Demystifying Agile: “Mo” Hagar

Agile coach, speaker and author Maurice “Mo” Hagar shares what it really does mean to be Agile.

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Being Agile could mean a variety of things to different people. It is a buzz term which seems to be tossed around by industries to demonstrate innovation. Maurice “Mo” Hagar wants to make sure everyone knows the true meaning of Agile and the principles it is derived from. He does this in various ways. Currently, he is a Principal Consultant of Solution-Focused Agile, where he has done coaching and consulting for multiple organizations. Additionally, he hosts the podcast Agile on the Edge and is currently writing a book on the topic.

In this interview, Mo talks about what drove him to this focus on Agile in his career, addresses some of its misconceptions and his own model, the K2 Transformation model.

You focus on Agile coaching and implementation. Why did you decide to focus on Agile?

My journey began as a software developer for the Boeing Company. I’d been there a couple of months when one sleepy afternoon, suddenly, the CEO—of a 140,000-person, Fortune 50 company—appeared in my little hole-in-the-wall cubicle: “Welcome to Boeing!” he said with a handshake and a smile. I was stunned.

“I love to meet the new people because you’re the future of Boeing,” he continued. “You see things we don’t see. You bring new ideas. So tell me, how are we doing? What can we do better around here?” I was speechless. (He said) “Get back to me on that. Seriously, it’s important. Drop me an email anytime. And I wish you a long and successful career at Boeing.”

Of course, the CEO could not visit every new hire. But I later learned that, wherever he went, this transformational leader asked to be pointed in the direction of new employees. It was his favorite part of the job. And it changed my life forever.

Never again did I experience a sleepy afternoon. Because I was busy looking for ideas to include in that email—that I never sent. I spent half my time developing software and the rest of my time working on the business.

The next few years included just about every job you can think of in IT, including PMO Director and CIO. Since then I have served more than 60 organizations, currently IBM, as an Agile transformation coach. My work, and whatever success I’ve enjoyed, is directly attributable to that ongoing passion for continuous learning and improvement.

Agile is a different way of thinking before it is a different way of working. But changing the way we think is a much harder sell.

Maurice “Mo” Hagar

How do you define Agile?

I define Agile simply as delivering business value by collaborating with the customer and responding to change. This is the Agile Manifesto.

What are some common misconceptions about Agile?

The most common misconception about Agile is that [fill in the blank] is Agile: Scrum is Agile, Kanban is Agile, etc. And, by implication, [fill in the blank] is not Agile: Business Analysis is not Agile, Project Management is not Agile, etc. This has been manufactured, packaged, and sold by the “Agile Industrial Complex” (AIC)—as a member of the AIC I recognize the irony here. Agile is a different way of thinking before it is a different way of working. But changing the way we think is a much harder sell. Yet, when we focus on methodology vs. mindset, all we’re doing is swapping old “processes and tools” for new “processes and tools” vs. changing “individuals and interactions,” etc.

Another growing misconception, on the opposite end of the same spectrum, is that Agile is meaningless and, therefore, means anything and everything. In too many organizations it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a trojan horse for “command and control” management: “I know it takes us six months to deliver a new product feature but we’re Agile now so it’s due by Friday!”

For more on this, see my latest article on InfoQ, entitled Maybe Agile Is the Problem.

How would you describe the K2 Transformation model you developed?

In the beginning, Agile was easy: “Can you stand up a Scrum team for us?” Today we’re leading enterprise transformations, and many of my clients are working on iteration two or three. “Here we go again,” I hear often.

“Is anybody a mountain climber?” I respond. “Tell us about K2, the Savage Mountain, the most dangerous climb in the world. Those who survive it will tell you two things: 1) There is nothing more challenging—we’ll work hard; and 2) There is nothing more rewarding—we’ll even have some fun along the way.”

