Agile Transformations

We close 2021 with a podcast that made Paula and I laugh so much and learn so much. The amazing Max Ekesi, a superstar, shares with us the importance and impact of agile transformations.

Agile Transformations

Max Ekesi is an Agile Transformational Leader at Paypal. Max is a problem solver and leads agile transformations. He is pragmatic, energetic, energising, bags of fun and a magnificent Chair. He leads transformations by working with agile mindsets.

Changing mindsets is the hardest thing to do. Agile coaches are guides through the change.

“If you want to be Netflix rather than Block buster. If you want to be Apple or Samsung rather than Nokia, it matters. You have to adapt to survive. We have to be nimble, agile, adaptive, because our customers need to continually get value and we have to adapt to their needs“ says Max.

When you do not have good relationships, transformations do not work -Max Ekesi

Case Study 1: The First real transformation, Max led

1.       Agree Key priorities from the tools

2.       Demo the tools – some trust had to be book. You see the power of working software is the best thing ever. 

3.       Track progress according to what you want.  The end user could split their order and the tool can still add value because of the functionality available to give value.  All the things they thought they needed, they did not because the functionalities would not have been used.

4.       Embrace the Rewards: Max got a promotion  – he had helped the transformation go faster and eliminated waste

AGILE: Mindsets that make all the difference

“The tech industry was ready to have end-users do things remotely – there was a need and value for them” continues Max

An agile team/organisation by nature is a lot more adaptive to change.  Decision making is pushed down to the team.  Centralised control is not a significant factor, distributed collaboration is optimised and supported by the relevant tools (according to sprints or the tools they have’ – “they adapt, they think, they move in the best interest of all”.

AGILE Governance:

How we do our business?  

Governance = Structure = Prescription = Inability to be agile and adaptive??  Not Quite!

“Governance has to be clear from a very high perspective.  We deliver the portfolio in line with our intention.”  Let the team decide.  Change takes time cautions Max.Explain the WHAT and the WHY and leave it to the people to sort out the HOW.  Give them value, purpose and let them be clear about the why.  Give the autonomy for teams to sort out the how on their TIER.   “ I have never met two people or two teams that were the same.  Don’t try to dictate to people how they have to go.  I have never met any organisations which are the same”.

Don’t be frightened by the brilliance of teams  

The Aristotle project set up by Google  landed on what is great for the team.  Top was psychological safety.  “ I will learn from a failure, I will adapt and adjust.  Trust requires giving up command and control over teams”.  Amy Edmonston in her book “The Fearless Organisation” sets out the benefits of creating psychological safety in the workplace.

Max is pragmatic ​​. “ Changing what we have been doing over decades is hard.  People have to be more adaptive and open to change.  People can understand processes and use tools, but changing people is much harder”.

Case Study 2: A failure occurred

“A senior manager who wants everything documented”.  This wrecked all the work done so far.  What works better is getting starting and   incrementally improving what you are doing .”

“Maybe I am swimming against the flow.  It was time for a switch.  If you don’t have buy-in a lot of work can be lost. “.  Max left the organisation soon afterwards and he took the lessons he learnt along the way.

Max recommends that switching is much easier these days.  “We can always change your profile in LinkedIn.  Take fear off the table.  Be more transformation.  The person understands we can switch out and we know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Your strength may not be for this particular team or for the organisation.  The company can set up a culture of transitioning – “you have to transition your work, identify what can be done, what can be done to ease the work. If it does not work, there is a plan.” 

“In a world that is changing so fast, learn how to learn and adapt to that change at the same pace or faster.  Adapt to a new way or environment to do work.  Adapting to people that may not think the same way, are so diverse;  connect with them, go with the flow of change and learn from critical thinking and this will help professionally and personally in so many ways.  Be agile, be adaptable It will help in so many ways.” 


