PSGS 027: Expert Interview with Joseph Flahiff

Joseph Flahiff

Joseph Flahiff is President and CEO of Whitewater Projects, Inc. and author of the book “Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A guide for complex organizations.” He is focused on bringing hope to people who work in difficult business contexts, making sense of these seemingly conflicting approaches, methods and cultures.

Joseph has more than over a decade and a half of experience executing, coaching, consulting and training in traditional and agile delivery across large scale complex enterprise IT organizations as well as smaller boutique agencies. Joseph’s provocative, engaging, and energetic courses and keynote presentations are in demand across the USA and in Europe.

Gerald: Welcome to the P.P.M. Academy Podcast for Project Program and Portfolio Managers, where we will interview industry experts and discuss current and future trends in the world of project, program and portfolio management and how what we do impacts our company's execution culture. I'm Gerald Leonard. Today we have with us Joseph Flahiff, who is President and CEO of Whitewater Projects, Inc. and author of the book Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A guide for complex organizations. He is focused on bringing hope to people who work in difficult business contexts, making sense of these seemingly conflicting approaches, methods, and cultures.

Joseph has more than over a decade and a half of experience executing, coaching, consulting and training in traditional and Agile delivery across large scale complex enterprise IT organizations as well as smaller boutique agencies. Joseph’s provocative, engaging, and energetic courses and keynote presentations are in demand across the USA and in Europe. Joseph, thanks so much for talking with us today.


Joseph: Well thank you for having me, Gerald; I love being here.


Gerald: Oh no problem, no problem at all. Listen it was great meeting you last year when we were down at the Allan Weiss conference in Atlanta.


Joseph: Yeah it was good, good time.


Gerald: Exactly, exactly. So let's get into this. How did you get started in the field and what do you think has made you successful throughout your career?


Joseph: How did I get started in the field? Well, I started out actually in as a network system designer, hardware system, this was back in the early 90's; and as I started working on larger and larger systems, I ended up doing less and less of the actual systems design and doing more and more of managing the people who were doing all the work…


Gerald: Okay. 


Joseph: And at one point one of my hardware reps said you know there's a name for what you're doing it's called Project Management. I'm like, okay so you know the 90's so…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: Hadn't heard of that before, went online and looked up project management because we actually did have a rudimentary internet back then and learned a lot about what project management was. I got my PMP from the Project Management Institute in 2001. I got it the year before that was just the year before they added the ethics section so you know you can't really trust me.


Gerald: I think we can.


Joseph: But, yeah that was in 2001 when I got that. I was doing mostly hardware systems still. Then I ended up doing my first software project in 2005…


Gerald: Okay.

Joseph: And when I did that project, it was an abysmal failure, was horrible. I was working with a team there, and there wasn't a whole huge chunk of it that was software development…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: But there was one little piece of it, and we were having the guy develop just one, one developer, and he was writing this piece of they called it a script but it was so large and complicated that it was a program and he kept, he gave me the classic line right, and I'm there I'm a project manager guy and I'm asking the questions, you know what percentage done are you, what percentage done are you, he's you know 20%, 30%, 50%, like you know ever and then and then it got to the 90% the next day it was 90%, three days later, it's 90%. Starting to sweat a little bit you know worried what's going on, is this guy really 90% done…


Gerald: We didn't know 90% could last a long time.


Joseph: I know. That last 15%, so you know I hadn't written code since my Commodore 64' right, I wrote basic, I'm not a programmer.


Gerald: You're dating yourself.


Joseph: I know, so there's a gray hair in my beard.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: So I said to myself you know I have to do something about this. I have to check, but I don't want to embarrass the guy you know; and if there's no real reason I don't want to embarrass the guy, so I waited until everyone was gone, downloaded his work and I printed it out because you know I wanted to see it physically and it was crap. Can I say that on your podcast?


Gerald: Yes you can, that's as far as we are going to go here, we are not going to go any further than that, but that's okay.


Joseph: I'm not going to give you a blue letter preaching here so but anyway it was poorly written, and I could tell, and I didn't know how to code, so we got rid of him, we got somebody else, we eventually got it done, but we were late and over budget and it was horrible and it was the worst project that I had ever been on and I said, gosh there's got to be a better way to do this because this software thing is really different than what I've been doing, I've been doing a whole lot of physical infrastructure cable and wire, server rooms, you know building infrastructure, all that kind of stuff and when you're doing construction work right, and you're dealing with the cable wire in the walls, I can see, look there's the wall and it's now the wall has sheet rock on it, and now there's a hole in the wall, so they're going to pull the cable into it…


Gerald: Right, right.


