Unlocking the Secrets to Thriving Workplaces and Agile Leadership

Unlocking the Secrets to Thriving Workplaces and Agile Leadership

Vasco Duarte, a visionary in agile and lean software development, shares his revolutionary approach to fostering innovation, change, and dynamic workplaces.

Listen to the Interview

Meet Vasco Duarte

Vasco Duarte: Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast Host, Scrum Master, Agile Coach, Keynote Speaker, Consultant. Connect with Vasco on LinkedIn.


At Forward Thinking Workplaces, we are discovering the people, insights, and strategies that lead to Forward Thinking minds, leaders, and workplaces of the future — today. Forward Thinking conversations will define the great workplaces of the 21st century. Check out our upcoming Events page or visit billfox.co to learn more.


Introduction

In our interview, Vasco Duarte, a visionary in agile and lean software development, shares his revolutionary approach to fostering innovation, change, and dynamic workplaces.

His insights are invaluable for leaders and organizations aiming to create environments where everyone thrives:

Fostering Natural Innovation: Vasco emphasizes that innovation and change are natural human qualities that flourish when supported by motivating environments rather than rigid structures.

Building Around Motivated Individuals: He advocates for projects centered on motivated individuals, supported and trusted to achieve their best, unleashing their full potential.

The Role of Community and Purpose: Community and clear purpose are vital for engagement and performance, aligning with Dan Pink’s model of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Clear Boundaries and Generative Work Environments: Well-defined boundaries foster change and innovation by providing a flexible yet structured framework.

Reducing Waste in Work Processes: Vasco’s “No Estimates” approach in software development focuses on delivering value efficiently, enhancing productivity and respecting everyone’s efforts.

Leadership and Vision: Vasco advises leaders to understand and align with employees’ purposes and goals, fostering open communication for cohesive, high-performing teams.

Transformative Insights from Practitioners: His podcast reveals real-world insights from industry practitioners, highlighting diverse solutions and approaches.

Vasco’s profound insights offer practical advice for fostering innovative, engaged, and efficient workplaces. By embracing natural human capacities for change, supporting environments, and focusing on community and purpose, we can transform organizations and unlock team potential. Tune in to this thought-provoking interview for valuable leadership insights.

— Bill

Bill Fox, Founder, LeaderONE​ & Forward Thinking Workplaces
​Pioneering Leadership from Within | Unlocking Human and Organizational Potential

Transcript

Bill: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Vasco: I thought a lot about this question, but maybe just a little bit of background. I'm from the IT side and I studied lean, like in lean manufacturing, but applied to knowledge work. We call it lean software development in my area. And then later on I started using agile methods for developing and delivering products with software. So that's a little bit of my background that will help your listeners and readers understand where some of these answers come from.

When I think about knowledge work specifically, I think that the only way that change and innovation cannot happen naturally is if we take it away.

I mean, how could I prevent you from thinking about anything, Bill? I couldn't, I have no power over your mind, right? I can influence for sure with the words I choose and maybe with the questions I ask, but I can't take change and innovation thinking away from you. Nor can companies take it away from people that work within companies.

So I think the only way to get there is through oppression, through removing the possibility of expressing what is already a naturally occurring phenomenon, which is to think with an innovative and change acceptance method. And we do this since we are children. I mean, think of a child playing and later on in life, caveat before they get spoiled by the education system, experimenting with stuff. Like for example, my son who's now 18, already an adult, still has immense joy in just fiddling around with old cars. He doesn't get that from me nor his mother, but it's in him, right? And as long as I don't push him away from it, he will derive pleasure and of course also self-development from that, like playing around with stuff.

For me, what that means is that change and innovation are a natural part of everyone, and one that no company whatsoever can take away unless we people accept that the company doesn't allow us to express that. In agile and especially in software where I work a lot, we have this principle: build projects around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. This is not mind blowing. I mean, we know this already, right?

If we could just build projects around motivated people, give them the environment and the support they need, and trust them to get the job done - if we could just do that, innovation and change would happen naturally.

