Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How Walmart is Going Agile with… How Many Coaches?!?

Please note that the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Walmart.

Walmart Stores, Inc. is the world’s largest retailer, a Fortune 1 company, which spans 28 countries with over 60 different banners. Many in the tech world may know about Walmart.com or @WalmartLabs, significant and important arms of Walmart’s Technology organization located in the rich technical environment of California’s Silicon Valley. What many people don’t know is that the bulk of Walmart’s tech talent lives and works in the heart of Walmart country, at their headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

There you can find thousands of associates working hard to support associates in the home office, stores, clubs, and distribution centers, as well as our customers. It’s been the hub of Walmart’s technical solutions for decades and has been subjected to many of the struggles and opportunities that other long-lived IT departments have faced, including the recent challenge to “Go Agile”. And they’re doing it!

With four Agile Coaches.

The Agile Coaches Group in Summer 2015 (with our corresponding Guardians of the Galaxy bobbleheads)
From left: Spencer Offenbacker (Product Manager); Mike Carey (author); Todd Kromann; Joshua Rowell; Amanda Tygart

Only Four Agile Coaches?

That’s right. Walmart’s Information Systems Division employs only four full-time Agile Coaches – all internal – to lead the transformation effort for thousands of associates. They serve not only those working in Bentonville; the Agile Coaches have traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, and India to help with the Agile transformation efforts in those offices. As the work of transformation continues to grow, Walmart ISD's Agile Coaches will likely travel to Walmart’s other development centers around the world in the coming years.

Mike Carey (author) with two associates from Guatemala while coaching in Costa Rica Mike Carey (author) with associates in Walmart's GTS (Global Technology Services) - Mexico office
Mike Carey (author) with more associates from Walmart's GTS (Global Technology Services) - Mexico office Associates in our GTS (Global Technology Services) - India office participating in an Open Space event facilitated by Agile Coach Todd Kromann
Todd Kromann with an associate in our GTS (Global Technology Services) - India office Amanda Tygart with associates from Walmart de Mexico y Centroamerica ISD

Walmart’s Agile Coaches are also not long-tenured positions. The Agile Coach role is viewed more as a sabbatical for those who have passion for Agile and have already garnered a reputation for assisting those around them with their transition to Agile. I know this well, because I used to be an Agile Coach. Todd Kromann and I were the first two Agile Coaches for Walmart ISD, a role I enjoyed for over a year and a half before leaving to take another position within the company. This helps ensure the working knowledge and skills of the Agile Coaches are relevant to the changing demands that come with an ever-shifting technological landscape.

The first two Agile Coaches for Walmart ISD - Mike Carey (author) and Todd Kromann - presenting at #Agile2014 At #Agile2014, from left: Mike Carey (author, 2nd Agile Coach); Barry Nicholson (3rd Agile Coach); Selena Hriz (Core Champion); Amanda Tygart (4th Agile Coach); Todd Kromann (1st Agile Coach); Subhendu Mishra (Core Champion)

Wait, so not only does Walmart only have four Agile Coaches for thousands of associates worldwide, they also rotate on a 1-3 year basis? How does that work?

With the help of Agile Champions.

What’s an “Agile Champion”?

In September 2014 we officially launched what we call the “Agile Champion Network”. We implemented the concept of Agile Champions for months prior to solidifying it into a useful structure, and found that the use of Agile Champions was invaluable to the Agile Coaches keeping their WIP in check. On September 26th we held an Open Space to kick things off, and a blog post was published on the 18th to help lay the foundation for what we were trying to accomplish. Below is a snippet from that blog post:

“The objective of this event is to crowd-source the collective intelligence and skill of our Associates to determine:

"What are the responsibilities of an Agile Champion?

"How do we identify existing and emerging Agile Champions?

"How can we better leverage our Agile Champions?

“As we've been preparing for this event, one of the frequently raised questions is ‘What's the difference between an Agile Coach and an Agile Champion?’

“I'll start by covering what they have in common. Both have a solid understanding of the Agile mindset, or what it means to ‘Be Agile’. Both are change agents who seek to increase value delivery and reduce waste. Both assist others seeking help with their personal or team Agile adoption.