00:00:00 Tesse: Max, you have made me super curious about agile coaching. What does somebody have to be or do to be an agile coach? What’s the drill here?
00:00:10 Max: Yeah. Tesse, very good question because I feel that the number one thing is experience. So, how I became an agile coach is because I started off as a particular role within the agile environment as a scrum master.
00:00:26 Paula: Welcome to “TesseTalks” with your host, Tesse Akpeki and co-host, Paula Okonneh, that’s me, where we share with you top leadership and management strategies. This is a journey of discovery. We are learning that leadership is personal and professional. And we hope you, our listeners will walk with us in this adventure. So today, our guest is Max Ekesi and he is with Agile Austin. Max is always super excited, yup! At the opportunity to serve the Agile Austin community. He’s been an active Agile Austin member since 2009 and has proudly served on the board as vice president and he’s now the president. He’s so appreciative of everything that Agile Austin has meant to him and always looks for ways to give back to it. In Max’s 20 years of I.T enterprise experience in Austin, he has been a people manager, he’s an agile coach, a scrum master, a program portfolio manager and is presently an IT manager at pay pal. That’s where the money is.
00:01:49 Max: Lots of it, lots of it.
00:01:57 Paula: Alright. He has been spearheading Agile IT transformation since 2007 in fortune 30 companies, while passionately leveraging Agile and Kaizen principles. In his spare time, he doesn’t stay home though, he travels the world with his wife and two daughters. I could go on and on about max, but I’ll stop right here and say, welcome to “TesseTalks” Max.
00:02:27 Max: Thank you for having me, Paula and Tesse. Thank you.
00:02:31 Tesse: Hi, hello. Max, I am a super fan of yours. And I come to Agile Austin event and I’m just so happy when you’re kind of chairing a meeting or hosting a meeting because everybody seems to be having fun and I don’t want to miss out on fun. And you know, the word agile coaching though, it’s, a number people listening in, may be unfamiliar. So can you just kind of like unload that down, that for us, what, what is meant by Agile coaching?
00:02:59 Max: Absolutely! Then Tesse. So to put it in context, let’s think about our IT world, but our world in general. The world today, presently, is changing faster than it ever has in our human existence. And there’s just technological disruption, a lot of other disruptions on how we get work done, on how we deliver products and services to customers. And with this change going so fast, a workforce has to be trained. It has to be coached. It has to be assisted in this transformation of having to change mindset, change the way you work. So an agile coach helps teams, organizations, sometimes entire companies through this transformation because when people have to change their mindset, that is one of the hardest changes to do. So the agile coach is a guide through that change.
00:04:05 Paula: So an agile coach is a guide through that change. So my question was, so does it really matter to the team? Does it matter to the industry?
00:04:19 Max: Well, if you want to be Netflix, instead of blockbuster, it matters. If you want to be apple and Samsung, instead of Nokia, it matters. If it doesn’t matter to you, who you are in that Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest, then, you know. You have to be aware because you have to continuously adapt to change. And right now, 2021, when I talk of agile, it is a known fact because the Harvard business review HBR has posted numerous articles on it. It is a known fact because a lot of companies have it posted on their job descriptions that they want agile experience and I could go on and on. Back in 2007, 2008, when I got started, the question might be posed to us from teams and managers,” how much do we really need this?” Do we really, is this just a fad that will just calm and then go away and every, those days are gone. Now it is like, yes, we have to be able to be agile, nimble, adaptive, because our customers want to continuously get value and that means that you have to continuously change according to their needs.
00:05:42 Tesse: That is so brilliant. I went for Nokia and I went for Blackberry and I know what is happening now. I mean, it’s kind of like, so I get that, if you want to be one or the other, you know.
00:05:53 Max: Its your choice
00:05:53 Tesse: It’s your choice, so I really get that. To land it, I’m really benefiting from the clarity you are bringing to this. Can you give a few examples of where as an agile coach, you had an intervention, you coached a team, a scrum team or whatever, or an individual and you saw that transformation in them, you saw that movement from X to Y and X, and they actually moved through your coaching.
00:06:18 Max: yes.
00:06:18 Tesse: And did something or had a mindset shift that just made all the difference.