So I think that the answer to your question is that we just get in our own way. We build these systems and businesses around inhumane ideas like profit for idealized people that don't really exist, called the investors. Or we keep those businesses going beyond what is naturally good for them, like trying to squeeze every little penny out of whatever business is there. And because of that, we build systems that are frankly just oppressive, that prevent us from expressing something we can't get rid of. No one can stop being innovative and open to change. We do that all the time, like when we go grocery shopping to a new shop, we are suddenly learning. Our brain is adapting to a new geographical placement of the items we're looking for. We're learning all the time. We're innovating all the time.

So I think it is a little bit of this concept or idea that was developed from the Renaissance, that we can somehow mechanize the world and remove the humanity out of it. And that's what happens when you remove the humanity out of it - you remove innovation and change acceptance.

Bill: What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?

Vasco: Okay, so when I thought about this question, I had to put a caveat up front. Here, when it comes to getting an employee's full attention and best performance, I'm assuming we're talking about that well-intentioned person who wants to bring good to the world, right? There is a small percentage of sociopaths and people who just don't fit into society for whatever reason. And I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about your average person out there in the world.

I would say that to get an employee's full attention and performance, we first need to build that environment where people can relate to other people - colleagues, customers and suppliers.

And they can also understand the meaning of their work. If you just have those two things, you're golden. You're going to get everybody's full attention and performance because we naturally want to help other people and we want to perform well. Nobody gets up in the morning and goes like, "I'm going to work and I'm going to perform the darn worst I can." Nobody thinks like that, assuming an average well-intentioned person out there in the world.

I mean, look at open source software, which is an area where I work. Many of my clients actually use a lot of open source software to deliver their services. But open source software is delivered for free and made available for free by people that, this is important, work eight hours a day in a job and then go home and work another eight hours a day on the open source software. Maybe not eight hours, but you know what I mean. They give a lot of their personal time, their life, the most meaningful aspect of humanity, to others. So why wouldn't they do the same at work? Well, because they're not allowed to relate to colleagues and they don't understand the purpose of their work. That's it. Because when they do, they do amazing stuff.

I interviewed a person on my podcast, The Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast, and she had been a teacher. This is school, working with kids. Kids naturally express all of this innovation and change acceptance and openness and happiness. And she realized that the education system she was part of was no longer aligned with her personal values. Think about this for a minute. So how would you get that employee's full attention and best performance? You can't, because she did not believe anymore in the mission that their workplace, a school, an educational system, had. So what she did is she went away from school, stopped being a teacher and started being a Scrum Master. Now she's working with people, relating to other people and she understands the meaning of her work, which is to help these other people succeed. And you always get people's best performance when you do that - help them relate to other people and help them understand the meaning of their work.

Bill: What do you think people really lack and long for at work?

Vasco: I think, from what I just said, it's important to say a lack of sense of community and purpose. At the end of the day, I think there's one thing that we really stopped thinking about with the mechanistic view of the world that was born out of the Renaissance. A lot of people think positively about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and how we started thinking about the world. It definitely brought us a lot of things.

But we still don't know why we are how we are. We still don't know where sentience comes from, consciousness as the philosophers call it. We have no idea what that is, but that is who we are. And when you think about it, it's like, wait a minute, we don't know what makes us who we are, human beings. We don't know that. I mean, we call it consciousness, but we don't really know what that is. We don't know where it happens, how it happens, what processes give rise to consciousness. We still don't know. And the mechanistic inquiry into how the brain works has not revealed any clues about how consciousness emerges in the human brain. Maybe it's not just the brain. By the way, we found out a few decades ago that we have more brain cells in our gut than cats have in their brain. So it's definitely not just the brain, people. We are a whole entity - body and everything is a whole entity.

And when we look at the history of humans, other humans, not us, but humans who lived before us, centuries and even millennia before us, the thing that they always found was community and purpose, all of them. All societies out there in the world found community and purpose. And even individuals, like think about hermits that go into the mountains and live in a cave alone. They found their community and purpose in a different way - community, spiritual community, and purpose through self-actualization and growth in their own individual entity. Even alone, they are finding those things.

