Building Agile Teams

Building the Agile Workforce

Mindtree’s Agile Center of Excellence sets millennials on a path toward true career agility

For many millennial students exiting higher education and readying themselves to enter the workforce, a problem begins to emerge. That problem is a lack of career preparedness, due to an antiquated education system that stifles independent learning.
 
The answer for hundreds of millennials seeking employment and career development in IT? Mindtree.
 
According to its website, Mindtree provides information technology and services, taking an “agile, collaborative approach to creating customized solutions across the digital value chain, leveraging its employees’ expertise in infrastructure and applications management to help optimize company’s IT into a strategic asset.”
 
Put simply, Mindtree is a company committed to instilling Agile frameworks into the workforce of the future by implementing Agile methodologies through information technology both in-house and on behalf of its clients. In other words, it is being agile while doing agile.
 
Being agile while doing agile
 
According to the 2015 Forrester report The State of Agile Development: Learn from Agile Expert Firms1, which included the 2015 Global Agile Software Application Development Online Survey, a third of agile expert firms (that is, firms who are mature in their agile use) have been practicing Agile for more than five years, and 54% have successfully spread their agile practices to more than half their teams.
 
These findings align with what Founder and Chief Operating Officer Parthasarathy (“Partha”) N.S. and the team at Mindtree have experienced with their clients. “Our clients demanded Agile, and so we had to respond,” he says.
 
Mindtree’s clients span industries ranging from technology, transportation, and consumer goods — each of which share a vested interest in developing agile frameworks to enable their employees and business solutions.
 
Partha adds, “What we are seeing is [that] agile means different things to different people, and so the agile model has to be adapted for each industry.”
 
“For it to be effective, it has to resonate from the C-suite to the janitor,” says Director of Global Agile Center of Excellence Chris Murphy.
 
In response to this need, Mindtree defines Agile as a cultural transformation based on a journey of continuous improvement. Inherent in this transformation is accepting the idea that there is a difference between being agile and doing agile.
 
So, four years ago Mindtree opened an Agile Center of Excellence (CoE) in Gainesville, Florida, providing digital and IT consulting services and using leading practices. Working with the University of Florida, Mindtree has worked to influence strategic learnings within the school’s STEM program to ensure that UF graduates possess the skills top employers are looking for.
 
Mindtree’s Gainesville CoE has found the intersection of being agile while doing agile by engaging each Mindtree Mind (the phrase the company uses to refer to all employees) with an active learning model. The company has also customized physical workspaces for maximum output, using agile techniques including pods (rather than cubicles) and open, collaborative environments.
 
Mindtree Kalinga
 
If selected to become a Mindtree Mind, each college graduate who is hired must first go through an intensive 90-day training at the Mindtree Kalinga campus, a Global Learning Center (which is distinct from a CoE) in Bhubaneswar, India, before joining the CoE in Gainesville. These training sessions are typically held twice per year.
 
At Kalinga, students are immersed in the agile framework from day one. While the majority of the student population there is native to India, both the American and the Indian students share the same disadvantage in general: an education system that has conditioned them to rely on others for help.
 
To move away from this mentality, the CoEs stage a social experiment. Once students receive their IDs and file paperwork, they are given no further instruction. Mentors are instructed not to give answers if the students ask what to do.
 
However, onsite is a digital map, which has information about how to navigate the campus and take next steps. Typically, it takes about 15 minutes before the first students spot this and share the information. Prior to that, it’s a mix of confusion, anger, and uneasiness for students unused to finding their own way. This is part of the agile journey and, more importantly, why they are at Kalinga.
 
The industry-academia gap
 
Teaching independence is one part of the program. Another is promoting collaboration.
 
In an effort to reverse the legacy model of learning and foster more collaboration among peers, Mindtree’s Kalinga program took on and adapted the Harvard model of active learning, wherein students are required to be of heterogeneous backgrounds, having as little in common as possible. Moreover, classrooms are intentionally small and modular to resemble hives and encourage students to interact with one another and share knowledge.
 
According to Huntington Lambert, dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, the key lies in how students interact with information. Quoted in an article entitled “Active Learning Challenges Old Education Models,” Lambert says:
 
“I can choose to lecture on the elements of a business model canvas. Or I can choose instead to help the students learn by doing,” he explains on the division's website. “In the latter scenario, I’m merely the facilitator as the students build a business model canvas using posters and sticky notes. I might take it a step further by first providing a five- to six-minute overview, followed by a group canvas building exercise, team presentations, and a feedback session. That’s active learning.”2
 
However, as part of the traditional education model in use today, teachers lecture during a class period and then students go home to practice what they have learned on their own. This method leaves little room for discussion with the educator and no way to demonstrate skills in real time.
 