00:06:22 Max: Absolutely! Tesse. And I will go back in my whole journey of agile coaching to about 2010, 2011, so 10 years ago, when I really saw the first key transformation that I helped lead. And we’re talking about eight different teams working on a massive program to bring a customer sales rep tool to thousands of sales reps in south America at the time. And we working with the business folks in having to gather all their requirements and everything and it was going in a very traditional way, like before, where they would document everything that they need and these massive business requirement documents that could end up being 200 pages long detailed about everything. So I said,” stop, stop. Tell us your key priorities, your key needs from this tool, just give us like your five main features, let’s start to develop that. Then let’s demo it to you after a few weeks or months” and everybody was like,” wait, are you still going to do everything we need or are you going to cut the plug?” and they’re like,” no, no, no. Don’t worry about it.” Like there was some, there was some trusts that had to be built. We’re like, “we’re going to deliver what you need, but let’s start off with your key priorities. Then we demo it to you and you start to see what it looks like”. The power of working software is the best thing ever. Because when you explain something to people, you give a program status report or PowerPoint, you show charts and pie charts, that is not what they’re going to use at the end, so why don’t you track your progress according to what they’re going to use? So we went down that route. We started to work on key functionalities they needed and the aha moment came when this whole big program that was supposed to be one year long, after about seven, eight months, they themselves said, you know what, everything we see now in this tool, we can take this to market. We can roll this out to our end users and even if we don’t have the very specific functionality that if an end user wants to split their order after ordering it and doing this and recalculating this because taxes in Argentina are different from Brazil. Even if we don’t have that functionality, which we’ll get afterwards, it can still add value to us. We can still use this and our sales will be much faster because of the functionality. And that was the aha moment where the business and the IT folks saw that we don’t have to go through a whole program to completion to get value from it. We can start to get value early on and continue on some of the key functionalities. And the other aha moment was like, all the other functionalities that the business folks even thought they wanted, so they were going to put in the business requirements document, when they started to use the tool and started to see that all those things that they thought they would need because they never had an opportunity to use it and really tell they drop those. So there was a lot of work that we would have done that would not really have been used. And that was really a scenario of where people were like, this is the way to go. And the best thing on top of everything, I got a promotion from that program. Agile has done so much for me.
00:10:02 Tesse: That’s fascinating. Paula! I am super, even, more super excited than when we started. I’m going to calm down, you ask Max the next question because I’m just too excited for my well-being.
00:10:14 Paula: I can see why you got a promotion because you’re recounting something that happened some years ago, but with such excitement that even we were leaning in to say,”Tell us more”
00:10:22 Max: it was my first real agile transformation where I led. And I’m a kind of individual that sometimes I have to experience something to really start to believe in it. Right? Yes, I can read a case study, I can hear people speak at conferences, but I like to try it out myself. Then, when I see, okay, it does work, I can use an agile mindset and get things done faster or even eliminate waste and not do things that don’t really add value. That was the big, and I’ve never looked back after that.
00:10:58 Paula: Wow, wow.
00:11:00 Max: Always Agile.
00:11:01 Paula: Always Agile. So talking about that, when COVID hit, all, the global pandemic we had. Tell me about how much agile coaching came into play during that time because everybody had to stop and pivot and you know, tell us more about that.
00:11:17 Max: Very good point, Paula. And the one thing that I can say that agile was very helpful in, is that an agile team, an agile organization, by nature, if they practice agile in the right way, they are a lot more adaptive to change. Decision-making is pushed down to the team. Centralized command and control does not play as critical of a factor. So then all of a sudden, if people are not able to come into the office and meet, they adapt very quickly. They introduced tools for the distributed collaboration that they have to do. They don’t have to get permission from the PMO office or the centralized command and control. They have said you have value to deliver to your end users. You do it according to your sprints or whatever framework you have sorted out, do it. And they adapt, they think, they move. And so that is where the agile mindset played a role, we just have to adapt to doing work in a different way, which is a safer way since we can’t come together. It is for the best interest of everybody and we just do it and we move on. And as you can tell in the last year and a half, Tech industry overall, I’ve worked in the tech industry, like all my professional career. 20 years at Austin, sunny, sunny, Austin, Texas in the US and the tech industry from my experience has just boomed because the tech industry was ready to have more end users and customers do more things remotely, online transactions, online payments or whatever the case. So tech industry unlike some other industries, not only adapted very fast, but they grew because there was a need of value for them. And the agile teams, especially within the tech industry, grew a lot too.
