Why Executives Don’t Go to Agile Conferences

I worked at an organization years ago that was almost put under by a postal strike. Let’s say at the time, cash flow was a problem. The owner had to put in a substantial chunk of his own savings to make payroll, all because of a 3-ish week strike.

Let’s say the owner had a little more to worry about than ‘being Agile‘.

I remember when the Agile Alliance did their first executive forum at the big annual Agile 20XX conference. I was annoyed. I was annoyed because it was separate from everyone else. My first reaction was, “great, reinforce the problem…” and then the more I moved away from working with teams, and into the management, leadership and organizational layers, I realized these folks had more important things to worry about.

Of course, the counter argument to that is typically “well, they SHOULD care…if THEY are mandating Agile then THEY need to go to Agile conferences and be involved hands-on!!” That makes sense, but it’s not reality.

So where are these executives going to learn about Agile? I talked to a handful of C-level executives from small (100 person) organizations, through to enterprise (30,000+) organizations. I cannot name organizations or names, but this is what I learned.

The short answer, this is where they’re going instead:

  • industry trade shows (everything from technology, to industry specific, to product showcases and more)
  • shareholder, and board member events
  • wine and dines (power lunches, dinners etc)
  • visiting executives at other organizations they want to learn from
  • going on sales calls/visits (one exec had flown roughly the distance to the moon and back over a number of years.)

The pattern was, “Agile” wasn’t really on their radar. If anything, they learn Agile through storytelling. They’ll visit another organization and talk to their executives, or, they’ll read a case study. The larger the organization, the more likely they’ll read a case study from a big consulting firm. That’s why SAFe, and big frameworks are on the rise. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. One group of executives at a large organization I talked to flew half-way around the world to visit another similar organization to see what their digital/agile transformation was like. They came back inspired, and will most likely copy/paste what they saw, but it’s a start. I encourage my clients to talk to each other, visit each other, and to share stories.

Another executive at a large organization was more blunt with me. He said these were the things keeping him awake at night:

  • keeping one eye on old technology migration trends (many enterprise organizations are moving off mainframes which presents an immense challenge not just in product and technology, but business processes, and people dynamics (In other words, those who know mainframes are retiring, or dying (sorry, it’s true), so there won’t be anyone around to run those systems in the near future))
  • keeping one eye on the regulation impact of the move to open source (as an example, any regulated organization is on the hook for open source vulnerabilities, where data is stored etc.)
  • running damage control on incorrectly reported financial information to the media
  • not knowing exactly how his organization would get to the future he, and his peers, had set direction for
  • not knowing when, or even if, they’d be able to deal with an organizational problem that could severely harm the long-term viability of the organization
  • making sure people were happy and wanted to keep working there despite the next few years of pain they expected to experience while transforming

It astonishes me to see so much information about bad leadership, and how executives don’t care because they can’t spare a day at an Agile conference to explore how to run more effective retrospectives. I don’t think many pundits have a clue how much stress these people have on them, and that executives are people too. Sure, some may behave in a more forward way, which is usually perceived as command-and-control, but from my experience, it’s not the case. They’re just busy.

I worked in a large organization where ‘Agile’ was killed, more or less, because of a financial decision to consolidate contracting vendors. People were told to take a 20% pay cut, move their contract to one centralized firm, or get out. A bunch of people left.

At another organization, one executive had to fire his co-founder because he felt this organization needed different leadership, and there had been years of history he documented in his journal.

I’m not an economist, but another executive tried to describe the impact of commercial credit risk, and how she worries about what happens when analysts incorrect run a story about a rumour that her organizations working capital dips below a certain percentage thus exposing them to risk. I won’t pretend to understand what she said, and I told her that, but the point is, these folks have substantially more important things to think about.  It’s pretty easy to say shareholder value is the root of all evil, but what would you do if you were leading a $100 Billion financial institution that employs 80,000 people globally and is part of an ecosystem that runs the entire world’s economy? I doubt you’d be worried about doing versus being agile.

I talked to an executive who wasn’t happy about his organization’s shift to Agile because, for starters, his budget (he’s on the business side) is paying for IT to learn Agile. He’s also paying for IT’s decision to completely replace the underlying technology, all the while delivering a solution that is at risk. What happens if it doesn’t get delivered? What happens when this executive is labeled as the “guy who can’t deliver” even though he has zero control over it? Our industries aren’t as big as you think, you get labeled as someone who can’t deliver, good luck with your next interview.

I’m sure there are some executives that are going to Agile conferences, I haven’t met any outside of the ‘executives’ who are “C-something-or-other” because they started the company.

One of my favourite books is Weology by Peter Aceto, President and CEO of Tangerine. He describes stories of the need to put on a certain image when you’re a CEO. He tells stories about bringing call centre agents to corporate schmooze events, and what the reaction of his peers is like when he does that. He talks about meeting at the fancy executive clubs, and how people are surprised that he isn’t driving a Ferrari.

These are but a few fantastic stories about what leadership is. I guarantee there are plenty of other executives all over the world that ‘go to the gemba‘, and care deeply for their people. It’s unfortunate the media only magnifies the negative stories.

Don’t assume just because executives aren’t coming to Agile conferences they don’t care. Just because Agile is the most important thing for you as an Agile Coach, doesn’t mean others don’t have equally important things to them. Remember Nokia? Anti-Scrum pundits say Scrum ruined Nokia. Wow, if you really believe that…well, you can imagine what I want to say that I won’t. Ziyad Jawaya, and his management team literally cried at their press conference that announced their sale to Microsoft. Tell me they didn’t care.

Give these gals and guys a break, they’re people caught up in the same system as the rest of us.  Change the system you say? Well, if you know how to move to a money-less, class-less society, where financial responsibility, world markets, and global trade aren’t needed anymore, go for it. I’m sure we won’t have the problems we have today. We’ll just have a different set of problems.

Larry Smith, a professor at U of Waterloo said the only job of the future is creative problem solving. There is only the dance of competition and innovation. Find problems, and fix them.

Isn’t that what we’re being hired to do?