So I would say that when you think about models like intrinsic motivation, like Dan Pink's drive model from the famous book, he talks about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And I remember way back when I read another book, "Maverick" by Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian entrepreneur. I was so in tune with the message that they had. He said, "If people want to do something, just let them." When he wrote the book, he said, "We used to be one business, but now we're like 13 to 16 businesses depending on what month you count." And that was him enabling his people to create their own businesses within the group that he had inherited from his father. He said, "Just make sure they understand where the boundaries are so they can self-orient."

When you think about this concept of boundaries, going back to your first question, how can people express change acceptance and innovation thinking? I'm thinking, well, the reason why they don't do that is because the way we wrongly thought boundaries were communicated was through a set of rules. You shall do this, you shall not do that, and those rules just keep growing.

I work with teams that develop software. Many teams, when I go into the teams, they want to adopt agile, and agile in their mind starts by having fewer rules. Turns out that agile is fewer rules, but it has very hard boundaries. We have, for example, a concept we call "time box." A time box is a period of time that is predefined in advance, and it shall not be moved. It starts one day, it ends another day, and whatever happens is what happens within that boundary. And what we found out is that when it comes to complex work, like knowledge work, boundaries are generative. They generate change and innovation and adaptation, and it creates a much better work environment for us knowledge workers. In factories, there are certain other boundaries that need to be respected, especially because metal and concrete don't really apply to our needs or desires that we understand. But as long as we understand that what people need are just clear boundaries that are not overly complex or too many, then we are golden. Then we can allow them to find that sense of community and purpose.

And just to kind of emphasize the point, I want to take one phrase from Ricardo Semler's "Maverick" book. He was reflecting on how he was as a manager before something changed in him, and this is very important.

He didn't change others, he changed himself, and then others changed around him.

He said, "When people are out there, they build houses, they buy cars, they have kids, they choose the president, all without us telling them what to do. And then suddenly when they come to work, we expect them to just follow orders, our orders." And my question, now Vasco speaking, is how can we even expect that to work? Following orders doesn't go with innovation, happiness, purpose, meaning, and of course, never with performance, because in the best case, the performance of someone following orders is whatever the person giving the orders can imagine. And I guarantee that when you put two brains to think about something, they will always come up with a better and higher performance idea than when you put one brain to think about it.

Bill: What's the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Vasco: Okay, so I thought about this and I will have to cheat. I have three questions. Let me say the questions first.

  • The first is, the leaders would ask, "How would you describe the reason why your work here is important?"
  • Second would be, "When you came to work today, what were you anxious about? And what were you happy about?"
  • And then the third would be, "What do you need to be able to reach your goals at work, today?"

When I think about the first question, "How would you describe the reason why your work here is important?" it is all about purpose. This goes back to the idea that Dan Pink talks about in "Drive" - we need to have purpose. Without purpose, it's very difficult to find that performance. But it also allows the leader to understand if the purpose is aligned with their own purpose. And alignment is what we need in order to work together. If there isn't alignment, that should be addressed immediately. Without alignment, how can we even collaborate or cooperate? Not possible.

The second question, what are people anxious and happy about? It's all about motivation, and of course, the context. And the context here is what I think makes the big difference because we're all 100% people, 100% of the time. No one can stop being who they are. It's not possible. People who try, they get into mental diseases. It creates instability when you remove yourself from yourself just because you need to please someone. That's been studied quite a lot. So we know that we are always, at least healthy people, 100% people 100% of the time.

So when they come to work, they bring all of that with them. The answer to the second question is not necessarily about work, and that's important. Let's take a very extreme example, just to make the point. Imagine someone who's operating a life-threatening super heavy machinery. If they come to work and they say, "I'm anxious because I'm afraid my partner will leave me and we might end up in divorce in the next few weeks," that person is not in a good state to operate life-threatening heavy machinery. They might be in a good state to do some other work. I would guess, at least having been there, repetitive work that takes your mind off of reality for a while. But that's important. And if the leader doesn't know that, they may give them even bigger machinery that is even more life-threatening and the person might create some huge impact for others and themselves. So we need to understand that people are themselves always, 100% of the time, and we need to know what's going on with them before we can be ready to help them.