00:13:30 Tesse: Wow. So they were ready, they grew, the mindset was just the agile mindset. Now, I’m going to kind of segue because I, and Paula knows this, that my passion is governance. I am an enthusiast like you would never know. And I just think about agile and what that can do. I think about agile governance because governance often lags but you have the benefit of touching on governance cause you are president and you were one of the people that seemed to pull off hard in every situation where everybody was so happy to have that person, and said we’re not even standing. We are not even giving anybody the chance ,to be present because we want Max. I mean, there could have been a book written on it. So, you know and in a good way. I mean, this is a very happy governance story that people were so excited that we’re not even going to even consider the fact that he’s not going to be our president and he must say yes because nobody’s standing. So, I love that story. So, if governance was trying to be more agile, from your perspective, what are we kind of, and you’re coaching somebody through this, what would you say are the highlights, what would you say to governing boards, committees or whatever about how they do their business?
00:14:37 Max: Yeah. And Tesse, that’s a very good question because there’s a perception by a lot of people that governance might equal structure, might equal restriction, might equal inability to be agile and adaptive. So you have to find the balance. Right? And in my agile transformation experience, the balance comes that, the governance has to be very clear from a higher up strategic tier. As in, this is our portfolio, this is the roadmap. You can work on things that help your team improve your technical expertise or who knows what even fun projects in your hackathon and everything after we deliver the portfolio. And what, cause these are things we’ve committed to our end users are the business, et cetera. So you have a governance from a portfolio perspective that doesn’t have to be super detailed. Explain to people, okay, the what and the why, and then leave the how to the people just sorted out. And this is a big change because sometimes governance, people want to come across and say, we want you to use this process, we want you to use these tools, we want you to do that and sometimes that takes away from, all you want teams and organizations to do is deliver value. So tell them what, because they have to deliver, if you’re working on a sales tool for the customer reps, that is what they have to deliver and explain why, give them purpose, give them the value that this brings to the folks in the business, our customers, get them why, then you leave the how to them to do. There might be some restrictions on licenses on tools or somethings. Yes. But as much as you part, you can give the autonomy to teams to be able to sort out the how on their tier. We could speak for hours on this and how to get through it but that is conceptually the key thing, governance determines the what and the why, leave the how to people because that autonomy to do work in whatever way, fits the team, the individual is so important. I’ve never met two teams that were the same, I’ve never met two people that were the same. So how can we expect that the same way of doing things for Bob will work for Susan? How could we ever think that or teams? So don’t try to dictate to people how to do their work but on that case, we have a very long way to go because even now you hear in the news, “corporations are forcing employees to come back to the office. Corporations are saying that you have to be in the office three days out of the week, corporation.” maybe one day, we’ll get to the point that let the team decide how many days they’re going to stay in the office or whatever. What you’ve got to do is here’s the what, here’s the why, you sort how you do it.
00:18:00 Tesse: I totally love it but as you speak to me, what comes to my mind is one letter, trust. And you’ve got to trust people in order to bring that kind of autonomy, to release them, to free them. That trust piece is there. And another bit again is not to be afraid or threatened by the brilliance of teams because the team can actually over-deliver on some things, if they are trusted. Would you agree that some thing, trust and autonomy and vulnerability too?
00:18:30 Max: Exactly. And hundred percent agree and there’s actually been studies done. The one that comes to mind every time is a study that Google did, a good 10 years ago called the aristotle project, where after studying hundreds of their teams, spending tens of millions of dollars et cetera, they came out with top things that the team thinks are important to them. The number one by far was psychological safety, and that is connected to what you’re talking about. That you trust your team, your team should feel trusted, they should feel safe that if I do something, you’re not going to criticize me if the outcome is not as good, because I’m going to learn from a failure. I’m going to learn to adapt and adjust and teams will collectively, if they’re truly feel a psychologically safe, it is incredible the growth and achievement that they do. But there’s still, I