two weeks, we changed our site, our policies, and our procedures to accommodate 300 trainers around the globe who had, in that same time, reshaped their courses to be powerful and impactful in a live, virtual setting.

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.

Embracing technology has enabled us to be impactful in ways I never expected. Prior to this year, we might have a course in New York that would at most attract people from the tri-state area. Now, with live, online courses, we can have a classroom with people from all over the world, creating collaboration opportunities we never would have had with a geographically centered, in-person course.

So, how are things going with this new direction?

So far it has gone really well. We are able to reach people we’ve never reached before. And many of our trainers and coaches, who were flying every day with our in-person mandate, are now able to stay home and see their loved ones every night. So not only have we been able to impact more people to work in a way that’s more human, we’ve been able to offer our community a more human way to work as well. When a trainer writes and tells me that they were able to be home for their kids’ birthdays for the first time, I can’t help but feel this new direction might have an upside for everyone.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?

Even though I knew we needed to move to a live, online certification, I had concerns that the classes wouldn’t be as good. I had a bias that in-person was better than virtual, but if we allowed it for a time, we would be able to get by. Then I started seeing the reviews, the Net Promoter Scores, emails, and comments from people who would never otherwise be able to take this course, and how much it has changed them for the better. The biggest surprise for me is how wrong I was, and how well this has turned out.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?

Empathy. Empathy for your teammates who are looking for answers, when sometimes those answers are nebulous. Empathy for your customers, who are facing similar challenges, and how you might meet their needs. Empathy and honesty.

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 world of work should be joyful. The world of work inside your office should be joyful as well. If it’s not, you should start there. People want to know the work they are doing, but they also want to enjoy it. Providing clarity of focus — moving the needle on something that affects other people — can bring calm in uncertain times.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Change is constant. You cannot control it, so build your organization to be resilient in the face of change.

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?

Companies that are in danger are those who are too inwardly focused. They are fixating on following a plan rather than adapting the plan to meet the change. Those kinds of leaders see disruption as an enemy to be dispatched rather than an opportunity to be seized. Companies need to understand that disruptive technology is an opportunity to delight customers in a new and better way instead of building walls to protect them from change.

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. Build an organizational system that is adaptive by nature.
  2. Empower teams to pivot.
  3. Get comfortable failing. When things are changing rapidly, you don’t have time to over-engineer a solution or research every possible solution. You have to build, measure, learn, then build again. Not everything will work immediately, but you can learn from everything you try.
  4. Acknowledge you don’t have all the answers. Leverage the collective wisdom of the team.
  5. Be real. Don’t sugar coat what’s happening but do quickly focus everyone on the opportunity that comes with every disruption.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This comes from my dad. When I was a teenager and didn’t know what I “wanted to be when I grow up,” he told me, “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?

Readers can stay up to date with Scrum Alliance by reading our blog, “Agile Matters,” and following Scrum Alliance on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn. They can also follow me personally on Twitter.

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