Joseph: I know exactly where you are, I can see it…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: Software is not that way. Software is this ephemeral thing that like I don't know. So I went again on to the Internet started doing some research on how do you manage software projects because there's something different about it, and there was this thread that I kept coming up against that was talking about something called scrum, and this was in 2006, so if you're familiar with Agile things, the manifesto was written in 2001 and so this was not very long after that very, very immature market but the scrum thing was out there, and lots of people were talking about it, so I said, I'm going to learn that, and there was a class over in Bellevue taught by some guy named Ken. So I went over and took the class, the guy was Ken — one of the two guys that originated to scrum process, so I got to learn from the originator, very cool, one of the best classes I've ever been in, he is a character for sure though.


Gerald: Excellent, excellent.


Joseph: You ever met Ken?


Gerald: No I have not. I have not.


Joseph: He is a card for sure…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: He has very strong opinions.


Gerald: I'm sure I'll make sure Ken gets a listen to this.


Joseph: I actually kind of felt sorry for the guy that he was there actually training the trainers…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: The four other guys didn't get to teach much because you know Ken's like boom right in front.


Gerald: Gotcha.


Joseph: But it was really good, and it really was in a lot of ways reaffirming because my approach to leadership in project management that I was doing was always a servant leadership approach so that part of the Agile movement wasn't new to me. The interactive and incremental, the working software every two weeks or four weeks, that stuff was new to me…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: That was really eye-opening, and it was nice to see a kind of codified way of talking about empowering teams and a leadership approach that was there to give authority to the team. So that they can do great work because you trust that I mean that's always what I've wanted to do and we in the regular project management world they didn't talk about that much…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: So that's kind of how I got involved with that and then I, you know, got involved with PMI agro community of practice, helped out with that quite a bit. Helped out with the, I was part of the beta program for the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner certification and yeah so that's kind of how I got into the Agile world of things from all the way back when I first started.


Gerald: Gotcha. Gotcha.


Joseph: Well you know as we talk about this you know there's always a little bit of debate right probably not a little bit probably a lot of debate between the Waterfall world and the Agile world. What do you think is poorly understood, unresolved in this area and why do you think that's so?


Joseph: Well in my book I talk about this actually right up front…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: I think what is most poorly understood is Agile, I think one of the worst things that have happened to the desires and the movement that of the originators were going for it is the writing of the actual manifesto. I think that has been really bad and there are people who want to crucify me for saying that and that's fine. They can, but I think it was bad because it took what a group of people was trying to accomplish in developing a better way to work in this quick moving, always changing ephemeral software world and it put some boundaries on it. That is I think too rigid and what happened has happened over time with that is the Agile community has started using that word Agile, Agile, Agile, you hear it all the time and the more it uses, the less it means.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: In the book, I talk about that there's actually four different things people mean when I hear them talk about this and maybe there's more and if you're in the listening to this on the podcast and come up with something else that you heard people mean by all means let me know., send me an e-mail, I'd love to hear about it. The four things that I hear people mean are, for one they mean agility enabling practices, right?


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: So things like working in small increments, writing tests before you write the code, actually delivering working software every two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, right? These are agility enabling practices, pairing right, working together with someone these things allow you to be nimble, they allow you to be agile. So that's one thing, agility enabling practices. The other thing is they think it means that they use the term agile to mean the Agile movement, so the whole sub-industry of Agile training and Agile classes and the Agile manifesto and all of the, all the trappings that go along with that, right, so it would be Agile movement in the project management and product delivery world. The third thing they use it to mean is what I call twenty-first-century management practices, right so anything good management is labeled, well that's agile. The one that actually pissed me off is someone and I won't name her, gave a lecture at a big conference and talked about the difference between the fixed mindset and the agile mindset and I'm sorry you just stole a woman's life work and co-opted it for the actual movement, right there is that there's a, I'm going to space on her name, a woman wrote the book called Mindset


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: And it's the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset, right?


Gerald: Gotcha.


Joseph: She wrote the book called Mindset, go look it up please, and it is not the agile mindset it is the growth mindset, please. So don't co-opt every single thing that is good and call it, well that's agile. No, it's good management…


Gerald: So are you saying that the agile movement has experienced scope creep?


