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Agile Working and Living – A Conversation with Tomas Zenkl, Senior Agile Coach at EPAM Czech Republic

2021 is the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto–a document originally published by 17 agile practitioners who discovered a need to improve the software development process. Today, we reflect on agile working and living with our expert Tomas Zenkl, Senior Agile Coach at EPAM Czech Republic.

Tomas has been with EPAM for almost a year now. He is a member of EPAM’s Agile Competency Center, where he conducts agile trainings for EPAMers in Western Europe. He also provides agile coaching and consultancy on agile transformation for external clients. 

Tomas has a tremendous amount of passion and high-level of agile knowledge, including more than five years of agile coaching experience in digital, IT, HR and marketing, and lots of training and certificates under his belt.

What does being agile mean at EPAM? How can we make remote agile more effective? We challenged Tomas with these questions. Let’s learn what he has to say about the agile landscape and design thinking at EPAM.

What common misconception about agile do you face as a coach?

Agile comes with a lot of misconceptions and myths. However, the one I face the most is that agile is a silver bullet. I can tell you that being agile comes with a lot of effort.

It’s easy to say that if you do agile, it will save you a lot of money, it will take less time to go to market with new products or offerings and your employees will be happier. These are side effects, but the main goal of agile is to help a company become more adaptive.

For me, agile is mainly about people, values and principles. I am agile-agnostic, so with everything I do, I try to tailor to every client's needs.

What does agile mean in the context of EPAM?

Agile at EPAM is about being adaptive to change. It’s about creating a culture where you can learn and improve not only as an individual, but as a team.

Agile comes with the business proposition that the product you are working on has added value for you, the customer, and the market. We want to be flexible in response to our customers' needs and satisfy them on their journey. This journey is not just about client management–it is about a partnership, so we move forward as one team.

My job is to support collaboration, help my team attain a level of agility that meets their needs, and help individuals and teams become more adaptive, especially when the majority of the workforce is working remotely.

Have you experienced people rejecting agile because it’s used as a buzzword in tech? Tell me about that experience.

I get it quite often. In fact, even I, from time to time, see it as a buzzword.

When you tell someone that you are doing an agile enterprise transformation, you usually hear several responses. One is, "Oh, wake up, agile is already dead" or another one is "Oh, I know agile," and then you ask some questions and realize this person does not have any idea about agile.

Agile is about putting theory into practice, and it is about showing results. I can tell you about how agile can improve your organization, but if you don’t see it with your own eyes, you might not believe me.

Can you share an agile transformation story?

With one of our clients, we started an agile transformation in June 2020. The local management team wanted to give it a try to explore if it suited their needs. There was no commitment, just a high-level roadmap–we want to be successful in this and that area, and we probably want to do this and that.

We started building it iteratively and incrementally to learn and improve, fail fast and learn fast. If we did something good, we scale it; if we did something that doesn’t work, we stopped, learned from it and moved forward. We weren’t hard on ourselves for making mistakes. When we made mistakes, we knew it was the only way we could move forward.

Our agile sponsors for this client were two board members. We met with them monthly in a sprint review meeting to give them an idea of what is happening, and we asked for a mandate to act more. The management team has been happy with the work we have done so far.

So now, after 10 months, we have the same team of people. Agile has grown organically within this organization, and there is a tremendous demand for agile transformation from other departments. They see that agile is bringing added value and they want to experience it for themselves.

Our client is part of a European group. In the Czech Republic, we are the only entity within the group that involved agile in both business and IT.

Do you have best practices for running agile as a remote team or organization?

That is a difficult one. I would say that every resource manager should enjoy some fun activities with their teams, spend time together and remember that work is not just about delivering user stories and features, but also about fun.

We have implemented some fun activities with several teams. From time to time, we gather and play online quizzes and different games. It lightens the mood.

We also have "morning visits." You probably know this common practice at hospitals when a doctor visits their patients every morning to how they are doing. We adopted that practice and organized a morning stand-up meeting daily. During this stand-up, any team member can discuss any topic and we share pictures and stories. This helps us get closer as a team and is especially helpful for newcomers. It is hard being new when we’re all working remote, so when a new person joins our team, this gives us a better chance to get to know them.

What is your favorite training on agile?

I would start with agile thinking. It is an eight-hour two-day training on applying agile thinking principles into practice. It provides a great perspective on the agile mindset rather than talking about the frameworks and tools, and we make it as interactive as possible.

What is an agile mindset?

It’s about growth. It’s a mindset of constant self-development. You understand how easy it is to become fixed in your thinking and how these ideas limit your ability to explore new ways of doing things. With an agile mindset, you challenge some of your existing thought patterns and never stop learning.

It is about being customer-focused and being an effective collaborator. You need to have an open mind and accept that every brain is different. You listen carefully to what people say, try to understand and then seek to be understood.

It is about leadership. As you take ownership of things and speak up, that helps create a world where everyone can be a leader.

Do you have any tips for maintaining a work-life-balance while working from home?

I know it is hard for everyone. People don’t talk about it much, but if you search for articles online, you’ll see that many people globally are becoming overwhelmed working from home all the time.

I think it is about spicing things up. In our team, we have come up with some easy solutions:

  • Everyone at the meeting has their camera on.
  • We bring kids to the call so they can talk to each other.
  • We adopt the rule 'five times late, a breakfast is paid.'

If you are late to a daily stand-up or any other regular call five times, you pay for breakfast for other team members, and it is entirely up to you on how you want to approach it. You can order food delivery or wake up a bit earlier to prepare breakfast yourself and deliver it to your team.

We started this breakfast initiative with two teams in the office. When people saw that one team had breakfast, they were wondering, “Oh, what is happening there? Can I have breakfast too?” They wanted to get involved.

We’re all friends within the team and, of course, we come up with other remote solutions, such as delivering fast food, freshly baked cakes or a healthy breakfast with fruits and vegetables.

That’s an example of design thinking: "I want to host my friends for breakfast; what's the best way to do that when working from home?"

It is also worth mentioning, that to work and live agile, you need to be light on your feet and clear in your mind. In the book "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Cohen named this habit 'sharpening the saw.'  It means that you are investing in your well-being by doing things like taking time to rest, eating food you love, drinking a lot of water and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise.

You can be as efficient as possible, but you will burn out if you do not take care of yourself. It is even more important now to remember that you only have one greatest asset–and that is you. So, be agile, but stay safe and healthy first!