Additionally, Indian students have to overcome the way they have always thought about education — that is, as a competition. Rather than vying for a seat in class, students in the Kalinga program use Agile practices to learn the value of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and continuous improvement as part of their agile journey.
 
Maximum learning

“In the life of a child, there are two actors: the parent and the teacher,” says Partha. He explains that a student may feel comfortable asking a parent anything but may hesitate to ask a teacher, because a teacher’s job is to judge.
 
“When this fear of judgment is suspended, security is instilled in the mind of the student. Maximum learning happens when there is emotional security,” he says.
 
To enable this emotional security, students are taught by mentors, with a mentor-student ratio of 1:20. Mentors are young, with roughly two to four years of experience as practitioners in the industry. The goal is for them to be able to connect with students.
 
More important, students are assigned projects for which they must demonstrate an aptitude for doing. Unlike in the traditional education model, if a student makes a mistake but can explain why and correct it, they pass.
 
Once students graduate from the Kalinga program, they are placed or assigned to projects with existing clients within 30–45 days, closing the loop in the agile cycle.
 
Measuring success

Chris Murphy has been at the helm of this transformation, seeing firsthand how Mindtree has gone from a local to a global company, scaling the agile framework to fit its values.
 
Murphy explains that there’s an industry-wide expectation that when agile is implemented, immediate cost savings will be realized. But, he says, a much larger paradigm shift must happen first.
 
“A level of change has to happen in the organization. What the CoE does is help people understand that, through a nondisruptive journey from where they are to where they want to be, using a phased approach,” he says.
 
Of course, long-standing corporate cultures can’t change overnight, and therein lies the value of Mindtree. With a resilient corporate culture in place for many of the clients Mindtree serves, a recurring push toward transformation is critical to enable agility within its people, processes, and products.
 
“The measurement for how long this can take is in years,” says Murphy.
 
A potential metric for the growth and success of an agile implementation can be much more qualitative. For some industries, like technology, the best measurement is productivity and flow from ideation to project.
 
In other models, the more accurate measure is the ability of an organization’s people to make informed decisions independently.
 
To reinforce this point, Murphy shares an example of an eager store associate who asks a shopper, “How can I help you?” versus the associate who gives the shopper the choice to reach out for help if he or she requires it.
 
The implication in the former scenario is that the shopper needs help, while the implication in the latter is that the shopper has a choice. One approach does not empower the shopper, while the other does.
 
“When you do an agile transformation, there are a lot of ways to do them well. But the worst way is when someone mandates it, taking away your choice,” explains Murphy.
 
Affecting social change
 
There are myriad generalizations associated with the millennial generation, but perhaps the most positive is a commitment to improving society and affecting social change.
 
To cultivate this culture, Mindtree Minds are encouraged to engage in independent projects with real-world impact, and it is with this freedom to create that the I Got Garbage initiative was born.
 
I Got Garbage took the issue of recycling and elevated it, improving working conditions for Indians who relied on the income from collecting waste.
 
According to its website (igotgarbage.com), this initiative in Bengaluru “enables waste pickers to offer waste management services by organizing themselves into franchises and participate in online marketplaces where waste generators (households, apartments, offices) can procure waste management services. It also engages urban communities in solving the solid waste issues and facilitates access to social security schemes for the waste pickers.”
 
This approach to waste management signals a shift in the social fabric of Bangalore, using technology to enable citizens to improve their quality of life.
 
At its core, Mindtree’s I Got Garbage program has identified a problem, offered a solution, and committed to ongoing support to ensure continuous improvement. It has made waste management more agile in Bengaluru.
 
Good change
 
While I Got Garbage is removing waste in a literal sense, removing waste from the development process is at the core of how Mindtree applies agile and prescribes it for its clients.
 
The Japanese have a term to describe their productivity philosophy: kaizen. It translates roughly to “good change” and its tenets are based on the principles of continuous improvement.
 
Mindtree’s commitment to cultural transformation and ongoing improvement is manifested in the sustainable growth of not only its own business but also that of its clients.
 
Like trying to catch your own shadow, agility can be elusive if you lose sight of it. To stay on track, Mindtree has distilled their practice in three terms: curiosity, courage, and responsibility.
 
Partha says, “You must have the curiosity to learn, the courage to take chances, and the responsibility to follow through.”
 
To be sure, to say that embodying these three traits means being agile would be a simplification. Because, as so many Mindtree Minds continue to exhibit, agile is not only an achievable goal but a journey in continuous improvement.  
 
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Sources:
1
https://www.forrester.com/report/The+2015+State+Of+Agile+Development+Learn+From+Agile+Expert+Firms/-/E-RES120445
 
2
https://www.extension.harvard.edu/inside-extension/active-learning-challenges-old-education-models