Joe D’Mello, who will teach the second course in the University of Chicago online two-course specialization track in agile this spring, started his career working in R&D at the prestigious AT&T Bell Laboratories. With a PhD in mathematics and extensive graduate coursework in computer science, he led several challenging R&D projects in software and product design, development, testing, and reliability. After quickly rising to the highest technical level, he was selected for the company’s leadership continuity program and took on various functional and strategic leadership and management positions. Throughout this time, however, D’Mello was aware of something that never failed to pique his curiosity.
“What I consistently noticed was that, while there were plenty of workers and managers with singular expertise in their functional areas or disciplines, what was astoundingly scarce was the skillset to work across the organization in a cross-functional way and exercise leadership that leveraged and channeled this expertise to efficiently and effectively generate results that aligned with organizational vision,” says D’Mello, who is a Project Management Institue (PMI®)-certified Project Management Professional (PMP®) and Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP®), as well as a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). “This was true for all the functions I had experience in, from R&D and finance to marketing and strategy,” he adds. “I enrolled in a top MBA program hoping to acquire that scarce skillset.”
But he discovered that the skillset he was seeking, which constitutes the core of the agile approach elaborated during his class, was not available to be learned in MBA programs. There did not seem to be a clear and efficient solution to business endeavors that involved collaborating and managing diverse teams across an organization in a cross-silo way. In fact, optimally managing work, especially knowledge work, is not even an area of study in MBA programs. (A 2016 analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve pegged knowledge workers at 48% of the US workforce, a number that will grow as automation increases.)
Struck by the oddity of such a significant lacuna, D’Mello decided to start his own company, Exequity Inc., a management consulting and training firm that focuses on enhancing clients’ execution capabilities by designing innovative and nimble approaches to getting things done.
“Having discovered that no company or organization was exempt from the challenges of blending hard and soft skills in order to get things done, I made it my life’s mission to understand why organizations invariably ignored or downplayed these challenges and often wound up with chaotic, dysfunctional, or failed undertakings,” D’Mello says. “I wanted to understand the problem and fix it!”
“Having discovered that no company or organization was exempt from the challenges of blending hard and soft skills in order to get things done, I made it my life’s mission to understand why organizations invariably ignored or downplayed these challenges and often wound up with chaotic, dysfunctional, or failed undertakings. I wanted to understand the problem and fix it!”
Once he delved into the problem, he discovered that a core reason for the sorts of confusion and dysfunction regularly experienced by organizations is the lack of understanding around how ideally to perceive, structure, and manage work. Not only did this adversely affect the attainment of organizational goals and objectives, it also resulted in employee disaffection and lowered morale and motivation. Even worse, it increased employee stress and anxiety, sometimes resulting in severe health problems and burnout.
“That’s why I knew my focus needed to center around helping organizations get things done in a way that energized the workplace and boosted employee motivation and efficiency,” he says. “Work should be an uplifting experience and, while managing projects and processes is important, other ingredients play important roles as well—such as leadership, culture, values, data, and technology. Compounding all this, of course, is the plethora of complex and often overlapping methodologies and frameworks—along with their associated certifications—that make it very difficult to get things done with clarity and élan.”
“Work should be an uplifting experience and, while managing projects and processes is important, other ingredients play important roles as well—such as leadership, culture, values, data, and technology. Compounding all this, of course, is the plethora of complex and often overlapping methodologies and frameworks—along with their associated certifications—that make it very difficult to get things done with clarity and élan.”
This sort of thinking goes to the core of D’Mello’s online course on agile, which he describes as an approach to getting things done that should ideally engage the whole organization with the goal of transforming how work is perceived, orchestrated, and managed. It is a matter of instilling across all the silos, starting at the top with senior leaders, a mindset that looks at work as a value-creating mechanism for all stakeholders. In the end, agile is an intuitive approach held together by a compelling logic, practical appeal, and convincing value proposition that weaves together common sense and empiricism while eschewing jargon-based theory.
“Too often the boundary between internally oriented work and the value-creating externally oriented work done for customers gets blurred,” D’Mello says. “Agile focuses on value-driven work and minimizing internally oriented work. If we’re innovative about work, culture, and leadership, our products and services will be innovative too.”
Structuring the course around lectures and case studies, students will discern where and how organizations typically fall short of their objectives and how an agile approach serves to improve those outcomes. With team exercises that focus on a blend of agile’s iterative, experimental approach and traditional sequential approaches, the course builds on the first class in the agile sequence by focusing on strategies and techniques that leverage the agile philosophy and its core principles in order to realize successful transformational efforts within parts of an organization or even across an entire organization.
“Agile applies to all sizes, types, and areas of organizations,” D’Mello says. “From Fortune 50s and NGOs to R&D, from construction and IT companies to ad agencies, as well as universities and government. Agile offers a way out of the value-eroding quagmire of workplace dysfunction that we have come to regard as normal. For that reason, a fluency in agile principles and techniques coupled with transformational leadership practices will continue to become more and more important in the quest to sustain competitiveness, embrace change and innovation, and cope with the disruptive forces—many of which are fueled by emerging technologies—that could potentially pose an existential threat to any company or organization.”