Now that I have their attention, I begin to unpack the model. The two Ks are Kanban and Kaizen: we want to make everything visible and continuously improve it. Then we scale the mountain by exploring various aspects of the organizational ecosystem. And I begin with processes and tools. Because it’s a good way to learn the landscape. The low-hanging fruit here provides quick wins that execs are looking for. And it gives me time to build relationships and trust with the organization. Before we move on to “individuals and interactions,” etc.

So K2 is an agnostic, fit-for-purpose approach to Lean-Agile, built on a mountain-climbing metaphor, that I’ve developed and honed in over 60 organizations. And it scales both top down and bottom up, beginning with individuals, in a fractal way. Finally, because Agile is a mindset change vs. a methodology change, there is plenty of organizational psychology built in, particularly Dialogic Organizational Development, Solution Focused Therapy, Appreciate Inquiry, and Positive Psychology.

Can you describe a specific project or customer which was particularly challenging? How were you able to help in that case?

Agile practices make work visible and manageable. But how do you visualize and manage the all-pervasive attitudes, behaviors, and habits that make up your organizational mindset? How do you operationalize corporate values like “initiative” or team-level values such as “empathy?” How do you visualize and manage Agile values and principles such as “customer collaboration” or Scrum values like “respect?”

I said earlier that we want to make everything visible and continuously improve it. That includes values statements, social contracts, and other intangibles intended to shape and direct organizational culture. But they’re often meaningless because they’re not actionable. Solution Focused Agile incorporates simple psychotherapeutic practices to visualize and manage the invisible.

After a successful pilot, one of my Fortune 100 clients is now scaling these practices across the enterprise—this will be the focus of an upcoming executive brief in the Cutter Journal. Another client has developed a unique approach to Net Promoter Score follow-up conversations with their customers—see my chapter on this in the recent book Sustainable Solutions for Leaders.

I’m always looking to challenge and push beyond the boundaries of who and what I already know, connecting the dots between unrelated disciplines, and experimenting with new and different ways of working.

You’ve recently launched a podcast Agile on the Edge. What is your goal with the podcast? What are other projects ahead?

Frans Johansson’s 2006 book, The Medici Effect, was a transformative influence on my thinking and work. The Medici Effect, named after a 14th century Italian family that sparked The European Renaissance, refers to the breakthrough thinking and disruptive innovation that often bursts out of the big bang collision at the intersection of diverse disciplines, cultures, and industries. So I’m always looking to challenge and push beyond the boundaries of who and what I already know, connecting the dots between unrelated disciplines, and experimenting with new and different ways of working.

That was my intention for Agile on the Edge: an Agile conversation with psychologists, philosophers, scientists, etc., pushing the boundaries of Agile across the enterprise, into the social sciences, and into the future. I did manage to publish one, very good interview with Alistair Cockburn on the future in what he calls the “post-Agile” age. I have another good interview with Esther Derby about her new book on change that I need to get uploaded. And I’ve got a dozen or so other thought leaders, inside and outside the Agile community, who have agreed to interviews, if only I can find the time.

A big project down the road for me is a book or two. I’ve begun writing a couple times but stay so busy that I just can’t find the time right now—a good problem to have, I suppose.

Which resources (podcasts, books, etc.) would you recommend which have helped you in your career?

I read a lot and have been influenced by far more than I can recall or recommend here The Medici Effect I mentioned above. A recent, transformative read for me was Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change by Gervase Bushe (who has agreed to a podcast interview) and Robert Marshak. Other influential books that come to mind are Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline, Don Reinertsen’s Product Development Flow, and The Solutions Focus by my friends Mark McKergow and Paul Jackson. Another good read, which aligns nicely with my own approach, is Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0. And I read anything and everything by Mike Cohn, David Anderson, and my friend Mike Mike Burrows .

I’m a big fan of podcasting; here are a few of my favorites: Soundview Book Summaries (subscription), Freakanomics, HBR Ideacast, TED Business, Agile Amped, and Agile for Humans. In addition to books and podcasts, a primary means of learning for me is Harvard Business Review.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!