And then the third question, it's all about helping or enabling people to do a great job. The third question was, "What would you need to be able to reach your goals at work today?" And that - helping people reach their goals, removing obstacles, changing processes, figuring out what material can be bought or purchased or borrowed to help the worker achieve their goal - that's the leader's job. A leader who is not asking that question is not doing their job, period. No matter what else they do, if they don't ask, "How can I help you achieve your goals today at work?" Specifically at work, this is important - they're not doing a leader's job.

Bill: What's the most important question employees can ask leaders?

Vasco: I think this is a great question, and one that does not get discussed enough, because implicit in this discussion we just had about creating a safe environment is the idea that somehow leaders have power over others. There's a big philosophical debate around this. It's a huge aspect of how we've developed philosophy. It's an inherent part of the language we use. Power relationships exist, period. So we can't ignore those. We have to be mindful that there are power relations at work as well. And that's maybe why this question that you asked, what should an employee ask their leaders, doesn't get discussed enough.

Without thinking about this too deeply, because I think we could enter this way of thinking for much longer than I have prepared for this interview, I would say that employees should ask their leaders about the vision that the leaders have in their mind for the work and the business that they are working in. What are they trying to achieve? Make that clear. Because here's the thing - we can't work well if we don't know what is being tried to be done. If we don't know the direction, how can we even start walking in that direction?

All too often, I think employees kind of take their power relationship role too seriously and fade to the background and just assume that they just have to do what they're told. So it's a two-way street here.

I think the employee's responsibility is also to make an effort to understand the bigger picture, what is being done, why are we doing it? And if we can do this, if we can understand the leader's vision, the purpose that they are trying to express through their work, I think we can collaborate better.

And we can definitely at least say, "Hey, I'm not up for it, I'll just go away." That's a fair reaction when you find out your leader has a totally different vision than what you have. But I think that this understanding, the vision of the leader and then having that back and forth discussion and making sure that we are aligned is what all of us need, leaders and employees, because we need to know as employees what is important for the business, the customers, as well as the wider community, because a business is part of society. It's not an entity on its own.

Bill: What's the most important question we can ask ourselves?

Vasco: Okay, so when I thought about this question, I have to reflect that it's probably something that is important for me right now. And I don't know if it is the most important question that I would ask myself five years from now or five years ago. I don't know that.

But today I would say, "Do I feel happy when I come to work?"

I interviewed two amazing ladies who run The Happy Office in the Netherlands and they define happiness at work by simply saying, "It's when you find yourself whistling on the way to and from work." And I really like that because it is so simple and we can ask ourselves, like, "I'm going to work now, do I feel happy about it? Do I feel anxious about the work?" Because I might be anxious about other stuff, of course. And because work is a part of life, we have to accept that it is also our responsibility to find how to bring those two together - work and life.

Here, I would say we've been struggling with this for many, many years. The Haymarket affair happened in Chicago in 1886, where a lot of people died and it eventually created what we now call May 1st, International Workers Day. People were just asking for simple things, like eight hours of work, eight hours of family life and eight hours of sleep. That's so simple. And I know that we are not necessarily there yet, but I think that that's a great way to describe what we are looking for at work, all of us. It's a balance. We need work because everyone needs to make money. We also need work because we need purpose to help others to contribute to something bigger, but we also need life.

So I would say, "Do I feel happy? Is my body telling me that my life is in balance when I consider the work that I'm doing?"

Bill: What question is at the heart of Vasco? What is it that drives and inspires you?

Vasco: When I think about work specifically, I think that we are wasting people's lives in many of the processes, methods, approaches we use at work. So I've been, for quite a few years, since 2008 on my own and then since 2012 publicly, talking about a different way to look at software projects, 'cause that's the business and the industry I'm in. I called it "No Estimates," which is a way to plan and execute software deliveries without using estimates as the overriding planning metaphor, which is still used in most organizations today.

