Agile IT Leadership

Lowell Lindstrom breaks down the Agile approach to product development, why it's become popular and what MSIT students can learn from it.

Lowell Lindstrom has spent more than 30 years developing and deploying software products, and he was one of the early pioneers to adopt, advocate for, and teach Agile software development. He has used agile to help transform dozens of companies and hundreds of teams across a diverse set of industries, domains, and technologies.

In 2001, Lindstrom developed the first commercially available course on the business practices of Agile. Four years later, he founded The Oobeya Group to help organizations incorporate Agile techniques into their day-to-day business processes.

Lindstrom is a member of the Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) Industry Advisory Board, and this quarter he served as an adjunct instructor in the program. Lindstrom taught Agile IT Leadership, a five-week course that illustrates how IT leaders are uniquely positioned to lead across organizations.

Lindstrom spoke about his history with Agile, why the process has become so popular and what his reaction has been to MSIT students.

How do you describe Agile to someone who has never heard of the term?

Agile is an approach to product development that emerged 20-some-odd years ago to allow products, projects and work to evolve incrementally in a way that allows them to adapt to changing conditions. Historically, when you talked about building something, you would develop a blueprint with exact specifications, get it approved and then go off and build it to reflect the blueprint. In today's world of digitalization and global communication, that cycle takes too long. Agile breaks that building process up into smaller sections to make the project more flexible and efficient.

What's your history with Agile?

I was part of the group of people that brought the agile movement together in the late 1990s. I wasn't one of the initial thought leaders, but I was on the periphery and helped do a lot of logistical work. I helped shape the articulation of how agile techniques enable business success, what today is referred to as Business Agility.  

Why did Agile come to be, at least in the software development space?

A lot of what Agile does is complementary to lean thinking. When it comes to software development, and this is also true in a lot of different industries, we saw a lot of bureaucracy and project management that interfered with builders being able to build things for customers. With Agile, those interferences are stripped away, and developers can spend more of their days focused on developing and getting customer feedback. As a result, they have a lot more freedom of movement as things are being built.

Why has Agile become so popular in recent years?

Agile gives people the flexibility they otherwise didn't have. There is a belief that Agile allows for quicker time to market.  This is true, but not because we do the same amount of work faster. We deliver smaller increments quickly, and we don't have to backtrack as much off of our original ideas. There is a lot more flexibility allowing us to match the development approach to the volatility of what business people experience. This alignment to business volatility has business folks latching on to the concept of Agile.

What is the mission of The Oobeya Group, and what is the story behind its name?

Oobeya means "large room" in Japanese. About 15 years ago, I read an article in Fast Company about how Toyota was changing its design process for its Corolla model to get the car to market faster. The change was focused on bringing everyone involved in the design and development of the car together so that they could all understand what was going on and determine how processes could be improved. Where are there opportunities for collaboration? That's really what we're doing with Agile. Agile came from software development, but there are a lot of similarities with what Toyota was doing.

With The Oobeya Group, I work with organizations to help them leverage Agile. I help businesses become more transparent with their work products so everyone can identify and resolve dependencies in a quicker, more efficient way. I try to help these organizations understand how Agile can be incorporated to help whatever business goals they happen to have.

This was the first course you taught in MSIT. What was your reaction to the MSIT students?

I've been really impressed with the caliber of students in MSIT. I teach a lot of people Agile, and I usually don't have a class filled with people that have this level of experience and capability. It's fun for me because it's an impressive group.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone considering adopting or learning about Agile?

If you're looking to adopt Agile, focus on what it will do for you. What are you trying to accomplish in terms of your core business need? The focal point should always be on the business goal, not the process. Agile is really about teams being empowered and making decisions on their own, it's not about following a recipe. That means you need to know what you want to accomplish before deploying this new method of thinking.