“Now let's look at the differences.

“An Agile Champion is only expected to have a deep understanding of at least one facet of ‘Doing Agile’. Agile Coaches have a broad understanding of Agile practices, with depth of knowledge and experience in many facets.

“An Agile Champion assists others part-time; he or she is an active practitioner on an Agile team or project. Agile Coaches have experience as a practitioner (and we have organized ourselves as an Agile team), but our full-time job is to assist others.

“[…] The Agile Coaches have an immense responsibility for such a small team, which is why the Agile Champions are so important. The leadership and initiative of our Agile Champions take some of the load off our backlog, allowing more people to get the assistance they need. If you are interested in taking a more active role in the adoption of both ‘Being’ and ‘Doing Agile’, please plan to attend the Agile Champion Open Space next Friday.”

Out of the Open Space, it was determined that an Agile Champion should possess the following traits or skills:

  • Knowledgeable about one or more specific aspects of Being or Doing Agile and have a willingness to share that knowledge
  • Credibility in the organization
  • Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
  • Ability to demonstrate the Walmart Culture
  • Passionate, positive and enthusiastic attitude
  • Commitment to continuous learning and improvement
Agile Champions opt-in to the network, where those seeking assistance can find them and reach out. Champions register with their name, the skills with which they can help others, their location, the number of hours per week they are typically available, and a few other pieces of information. Those seeking help can search by skill and further sort or filter by any of the other attributes before selecting someone to reach out to. We currently have nearly 100 Agile Champions across half a dozen locations worldwide, all willing and able to help their peers through this journey.

Walmart Coaches and Champions at #Agile2015
Standing, from left: Amanda Tygart (Agile Coach, ISD); Amber Wright (US Agile Champion); Marc Thomsen (UK Agile Champion); Jenny Swan (US Agile Champion); Robert Moores (UK Agile Champion)
Kneeling, from left: Tony Goulart (eCommerce Agile Coach); Luis Figaro (Brazil eCommerce Agile Coach); Jerry Schroeder (US Agile Champion)
Clockwise from front-left: Mike Carey (author, Agile Coach); Arturo Robles Maloof (MX Agile Champion); Joshua Rowell (Agile Coach); Jessica Collins (US Agile Champion); Barry Nicholson (former Agile Coach, Agile Tools Product Owner); Todd Kromann (Agile Coach); Amanda Tygart (Agile Coach)
A sampling of Walmart Associates (mostly Agile Coaches and Champions) and significant others from around the world at an "ISD Remotes" dinner, hosted by the internal Agile Community

The “Revolving Door” We Love

In addition to the self-service network, the Agile Coaches keep a pool of at least six Core Champions at all times to whom they frequently pass off requests for help that they know the Champions can handle. This helps the Coaches stay focused on the work that they alone have the skills or bandwidth for. Core Champions also pair with the Coaches frequently to help build up their skills and reputation. It is from this Core Champion pool that Agile Coaches are chosen (by the Agile Coaches, not management) when one leaves to take on new responsibilities.

We know this is an unorthodox approach to such a massive undertaking, but we’re doing it and it seems to be working. Since officially starting our Agile Transformation in February 2014, the amount of work being done using Agile approaches has increased from around 10% to a projected 80%+ by the end of the current fiscal year. Our associates have gone from discussing whether or not Scrum is a good idea to how we can achieve Continuous Delivery. Our internal Agile Community has grown from 514 members to almost 1500, with dozens still joining every month.

There is no question that our success would not have been possible without our Agile Champions. Not only do they relieve some of the pressure on the Agile Coaches, they have embraced self-organization and grown in their capacity as leaders and change agents. They are showing others what it means to be a Servant Leader and help those outside their traditional circles of influence. They are empowered and it shows.

The model is simple: a small central authority (the Agile Coaches) working with a large, decentralized network of part-time "volunteers" (the Agile Champions). I highly recommend it.

This post is an attempt to take the experiment and conversation that's been run inside Walmart to the outside world. I want to hear your opinions, your ideas, your critiques, your experiences. Comment on this post or reach out to me via Twitter or LinkedIn.
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