And at the core of that is this idea that a lot of what we are doing is wasteful. The way we manage the work is wasteful, the way we relate to people wastes people's lives. And of course, ultimately in the end, we're wasting customers' money because we could do the same so much faster, shorter, and with higher quality.

So that's what is really at the core of what has been my work for many years and still is, which is to find ways to deliver value to those that are around us. I

always think of businesses as communities - their suppliers, the business itself, and then the customers. And within the business, we have the people within the business, not just the accounting idea of a business.

When I think about it, I think that we owe it to ourselves to find much better ways to do the work that we need to do. And I mean, if we think about it, software is everywhere. Anywhere in the world where you go, there is software. In some cases, even in the toilet, there is software. I mean, if you visit Japan, there's a lot of software in the toilet.

And when you think about it, software has become kind of a basic enabler for the quality of life of the citizens of the world. If we don't trust social media, that is, by the way, software that is creating the problems - the algorithm, as people call it, as if it was a mythical entity, but it's not really, it's just math going back and forth. If we think about what we need for our children, like basic healthcare, as an example, an example I like to quote, even though it is a very sad example, in Finland, we are investing 2.4 billion with a B, euros into a healthcare data management system.

Now, for anyone who works with software, you know you could develop a healthcare data management system of high quality with maybe 100,000 euros. I know that in Estonia, where you currently reside, Bill, they did the same for 300,000. So why are we doing almost 10 times more money into that type of system? And the reason is very simple - because the way the project was presented to the decision makers was convincing, and it had a price of 2.4 billion. That's the only reason, because there is nothing logical that would justify a 2.4 billion investment into any software in the world. We went to the moon with far less money than that. Most of the super important software systems out there in the world today cost far less than that. Even the AI systems, which are amazing, and we're all surprised, and everybody's so happy that we now have this magic tool called AI. Even that costs less than 2.4 billion.

So for me, what is at the core of the work that I do and drives me personally is this understanding - what is the value that we need to deliver so that the company survives, continues to deliver that value, that's very important, also for the workers in the company, while at the same time respecting customers and suppliers and delivering great value to our customers. And that's what I do all the time in the context of software product development. I need to be very clear, because that's the area where I work. And I think we can do a lot. I mean, I would say that in most projects that I've worked in, we could achieve the same with 1/10 of the invested money. And that also means 1/10 of the invested time, 1/10 of the invested overtime, et cetera, et cetera.

Bill: What are the top takeaways in "No Estimates" and who should read it?

Vasco: "No Estimates" is a very short book. It's a business novel that tells the story of a project manager who got handed the project from hell. Basically, it was a project that was sold too cheaply and to be delivered way earlier than it could be delivered. Following on the story you just told, Carmen, the project manager, works with a coach - and literally is a coach. So not somebody who tells her what to do but rather asks the right questions in the spirit of Kurt's "Breaking the Rules" book and helps her realize what needs to change in order for the dynamic of the project to totally change.

The goal of the book is to create the mental models in our mind that allow us to see the matrix, using the metaphor from the book, of what software projects really are. There are dynamics in software projects that are not at all prescribed. For example, a very simple example is typically software projects start by somebody having an idea of what needs to be done. That's how most projects get started. Now that's not wrong. There's nothing wrong with that in principle, but when we design software projects around that - what needs to be done - what we find out is that projects run late and grow much bigger than we could ever imagine, because the person who thought about what needed to be done could not foretell the future. Nobody can. So when they thought of something, they really just thought of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the rabbit hole that that project is in the end. And inevitably, as we start working on the project, we find the rest of the rabbit hole and it goes through to infinity. So projects, software projects have no end except the one we define for them.

The book allows us to understand what are the concepts we need to have in place and the language we need to build so that we understand that the goal of a software project is to be delivered, not to deliver all of the possible requirements we have found or may find as we go through that. And it develops an approach which is a totally different planning approach. That's why it's called "No Estimates." We're not using estimates for anything, but we always know where we are and how or when we are going to deliver. The book explains how that happens. So it's about creating that mental model that allows people to then think outside the traditional linear predefined project management mindset which drives us constantly into immense problems in software, just like the example you just mentioned with the story about the right question to ask.