Joseph: Absolutely. Yes, they are scope creeping the agile movement. So the fourth thing that they mean when they use the word agile is agile. The ability to change as fast or faster than the changes that are coming toward you.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: And I don't care if you are designing airplanes or designing software, right? If you're digging a canal or you're putting the operating system in a computer, right? The ability to change as fast or faster than the changes that are coming at you is necessary, and that is called agility, or it's called being nimble, and I challenge the folks listening to this right now. So if you're listening to this and you're in a context where they quote "use agile," try this for a week. Replace the word agile with the word nimble, you'll find yourself not making sense, and when you find yourself not making sense, that's where you're meeting one of those other three things…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: So try using it to replace the word agile and see when you're meaning other things. It'll help you I think clarify for yourself what is really agile, what is really being nimble and get you back to the core of what the whole movement was trying to accomplish which was to deliver better working products of any kind faster…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: And adapting to customer needs along the way.


Gerald: Right because as you know, the customer needs are always changing.


Joseph: Always changing.


Gerald: And as soon as you write down the requirements, those requirements are almost obsolete as you're going through the waterfall process.


Joseph: Oh God yes and don't get me started on the timelines involved with typical waterfall work because that is insane…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: The way the market changed today is so fast that you have to be nimble, you can't afford not to, and if you think you can, if you think oh well that's only in the technology world, I'm in the construction world, it'll never happen here, it'll happen there…


Gerald: Yes.


Joseph: It'll happen there because this world we're living in right now, this disruptive innovation that is happening in every single industry will happen in your industry…


Gerald: Exactly, exactly.


Joseph: And if you don't believe it ask a taxi driver…


Gerald: Yeah.


Joseph: Because they're out of business, because of Uber in less than a year they have put taxis quite close to completely out of business…


Gerald: Yeah, I totally agree, I totally agree, and it's amazing when someone can create an iPhone app or a smartphone app, I'll say it that way, a smartphone app and it can by itself begin to have an impact and disrupting an industry or a portion of an industry or a service that was being offered before that the particular app has now taken over and is no longer in case.


Joseph: In an industry that is not technical.


Gerald: Exactly, exactly. That's what I mean, it doesn't matter which industry it's in.


Joseph: Exactly who would have thought taxi service, come on. Come on, they'll never be able to, the digital stuff will never affect a taxi service, well who's out there trying to disrupt your industry because there's a couple of college kids in a garage someplace that are coming up with a disruptive innovation that is going to make your business obsolete…


Gerald: Yeah. So as we, you know move forward here what challenges have you helped customers overcome recently?


Joseph: Let's see, most recently I was working with a large software development company…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: And they were in a rapid growth cycle, they were doubling every year and a half their staff size, so they went from you know 200 to there were 600 when I was working with them most recently, 800 maybe and what they were dealing with a couple of different things. Their organizational structure was such that it made perfect sense when they were 100 people.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: And maybe even a 150 right, but when they were 600 it was debilitating. So they had a matrix organization structure where they had functional teams that were doing the development work, and they had technical teams that were the reporting structure for the organization. So a team would have people on it from these technical departments and say you had 12 people on the team, they might be from eight or nine different technical specialties, which means you had eight or nine maybe more managers associated with those 12 people. So now you've got a team of people who wants to solve some problem or operate somewhat differently or address an issue that they're having, who do they go to?


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: They had eight, nine people that they had to go talk to and get all of them aligned in order to get a change accomplished that they were trying to get through or get a decision made and it was debilitating, the decision process was ridiculous. Those managers on the teams didn't know what their role was right because I can't control what's happening on the team work or contribute significantly to what's happening on the team, what's my, what my job, right, and there was significant psychological distress I would say for those people. And so we – I helped them reorganize their work such that the teams there, we help them reorganize the teams so that they had just one or two managers for each one of those teams. They did such a fantastic job, and there's the re-org that they did was amazing because they focused on keeping it simple, making it fast and getting people involved…


Gerald: Gotcha, gotcha.


Joseph: So we did a big re-org with that team as well as coaching their leadership to understand how do you let go, you know as an executive when I'm in a startup which is where they started…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: I have lots of control…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: And as you grow in size, you need to release some of that control because the control needs to be close to where the work is happening, so the decisions can be made with that information and if you grow the executive level gets further and further away from where that work is happening and so we just, I was just helping them understand this whole supportive leadership concept, I call it a supportive leadership it's somewhat different then it takes servant leadership that I talk about in in my book actually not expanded on it to the support of leadership model because the board of leadership adds on the idea of distributed decision making and some other things but primarily it's that addition of you don't, there's nothing in servant leadership that says, I'm going to let other people make the decisions…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: Process and supportive leadership says, no I need to let go of control and let the people with the information make the decisions, right?


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: So helping them understand, how do you go about doing that…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: As a leader, let go of control, empower people, create opportunities for empowerment for the people.


