Jurgen Appelo on How to “unFIX” Agile Scaling (Scaling Tech Ep28)

Nov 21, 2023 | Agile, Team Management

Scaling technology is one thing, but scaling technical teams is quite another. In this episode, we talk with author Jurgen Appelo about his “unFIX” pattern for scaling agile teams. We talk about the challenges of scaling agile teams, team empowerment, innovation, managers and mentoring.

Jurgen Appelo is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who helps innovative organizations survive and thrive in the 21st century. He is the founder of the unFIX model and organizer of the annual conference “unFIXcon”, which focuses on Organizational Design for Continuous Innovation and better Human Experience. Jurgen’s books include the best-selling book “Management 3.0”, as well as other titles “How to Change the World”, “Managing for Happiness”, and “Startup, Scaleup, Screwup”.

To learn more about how to scale your agile team and maintain agile principles while leading teams, be sure to check out this episode of the Scaling Tech Podcast!

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Show notes with links to jump ahead are below

Show Notes from Episode 28 – Jurgen Appelo on How to “unFIX” Agile Scaling

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    • Introduction
    • 00:00 In Jurgen’s opening quote he talks about stepping back as a leader so his team can grow without him: “I have a feeling that too often there are things which are not fixed … For a number of things they were too hesitant to pick things … So I deliberately stepped back further … just ask me when you want me to be there … We are now two months further and things are so much better! … They thanked me, ‘thanks for stepping back and forcing us to address the problems ourselves, and we’re having so much fun now.'”
    • After the opening quote, Arin and David discuss challenges that they have seen when scaling agile teams. David notes the first challenge is always finding the right talent for your growing team. But once you have the talent, another big challenge is how to empower your team. As part of that empowerment, you need to coach the teams and set up the teams to coach each other. As a leader, you can only do the coaching yourself for so long, and then you need to empower others to be coaches as well as the team grows. Arin notes how there are many technical tools to help you scale technical systems, but scaling human systems is much harder, and that’s what we discuss with Jurgen in this episode.
    • Arin introduces Jurgen: Jurgen Appelo is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who helps innovative organizations survive and thrive in the 21st century. He is the founder of the unFIX model and organizer of the annual conference “unFIXcon”, which focuses on Organizational Design for Continuous Innovation and better Human Experience. Jurgen’s books include the best-selling book “Management 3.0”, as well as other titles “How to Change the World”, “Managing for Happiness”, and “Startup, Scaleup, Screwup”.
    • The unFIX model for Agile Scaling
    • 04:50 We start the conversation by asking Jurgen to explin unFIX – is it a framework or a model? Jurgen talks about how he’s always had a love-hate relationship with the scaling agile frameworks that we have seen in the last decade or so. Those frameworks wrap good practices and common-sense advice that works in certain contexts. But Jurgen does not like how they are offered and rolled out, so he looked at ways for how he couldoffer people the good suggestions from good authors and good sources around the world, but in a way that is not a framework?
    • In looking at other work like Team Topologies, he realized that a set of patterns is a better idea than a prescriptive framework. Nothing is mandated, it’s all optional. This is in contrast to the most common agile scaling frameworks which treat everything as essential and mandatory. Arin notes that because it’s hard to scale agile, it’s tempting for engineering leaders to look for a prescriptive framework that will tell them exactly what to do, but he agrees that a pattern library is a good way to think about it and stay agile.
    • Jurgen explains that “the Agile manifesto itself doesn’t scale because it relies on trust and respect and psychological safety and people knowing each other. You cannot feel psychologically safe among 100,000 people. You cannot just trust 100,000 people around you. The human brain is not wired to do that. So even though we need the same principles and values like continuous adaptation and so on, you cannot just tell 100,000 people, okay, good luck, go forth and self-organize. That is called anarchy and anarchy has proven not to work in certain countries. We need a bit of governance. We need some guidance, some guardrails, as you said, some structure to enable self-organization.”
    • Constraints and Self Organization
    • 11:07 Jurgen notes that he previously wrote in his Management 3.0 book that “the job of the managers is to put constraints on self-organization, let 1,000 flowers bloom, but someone needs to be the gardener.” Identifying the role of the gardner is what agile scaling frameworks try to do, and while Jurgen is not satisfied with the most well known agile scaling frameworks, he recognizes that the intentions of those who created them are good. For instance, he notes that the “Spotify Model” is essentially a matrixed structure, and managing a team via skill and role matrices has been shown to not be helpful for team collaboration and agile principles.
    • Jurgen started by building additional team organizational models and adding in advice on other important topics like goal setting and reteaming. Jurgen prefers the term “crew” to “team”. Sticking to his preferred terms is not really important to Jurgen, as long as you find the patterns valuable. He likes terms like crew better because the word team is so overused that it seems meaningless to him – such as the time he heard a CEO refer to 20,000 people as a team, but nothing that large is a team in the agile sense.
    • unFIX includes many patterns, such as what Jurgen calls the “platform crew,” which is a crew which works only with internal customers and internal value streams, which are necessary in order to provide the platform needed for external users and customers.
    • Human Experience and unFIX
    • 18:08 Jurgen places a lot of emphasis on human experience in his work, and he explains that “there’s the experience toward customers, and there’s the experience toward employees. And to begin with the first one, I think we have still a lot to learn in the agile community when it comes to customer experience, because there’s a lot of focus on product managers, product owners, product roadmaps, product planning, and so on. But customers are not interested in products. Customers are interested in their experiences, and they hire products to get an experience … Of course, it is a product, ultimately, that is being distributed and offered to people. But for me, it is an experiential thing as a customer. And we forget that sometimes when we focus on features and offering stuff.”
