The next event will take place on 24 - 26 October 2023.

/ 14. 9. 2021

Behind the scenes with Mike Leber

Mike Leber is an international thought leader on Agile and Business Agility. Working in this space for more than 20 years, his main topics are business transformation, innovation, leadership, and adaptive ways for change.
He is a founder and general manager of Agile Experts e.U., Certified Leadership Agility 360 Coach, and an educated ORSC Coach (Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching).  As a member of the “Heart of Agile” team, Mike works closely with agile manifesto author Alistair Cockburn. 
These are just a few facts about his involvement with business transformation and leadership, but you can join his Team Kanban Practitioner workshop and see him in action.

When or where did you first come across “Agile,” and what was “the thing” that drew you to it? 

Mike: I have to admit, I am one of those who started before the term „Agile“ was coined. It was in 1999 with eXtreme Programming, where my experiences as a project manager in IT projects at a large corporate were not overwhelmingly great. Customers, people on the teams, stakeholders across the organization, leadership, and myself … nobody ever got happy whenever we approached a complex initiative.

One of my colleagues on our team had read articles about XP, and he brought Ken Beck’s first book to the office. This was nothing like the heavy stuff we had been used to. And so we entered the first XP kind of „project, “which was a huge learning and also unlearning. But it was amazing in all directions because for me and us. It unleashed the full human potential for collaboration and the hidden challenges of organizational culture at once.

How would you connect agile with balance? What do you think we have to balance the most for creating organizational agility?

Mike: Approaching and introducing people to the notion of „Agile, “ in my experience, works best when there is balance—no need to hesitate. Starting with understanding first, and even when there are challenges, we can already build upon many things. On the other hand, rushing and forcing things usually works against the nature of any social system. And gratefully, most organizations will still have enough capital and time to start any initiative in more intelligent ways.

Balance not only plays an essential role for human beings throughout their lifetime. But the way we grow business models and nurture organizational culture only thrive from a balanced kind of intervention and management. Take the lifecycle of business models - we need existing ones, which generate enough cash flow for new ones to be explored. Take an innovation culture, which no organization successfully scales, when there is no competence to develop proper governance models.

Usually, the weakest element in any system will set the limits for the whole. That said, we can’t thrive from a single pillar. We put our whole emphasis on it.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, we have experienced tremendous shifts in all aspects of our existence. How did you adjust (if you did) your professional and personal life?

Mike: Excellent question. Of course, my biggest professional objective was to transform our whole business model into an online/hybrid format. And given the type of our services and the kind of customers we work with, this worked out at ease gratefully. We were even able to create brand new services.

More importantly, with the online business taking priority, I became fully flexible, serving customers with consulting, coaching, and training worldwide by just tending to my home office desk, switching context & continents with a mouse-click. I saved a lot of time by dropping commute time and CO2 emissions saved through reduced travel.

And this has lead to even more quality time. We’ve automated a couple of our services, which were primarily requested in face-to-face formats before. For example, we now have a nearly self-paced online course for all our training offerings, so customers have more flexibility. We can focus even more on time for exclusive coaching & workshops, especially content creation.

Recently, I also started to travel a little more, mainly because I can work and take care of my customers from anywhere, while spending time with my family at the seaside, at our great Austrian lakes, or in the Austrian Alps.

What did you miss most during the lockdowns? Or maybe still miss?

Mike: Lockdowns decreased freedom of choice, one of the best goods in the world. This was very much missed, although, in Austria, we experienced a rather average scenario with restrictions.

But no video in the world can replace in-person face-to-face conversations. This, together with fun and friends, was what I missed most during that months. And of course, I also realized I hadn’t spent enough time with my other family members when lockdowns limited us to video communication.

Last but not least, I love traveling for vacation purposes in winter and summer. I dramatically missed skiing the previous season and the great beaches in Mallorca in summer 2020.

Have you noticed any significant changes regarding agile transformation or lean innovation because of the pandemic? 

Mike: To be honest, not really. I think organizational transformations for the sake of „agile“ or „lean“ as such is becoming more and more questioned. But this is independent of the pandemic. I was rather surprised how „easy" it remained for the corporate customers we support during quite large and complex undertakings to continue their initiatives. Maybe the notions of purpose, leadership, and culture have been approached more consciously since 2020.

However, discussions and partial shifts occur gratefully because such transformation programs often miss more skillful ways, apart from all the hypes and trivial solutions being offered. In my view, this seems to be independent of the pandemic.

If you would describe non-agile and agile companies with a metaphor of an animal, what would they be and why?

Mike: Hmmm … I will pass this question. Why? Because I don’t want to be judgmental concerning organizations. Although I also use the term a lot as a reference only, I can’t tell what an agile organization is. Is it the one that takes the agile manifesto as a bible and follows some methods religiously? Is it agile methods running at scale? Certainly not. I tend to talk about an organization’s agility, which is the capability to adapt and innovate. But such a capability is not just split into two states. It is a nuanced fitness level of a very complex organism, which every organization is. Instead of considering whether an organization is agile or not, it is better to remember as a consultant that your client organizations are usually still able to pay quite decent consultant fees. They usually have no „near-death“ experience but work. Maybe not the way you believe is perfect. But you’ll have no chance of knowing about their actual future.

What is one main change you think we are headed to in our work culture in the next ten years?

Mike: As mentioned, we can’t predict the future at all. And the unexpected pandemic told us how quickly we could get into virtual offices. Hybrid work models, emphasizing micro-enterprises (e.g., look at Haier), where a company is more like an ecosystem than one monolithic structure, could be a thing.

And because you asked me for one, I am adding a second ;) Next generations are a thing, their capacity to innovate and change directions (e.g., fighting climate change). I assume they will create more humane workplaces if the politics of older / today’s generations support it now.

If any of our participants are flirting with the idea to become agile coaches - what are three personality traits you find important for this kind of work?

Mike: I am not into personality traits at all, other than using them as a funny game. I don’t believe personality types have any deeper meaning than a horoscope in an average daily newspaper. I believe in the opportunity that every human being can deliberately develop their personal stance, consciousness, and worldview further. That does not build upon horoscopes (like Myers Briggs), but on decades of psychological research in the field of stage development.

Now reframing the question of how an „agile coach“ could deliberately develop themselves to be more impactful:

  • Raise your bar of awareness and consciousness. Why are you thinking, as you do? How does this inform your action? How does your action help your client’s agenda?
  • Never stop learning. There is more to learn in the fields of coaching & psychology, than in agile.
  • Never stop working on yourself. Be sure to have frequent supervision about your work. Be sure to have at least one professional (not agile) coach.


What is your favorite (business) book and why?

Mike: Sorry, this is impossible for me to answer. I have probably read hundreds to thousands and love so many.
I still love the books of Peter Drucker. 

Final thoughts (optional)?

Mike: I am totally happy and appreciate the work you do. No matter the personal opinion about agile, we need these places, where practitioners, providers, dreamers meet in order to continue the journey and gain more clarity, to move the movement further into areas of more maturity. And this is an endless path.

No matter the personal opinion about agile, we need these places, where practitioners, providers, dreamers meet in order to continue the journey and gain more clarity, to move the movement further into areas of more maturity. And this is an endless path.

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