feel we’ve come a long way, but it’s still a journey to emphasize that trust, the psychological safety, that having to give up certain command and control over teams because some people built their careers to where they’re at, as executives, as leaders in their industry, by having that command and control and now you’re telling people to change what they’ve been doing for a decade. If someone told you to change the way you parent your children, you’ll be like, “hold on a sec, hold on a second. You might be a coach, but hold on a second”, okay. You know, like, you know, they like to change something that you’ve done for so long is not easy, but people have to be more adaptive. They have to be more open to change. The biggest challenge on all the transformation or not processes, people can understand processes and follow them and improve them. They’re not tools. We have so many tools that are so efficient to do our work. It’s changing people and how they think and how they work.
00:20:37 Tesse: I trust Paula, she keeps me honest. Paula, I’m going to ask you because you keep me honest and things. Max and I, I think we get too excited about things. Calm down this situation.
00:20:47 Max: We can talk until it gets dark.
00:20:49 Paula: I see that. And so that’s why my question was that, okay, I have been hearing about all these successes of agile coaching, are there any pitfalls? Have you ever come across a team who has said absolutely not, you’ve telling me that, but no.
00:21:09 Max: Oh, a big one. It’s a pity I can’t share names and companies and whatnot. Right? So this experience was, I’d been working for years cause I think that change takes time. I’m not the kind of person to try something for a few months and whatever, no, I like to go through that struggle, that pain. In fact, I’ve always done these agile transformation at large enterprises with IT organizations of 12,000 and above. And I was in an organization where there were about 1,200 people and we had been doing training, we had been coaching the leadership and all these things and you feel sometimes, okay, it’s really painful going from a command and control scenario to more distributed control, giving the team some autonomy. And we were trying to build the relationship between IT and the business, which had been fractured a lot and when you don’t have good relationships, it does not work. And then at some point, while I was trying to do that work of having to build the relationships and the business had agreed to do things in a bit more of an agile way, as let’s start up with the key priority features and start with that, right, not have the whole year detail planned out and all that good stuff but then a leader on our side in IT said, “no, I want every single piece of work that we’re going to do for the year documented in detail before the year starts.” and so all of a sudden what you’d been trying for months and years and making progress and everything, just all of a sudden came to a halt because if you cannot even understand that you need to get started on your key priorities and then from there you incrementally improve what you’re doing, right? Have a mindset that is about an iterative approach. If you can even get past that, there’s not much more to talk about. And hence, that was a failure and I left that company shortly after that because at some point you have to realize and acknowledge, maybe I’m swimming against the flow here for way too long and at some point they might not be prepared for what you are prepared to share. It’s nothing personal, it’s just time for a switch and that was a very good call on my side and I learned from that failure that if you don’t have buy-in, which I thought I had, maybe I should have reconfirmed the buy-in along the way, a bit more, a lot of work can be wasted by one single decision.
00:24:00 Paula: I love that example.
00:24:02 Max: It was painful at the time, it was painful at the time.
00:24:06 Paula: But you learned something.
00:24:09 Max: I learned something, I learned something for sure.
00:24:13 Tesse: This thing you used to say about, cause you touched on some of these extremely important, which is failure and not just learning from failure, but actually acknowledging when you, you probably aren’t the right person or the method is not the right method. And before I came on this call, I was actually listening to a, another podcast and it was talking about relationships and the fact that one of the golden threads of success relationships is acknowledging when something is not working and getting out. I wish somebody had told me that 20, 30 years ago, I probably would have been married but one of the things that I think is that, you kind of stay in failing situations, I don’t get out quick enough.
