5 + 1 Questions to Sunil Mundra

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Sunil Mundra is a Principal Consultant-Advisory at ThoughtWorks. He has extensive international experience in consulting with organizations in enhancing agility at team, program and enterprise levels. He has worked with senior executives to shape and execute the roadmap for change. Sunil has vast experience in training and coaching both leaders and delivery teams.

Sunil is also the author of the book ‘Enterprise Agility-Being Agile in a Changing World’. The book was ranked # 1 in Amazon’s Hot New Releases in 2 categories.

Enterprise Agility shows how an enterprise can address fast-paced changes in all spheres of business.

Agility is a fundamental shift in thinking about how enterprises work to effectively deal with disruptive changes in the business environment. The core belief underlying agility is that enterprises are open and living systems. These living systems, also known as complex adaptive systems (CAS), are ideally suited to deal with change very effectively.

Agility is to enterprises what health is to humans. There are some foundational principles that can be broadly applied, but the definition of healthy is very specific to each individual. Enterprise Agility takes a similar approach with regard to agility: it suggests foundational practices to improve the overall health of the body

Around the same period when “Enterprise Agility” was released, Erich Bühler published his “Leading Exponential Change-Go beyond Agile and Scrum to run even better business transformations ” book.

In Leading Exponential Change, Erich R. Bühler shares the secrets that differentiate truly remarkable companies from those that fail to adapt to today’s constantly changing market conditions. Two books I really recommend.

Sunil has spoken at 30+ conferences across 6 continents on Agility related topics. He was also a visiting faculty for 2 decades at management education institutes in Pune, India.

1. What is Agile or the Agile Mindset for you?

I see Agile as a set of guiding values (the Manifesto) and principles.

A level below this, Agile can be viewed in 2 distinct but interconnected parts, viz. ‘Doing’ and ‘Being’. The ‘Doing’ part related to the ceremonies, practices, and processes while the ‘Being’ part relates to the Mindset.

I would like to explicitly highlight the difference between Agile and Agility. This differentiation is so important in my view, that I have devoted an entire chapter on this topic in the book. It is important to recognize that Agile is not an end in itself, but a way to achieve Agility. And Agility comprises of 3 core capabilities, viz. the capabilities to Sense, Adapt and Respond. Moreover, Agility too is a journey and not a destination. It is the level of capabilities underlying Agility which enables enterprises to deal with a fast-changing environment and delight their stakeholders.

2. What’s your favorite tool or method you use during your coaching?

Lately, my focus has been on coaching leaders and managers. The first thing I do as part of coaching is to understand the ‘why’ behind wanting to do a transformation. I try to find out their current pain areas and ‘what keeps them awake at night’. I also delve into what success means for them, for the enterprise and n their respective roles. I use a self-assessment questionnaire, and then a questionnaire to get feedback from their leader, peers and subordinates, to validate the self-assessment ratings. The findings from these become inputs for the capability development plans.

At the execution level, having an Obeya room can be used for visual management, i.e. to plan and monitor the progress of projects and initiatives. The Obeya room is the single source of truth which helps to bring invisibility and transparency into the information that is needed for reviews and making decisions. A powerful technique to identify process and workflow challenges and also to enable calculating lead and cycle times is Value Stream Mapping (VSM).

3. What book or website would you recommend?

Reading books and following thought leaders on social media have been pivotal for me to learn about Agile and Lean, and organizational change.

If I were to pick the top 5 books which have influenced me, there are:

  1. The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge
  2. Fearless Change, by Dr. Linda Rising
  3. The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldrattt
  4. The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
  5. The Phoenix Project, by Gene Kim et al

4. What is essential for you during an Agile transformation?

I strongly believe that transformation can be begun from where any enterprise is. Having said this, I believe that there are a few things which lay a solid foundation for a meaningful and sustainable transformation. The following are my top 5:

  • Investing time and effort in Discovery/Assessment phase: Every enterprise, like every human body, is unique and hence, like doctors, it is important to spend enough time in investigating to understand the problems and their root causes. Moreover, this phase also helps to baseline the current state, which helps to track improvement in desired outcomes
  • A ‘C’ level Executive sponsor: This person needs to be the ‘courageous executive’ who can influence various stakeholder groups, take bold and quick decisions, rally the entire leadership team and have their back throughout the transformation
  • Pivot the transformation around technology and digital functions: I am convinced that without technical agility and enterprise cannot make the transformation sustainable
  • Engaging a credible Coach/Enabler: Similar to a doctor, the coach/enabler who will guide the transformation must have the necessary knowledge (I am tempted to comment on day certifications with a near 100% pass rate, but will stay from that for now) and experience. It is very important that this person knows what good looks like and is, therefore, able to advise on pushing the boundaries as and when needed.
  • Willing to work with emergent situations: All stakeholders, especially the senior leadership need to recognize and accept that there is no magic recipe for a successful transformation. Enterprises are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and one of the core properties of CAS is emergence. Hence, there is no guarantee that the inventions made will always work, as every intervention made in a CAS is essentially a hypothesis. The ability and willingness to quickly learn from what is working and not working and trying new interventions which seem to make the most sense for the context and that moment is absolutely important.

5. What is 1 aspect of coaching leaders you like the most?

What is immensely fulfilling for me is the opportunity to unlock the human potential, which is there in every individual but is often buried due to interpersonal politics, mental models, rewarding wrong behaviours, etc. The looks and words of gratitude I get, when following my advice have led to adding value to themselves, and consequently to the enterprise as well. Which is priceless. 

+1. What was the trigger to write “Enterprise Agility”?

The core concept in my book is that enterprises are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and must be modeled and treated as such.

What I consistently found during my consulting experience in organizations across verticals and across the globe is that the root cause of organizations struggling to deal with fast-paced change is that they are modeled and treated like machines, i.e. close-ended systems. The hangover of traditional engineering and manufacturing is so severe that practices like thinker-doer separation, optimization of silos, treating people like machines, etc. are crippling enterprises. The desire to create awareness that enterprises must be looked at as CAS in order to deal better with a complex and fast-changing business environment was the primary driver for me to write the book. The other important driver was my desire to share my knowledge and experience about the enablers and impediments to agility.