Bill: You've played a key role in transforming product development organizations into product business organizations. Can you tell us more about that? What's the difference?

Vasco: Ironically, we've been talking about businesses, or at least I have, throughout this whole conversation. And ironically, in practice, we stopped thinking about businesses when we start doing the work. And this comes from the project management and mechanistic mindset, like the worker doesn't need to know the business, they just need to do the tasks. That's the mindset in project management. And of course that's completely wrong for knowledge work and it's inadequate and it just creates problems, so many problems.

So what I mean by that phrase is that we need to stop thinking about product development as an inherently self-contained set of activities, and we need to start thinking about it as a mesh or an octopus of connections that we need to find. A very simple way to explain this is that in software, we can create value by how we show things on the screen. It's that simple. And when we think that somebody five months ago could tell us exactly what information and when it should be shown on the screen, then we are forgetting that now, five months later, we know a lot more than we did back then. So we can now make much better informed decisions about what the customers are really trying to achieve and how we can help them achieve that.

What I'm thinking is software is inherently malleable, flexible. We can change it every day, several times a day. We have to stop thinking of software as something that goes from the beginning to the end, delivered in one go - that's the waterfall or project management mindset. And we need to start thinking about software as an inherently organically evolving amplifier for our business model. And it's the business model that matters. The software is just a tool.

If you would think about it, somebody who sells water - the drilling bits they use to get into the water well are just the tool. They would not ever imagine that the drilling bit would become the most important part of their business. And that's what we do with software all the time. We constantly think that software is the most important part of a business that works with software, which is not true. Ironically, it can be, but from a different perspective, which is how can software enable the business model that we already know is there and can be amplified? Because that's what software really is good for - for amplifying an existing business model, making a business model that is delivering 10 units of something to deliver 1000 units of that same something with just changing how the software is delivered or what the software delivers to its customers.

So that's what I mean when I talk about product business. We need to have software engineers who understand business models, and we need to have people on the business side who understand how software can become an amplifier for a business model. And that's what I teach, for example, product owners and product managers that I work with - how to start thinking of software as a business model amplifier, rather than a set of shopping list items that need to be delivered on a predefined timeline.

Bill: You host a very popular podcast called the Scrum Master Toolbox with over 10 million downloads. What are some of the most surprising or transformative insights you've gained from these conversations?

Vasco: All the time I have transformative insights. And I think the reason is, very early on in 2015 when I started, I decided that I want to interview the people who do the work so that they tell their own stories of how they do it and why they do it. So instead of, which is very common in interview podcasts where people interview thought leaders, I wanted to interview the people who actually do the work, who have the real struggles, and to showcase their own perspective, their own stories.

And what I thought was, okay, so I'm going to interview these people, they're going to share their stories, they're all going to be very interesting stories because they are about human beings and they are always interesting. But that was it. And what I found out, 500 interviews later, is that with every single interview, I learned something new, even though the people I interview are doing the work I teach others how to do. And that tells you how immense the human variety is.

I'm constantly being exposed to approaches, ideas, insights, that I never thought about. 500 interviews later, that's almost 10 years later (we're recording this in 2024 and the podcast started in 2015), and I'm still learning. And that's what keeps me going with the podcast. It's a daily podcast, so of course, we do a lot of interviews. And it is that idea, which I also expressed in my answers to your questions, that humans have the power to surprise you if you just give them the opportunity.

Bill: How can people get in touch with you, learn more about you?

Vasco: I'm on LinkedIn, that's Vasco Duarte. I'm also the host of the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast. So if you just Google Vasco Duarte on LinkedIn, host of the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast, you'll find me. And I'm happy to connect if you have experience in helping others deliver great quality and on-time knowledge work like software or other, just get in touch. I would love to interview you.

Bill: Vasco, this has been a great interview. Really enjoyed your time here today.

Vasco: Thank you, it's been a pleasure, Bill.


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