Gerald: Exactly. Well you know that's a, that's a major part of project portfolio management because once you have your business drivers identified and prioritized, you have to develop a consensus among the leadership team, and you know because the CFO may have an idea that you know the financial values are more important than the execution values or cost savings values are more important then new technology values in the CIO or the CTO may have a feeling that we need to have the latest technology, but it's getting everyone on the same page, and I think you know, that section of your book sounds like a great tutorial if you will for leaders to take a look at and think about this concept of supportive leadership, what do you think about that?


Joseph: Yeah, no I absolutely agree. In the book I hadn't really, the book came out two years ago…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: And I hadn't really developed the concept of supportive leadership as much, I've been writing about supporting leadership recently on a couple of different websites on, I write for search CIO quite a bit…


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: A couple of articles on there about it and I also write on I have a blog on there, and I can give you some links to post on this with this podcast.


Gerald: Perfect, perfect I look forward to that. Well then you know as we continue this process here and begin to kind of wrap things up a little bit if you were sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year you had as an expert, what would you have achieved, learned or contributed?


Joseph: I think, I think the biggest thing for me right now is wanting to communicate the critical role that leadership and culture have in organizations being able to be nimble and responsive.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: Like we were talking about and I was kind of ranting I guess about disruptive change happening in every industry, that can be crushing. Gary Vaynerchuk gave a talk, and he was talking about when he started investing in Uber, he told his dad to tell his friends who all were attacked, a bunch of whom had black car services in L.A. that they needed to get out because this Uber thing was going to change everything and they didn't they kind of laughed and you know, oh nice Gary, and now their business he was saying are worth twenty-five cents on the dollar.


Gerald: Wow.


Joseph: And yeah, these are guys who are in their seventy's, getting ready to retire, late sixty's or seventy's and you know, and now they have nothing.


Gerald: Right they were planning on selling their business for retirement.


Joseph: Exactly, exactly and what I would hope to have accomplished in the year is to have gotten this idea out more, seeing more people in more industry in more businesses, so that they have the tools and the understanding that they have to be nimble…


Gerald: Yes.


Joseph: And it's not hard. Well no, it's not complicated, but it's not easy.


Gerald: Right, because it's changed.


Joseph: Yeah, so that's what I would hope to have accomplished and contributed is more, getting more people to understand the idea and getting the tools into their hands so that they can change their organization because what I've seen time and time again is when I work with an organization, I come into a company and then you can see it in people's eyes, right it's a miserable place to work and within you know six months or so eight months of working with those teams invariably every company I've worked for someone that at some point has come up to me later and gone and it makes my heart just jump when they say that you changed my life.


Gerald: Wow.


Joseph: Yeah, it's so powerful to hear. I hated my job before, and now I have hope…


Gerald: Right.


Joseph: Now I have joy in my work.


Gerald: Well especially if you're getting that kind of compliments that what you're getting to do on a day to day basis is making an impact in people's lives.


Joseph: Yeah go to my go to my LinkedIn account and scroll through some of the recommendations…


Gerald: Okay.



Joseph: There are people saying that and it just or in or in the book reviews on Amazon, there's one woman on Amazon, who read the book and said, she literally at one point broke into tears because what I was explaining was what she was not understanding and now it made sense…


Gerald: Gotcha.


Joseph: And if I want to do more of that…


Gerald: Yes, yes.


Joseph: Change people lives.


Gerald: Yeah, that makes it that makes it worth getting up in the morning and going to work and seeing that what you're doing is having a bigger impact on society than just getting a paycheck every week, not that the paycheck not important but you know it's it gives you more satisfaction knowing that what you get to do on a daily basis is having impact on people's lives. Excellent, well listen if someone wanted to learn from you and just give me one tip or strategy, I always ask this question, what's the one tip or strategy would you give someone if they are looking to grow in their career as a PPM expert or an Agile expert?


Joseph: One piece of advice that I would give them would be to serve others.


Gerald: Okay.


Joseph: Put other people's needs before yours and make them successful and you'll be successful.


Gerald: Right, right that's a saying that Zig Ziglar has said a lot which is you know the more you help people get what they want is as you get everything that you want.


Joseph: Yeah I love Zig; he's a great guy.


Gerald: Yes, exactly. Well, Joseph, our listeners wanted to learn more about you where they can go?




Gerald: Excellent, I will make sure that's in the show notes and any of the links that you want me to add to the show notes and I normally also have that our podcast transcribed, so our listeners can come back and take a look at different sections to learn more. So, in conclusion, Joseph, thank you so much for talking with us today, and that was Joseph Flahiff, author of the book Being Agile in a Waterfall World, a guide for complex organizations, for more expert insight, go to Principles of Execution Podcast.

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