00:24:51 Max: And of course, there are a lot of, like, there are a lot of factors that lead to that and we have to empathize and understand why people go through that. But some times you just have to say, okay, do I’m like a retrospective, right? Just pause and say,” what have I learned so far and everything”, and sometimes, and it’s a very, it’s a very fearful thing to do to say, I want to switch. It brings a lot of fear, brings a lot of, you don’t feel psychologically safe and everything. Thankfully, we live in an environment now that you just have to change your profile on LinkedIn. It’s not like before, now it is justice. So I always encourage, and here’s something very important is that I always do it at my organizations. Now that I’m also in management and I hire, and every, I always want to make sure that if someone is not aligned with the direction of things, do not marginalize the person, do not hold it against the person. Tell the person, look, let’s be straightforward, your approach to this and the approach of the rest of the team of the organization is not aligned, let’s give ourselves some time to see what other opportunities there might be for you, for he or she, around the organization or even outside of the organization or the company because people at some point fear more maybe to not have a continuous income, right? and everything. So take that fear of the table, tell them everything’s going to be all right. We’ll find the right position for you. And then at that point, you can just be more transparent about it and that person will work along with the team knowing that, okay, it’s just a temporary thing, I’m going to switch out, let me help out the team so I know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, somewhere else. I think that that should be done more. It’s not common practice yet.
00:26:54 Tesse: I love it.
00:26:54 Max: And if we could just accept that sometimes it’s not a good fit.
00:26:57 Tesse: Yeah, not a good fit. Yeah. You know, Paula is always a good fit for me so I’m handing over to you Paula. Best fit ever.
00:27:06 Paula: Typically I’m quiet, but I’m even quieter. Not because I don’t have anything to say but because I’m bowled over by all what I’m learning and everything that Max is saying that makes so much sense. Knowing where you fit in, knowing that your strength just may not be for this particular team or environmental or organization that is itself brings about innovation, because then you’re not blaming yourself, but you’re looking inside and say, what else can I do that works for me? And you can be of value to another organization or another team.
00:27:35 Max: In the same company.
00:27:37 Paula: Even in the same company. Absolutely.
00:27:40 Max: Even the company itself can set up a culture of transitioning, can be streamlined, right? And like, you know, having to be able to set up quick interviews with some other groups and teams, as long as it’s understood, you have to transition your work, you have to do things, you have to wait till somebody comes on board. Like, you know, there can be things that can be done to just ease that whole mindset of, if it’s not a good fit, there’s a plan, that’s it.
00:28:06 Paula: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, we can talk forever, you and Tesse you already said you can talk till it gets dark. As much as we like that, all good things have to come to an end. Do you have any other reflections, any other things that you’d like to address before we wrap up?
00:28:24 Max: Well, first of all, thank you for having me on of course. Always a pleasure.
00:28:28 Tesse: We love Max. we love Max.
00:28:30 Max: I love you too. I’d love to come back again.
00:28:33 Tesse: You will come back?
00:28:35 Max: I would just like to share with everybody that has an opportunity to hear the podcast, the key takeaway here is, in a world that is changing so fast, learn how to change and adapt to that change at the same pace or faster. Because the challenges come when people lag behind in not adapting to a new way of having to do work, not adapting to a new environment that might be a lot more diverse intellectually, ethnically with people that don’t think the same way like you do but you have to connect. You have to connect and achieve goals together, learn to be adapt, and in that you just have to have a mindset of just being able to go with the flow of change, learning from that critical thinking and that will help you professionally, personally in so many ways, in so many ways. Just try to get that practice going cause it’s really, it takes, it’s like a muscle, you have to exercise that mindset to get better at it every time.
00:29:49 Paula: It is like a muscle. Oh, thank you. Thank you, Max. Where can people find you online? We’ve had 30 wonderful minutes of hearing you. where can they find you?
00:29:58 Max: My main social media platform is LinkedIn. So look for me, Max, then my last name is spelled EKESI. Thank you. Look for me there.
00:30:12 Paula: Alright.
00:30:13 Tesse: You know Paula, we haven’t laughed so much for a long time, but you know, Max said part two tells you tales. You have to bring him back cause we can’t do without more laughs right?
00:30:22 Paula: You are so right. we have to do a part 2
00:30:26 Tesse: Yeah.
00:30:27 Paula: So, let me close out. This is a podcast. I got to do this. So for our amazing audience, thank you so much for tuning in. And please head over to apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, or anywhere else where you listen to podcasts and click subscribe to “TesseTalks”. If you like what you just heard, please write us a Raven review and if you have any other questions or topics you’d like us to cover related to leadership or governance or IT, send us a note. Please remember that we also can have questions that are professional or personal and if you’d like to be a guest on “TesseTalks”, head over to to apply. It’s always great having guests and Max, you have been exceptional.
00:31:22 Tesse: Superstar. Superstar Max.
00:31:26 Max: Thank you.
00:31:30 Paula: Thank you.