    • Employee experience is also important, and Jurgen talks about a company he worked with that decided to intentionally violate the agile preference for stable teams. They decided that deliberate reteaming allowed developers to move around to different groups and learn new skills, and this was important to their experience as employees and developers. This is an example of an area where Jurgen’s thinking has evolved since he first wrote Management 3.0, and he relates the experience of developers rotating on teams to how airline crews rotate and still have a good culture and get to know each other even though they don’t always work on the same flight.
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    • Empowering Teams
    • 27:30 David asks Jurgen about empowering teams, and Jurgen relates a story about how empowering teams and delegating authority are crucial in scaling an organization. He used to be too involved in all of his team’s meetings, but eventually he stepped back and Jurgen told a story of how just recently his team thanked him for stepping back, because they were thriving with the autonomy. Jurgen realized also that sometimes things did not get addressed because his team assumed he would solve that problem and they did not need to work on it. As he stepped back, it was a healthy change for the team to solve those problems without him.
    • David agrees with this and remembers similar situations he’s encountered, which leads him to ask Jurgen about how do you know when a team is ready to be empowered? Jurgen summarizes the approach by saying that “you push them in the water and make sure they don’t drown.” You give them the autonomy to make the decision, but make sure you put in safety mechanism to keep them from making disastrous decisions. For instance, as a leader you can set budgets but give them autonomy on how to spend that budget.
    • The Agile Blind Spot and Innovation
    • 34:02 Arin quotes a concept from Jurgen’s book Management 3.0, which Jurgen called the Agile Blind Spot. Arin summarizes it by saying that this describes that “the problem in agile, an unstated assumption perhaps, is that agile is great only when the teams are great themselves. And we can’t just assume that any team is automatically going to be great just by applying any agile methodology to them.” This reminds Arin of how he has often stressed to people that any agile methodology is not a silver bullet to solve all your problems, but agile does tend to be good at making you realize what your problems are so that hopefully you will fix them.
    • This leads Arin to ask Jurgen to explain how he likes to form innovative teams. Jurgen explains that “I am of a mind that the innovative capability is not so much in individual people, but is a result, an emerging outcome of the interaction between them. And I think there is some research, some evidence backing this up. Google has done, has contributed their share with their research that they published a couple of years ago that showed that it doesn’t matter that much which people you have on a team. It matters a lot how they behave towards each other when you measure them for their productivity and their innovative capability. And I believe in that. You could almost say you can hire just about anyone, as long as they, of course, they have a minimum amount of experience and talent. But you don’t need the best in the industry. That is such a cliche. You just need, you need good people who are pretty good at collaborating with each other. And that is the challenge. How do you enable that, those interactions between them so that something innovative emerges?”
    • Jurgen talks about how innovation is often less about the people on the team, and more about creating an ecosystem that allows for creative thinking. He tells a story about creative thinking by describing a flight in a small plane over a jungle, and how no one on the flight was eating their sandwiches because they were so busy taking photos out the window because the plane was flying low and the jungle view was incredible. The experience was the view in that case, and so an innovative airline would think more about things like cleaning the windows so you can take good picture.
    • Focusing on the Experience
    • 44:28 Jurgen talks about other examples of where innovative teams would benefit from thinking more about the experience of the people using their product. For instance, he describes how many SaaS tools make it hard to get to the invoices, and as a business owner that’s the part he’s personally most interested in. So he wastes time just trying to verify accounting details that they could build more usable interfaces for if they understood what his user persona values the most in that tool.
    • Coaching and Delegation
    • 47:41 Jurgen talks about a common leadership problem that he sees when managers try to also be coaches to their team members. Jurgen explains that “I think that’s wrong because this assumes that the manager is in a position that they are able to coach and mentor or whatever other people in the stuff that they are doing. And that sort of reinforces a power distance, a hierarchical thing in the organization that where you say, on the one hand, we want to empower people. They want them to self-organize. But by the way, the manager is going to be their servant leader and support them and coach them. Then still that manager is in people’s heads is added. I say coaching is important, but there needs to be a coaching capability in the organization. And I don’t see that as a responsibility of the manager herself or himself. So actually, it probably would be better if it was not the manager, but someone else who was there to coach, mentor, or whatever their peers. It could be in a peer-to-peer manner in the organization. I think it is a responsibility of management to make sure that when people desire coaching or where they need coaching, that they make sure that that person is there for them and try not to do it themselves.”
    • Coaching is one important area that Jurgen believes should be delegated to the team, but he goes further by saying that much of middle management layers are not necessary in an organization that delegates well. You don’t have to assume that a layer of management is needed in order to push down ideas and how-to’s onto the team. With proper coaching and delegation, teams can self manage most of what they need, even including things like salary discussions.
    • Conclusion
    • 54:55 We wrap up by talking about how important it is to recognize in ourselves as leaders – what are not good at? Then delegate those things which we are not good at and empower the team to do those things instead. To learn more about the unFIX model, visit unFIX.com and reach out to Jurgen if you have any questions!

Links from Episode 28 – Jurgen Appelo on How to “unFIX” Agile Scaling