Sixer Spotlight with Dotti Cummings
Dotti Cummings, a pioneer and true leader in the Agile coaching industry, continues to leave her mark on the growth of individuals, teams, and organizations. With nearly two decades of experience in Agile practices, she continues to advance the development of self-managed and self-organized teams. Let's learn about her journey to Agile Six and find out how she is unlocking the potential of Agile and building trust-centered teams by putting people first. Her wins may be quiet, but they are impactful as she creates a better work environment where people and teams thrive.
Q. Who is Dotti Cummings?
A. I am an Agile and enterprise-level coach, and I do a lot of coaching with individuals, teams, and organizations within Agile Six. I've been doing that for a number of years now. I started in healthcare back in the 1980s and have been working my way through clinical medicine into diagnostics and then working with informatics and software development over the years. I was introduced to Agile in about 2004. I have been practicing Agile and helping others practice Agile for all of that time, and that is almost 20 years.
Q. Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the field of Agile coaching?
A. I sort of do, yes. I'm surprised when I hear people say that, but I am one of the first. I was with a group of people, and we decided to work collectively in that way. We were able to spread that throughout the organizations that we worked in at that time. I stayed in healthcare until about 2013, outside of government contracting in the private sector. I started to work with development teams to help them to learn how to be an Agile team and to practice Agile principles and work.
Q. Tell us about your journey to Agile Six.
A. I got an inquiry through a network of people we know, and that’s how I found out about Agile Six. I was really excited because it was such a small company, and at the time I was working for a very large government contracting service. I felt like it would be nice to get back to a place where there are only a few people, and we have conversations with one another every day that talk about how we're going to be successful, because that never happens in those great big things.
Q. How do you assist teams in adopting self-organization and self-management as part of the Agile transformation process?
A. Self-organization is actually a huge part of what Agile is about. The team organizes itself around different processes and procedures that allow them to be most efficient and deliver the best value for whatever it is that they're building for the end user and their clients. When you use a framework like Scrum to practice Agile, we usually will go in and look to see how those things are being practiced because each of those ceremonies, we call them ceremonies, each of those ceremonies, has a value.
There's a reason why we expect people to come to these things, and there is an expected outcome for every single one. Coaches come in and meet people where they are. I'm sure you've heard that at Agile Six – we meet people where they are. It's the same with a coach. You walk into a coaching gig and ask where are we with this? What is the attitude? What is the practice? Then you make some observations and say, hey, I noticed that you're unable to figure out how much work you can do in a sprint. I can help you with that. There are several different ways that I can propose. Let's talk about it. So a lot of times, it's with the team itself. Sometimes it's with the person who is the delivery manager or scrum master, and sometimes it's with the product owner. It just depends on the situation. So you have to have really good observational skills and understand where things are going wrong to help people understand they can fix it.
That's what a coach is doing. I don't go in with a list and say, we have to check all these boxes, and then I will have been successful as a coach. That's not how that works. It's supposed to be I'm coming in to find out what you need and helping you all get to that place. To be honest with you, I should be working myself out of a job.
Q. What are some common challenges you've encountered while working with the teams, and how did you help them overcome their challenges?
A. I think the most common challenge is any group of people that aren't starting out as an Agile organization, to begin with, when the organization first starts. What happens is you have a hierarchy where there are leads, managers, and people telling people what to do. That's perfectly fine, but if you are going to change to an Agile situation where you expect the team to be self-organizing, those folks need to not manage and need to not lead. They need to step away and help the team figure out how to do that work. It's just a reflex that people have. They've been in a traditional management situation, and they're used to being told what to do and doing that, so that is a big change for many people.
Q. Are there any team success stories you'd like to share?
A. Success stories are quiet stories. There's no big bang. It's an evolution and something that happens quietly over time. If you were to look at a couple of the teams that I've worked with from the very beginning and I stopped actively coaching them, you'll see that the change is really within the people and the way the team works together.
There are a couple of things that do happen that you can measure, and one is that people make their commitments and meet them consistently, so they become a predictable team. That means people can say, when do you think you could get this done, and they believe the answer.
In software development, that's always been one of the biggest problems: how long will it take you? In Agile, you take small bites – for this two-week period, we will complete these things. Knowing what we know today and if we fail at that, it's only a two-week failure, not a two-year failure, like a typical waterfall project.
So one of the things you'll see is that teams get more predictable, but the other thing you’ll see is that their balance scores tend to be better. They tend to enjoy coming to work because they get to make contributions and do things that they know are the right things to do.
Q. In your experience, what are the essential factors contributing to success?
A. There has to be a desire to want to change and not change just for the sake of change. There needs to be a reason that goes back to the whole what's in it for you: you’ll be trusted to do your job. We’re not going to tell you what to do, and we're all going to be in this together and figure it out. That ability to hear what that value is and be willing and flexible enough to take the journey. It is not something that will happen overnight. People think just because we did a sprint, now we're Agile. That's completely false. It takes a team between four and eight months to become a well-oiled Agile team where they can say, yes, we know how to do this, we know our product, we know our users, and we can make decisions.
The other thing is that in almost all the frameworks that you’re going to see that practice Agile, there is a retrospective every single sprint designed to inspect and adapt your process. It's designed to result in actions that you can take for continuous improvement. The value there is that the team gets to do an assessment of themselves every two weeks at the end of the sprint - how'd the sprint go, did we meet our goals, did we get where we wanted to go, what happened with this thing? Somebody did this stellar thing, and I think we should bring that in as a practice. It really is that review that happens that provides a runway for folks to continue to get better, even without a coach.
Q. What's been the most fulfilling and rewarding part of your job?
A. The most interesting part of my job, the most fulfilling, is every day I feel like I've been able to help somebody with something.
The quiet stories are mini-wins, and I try to help people to see that for themselves: that every day you're doing something positive and making that win every day. I think that's something that a lot of people don't see. Think about what you did today. I'm sure you did something today that was a positive movement. Did something become easier for you? Did you have a light bulb moment? Is something new to you changing your world? It's just little tiny things that can have a huge impact. Especially cumulatively.
Q. What's the most challenging part of your job?
A. When people are not listening and we don’t have conversations is one. I will often say, can we not just have a conversation about this? There is a halfway point or even a baby step forward; isn't there a way? The other thing I find to be extremely difficult is that a lot of people have read a book about Agile, and a lot of people have been in situations where they think they practiced Agile, but they did not. But they don't know that. They've read the book and have been in a situation that they called Agile, and then I come in and say something different, and they say, yeah, no, that's not right.
Q. Tell us, what is Agile?
Agile is a set of principles intended to make work better by empowering the people doing the work. It's a mindset. It's a set of principles that affect the way you think about being at work. Agile is not a process. It’s a mindset. It's a cultural shift.
Q. What do you think makes Agile Six different than other companies?
A. We go after work that has a purpose, and we’re not the proverbial “butts in seats” company. We try to hire the best people that we can where they know that they're doing work that has a purpose.
Q. Which core value resonates with you the most and why? Purpose, trust, wholeness, self-management, inclusion, or all of the above?
A. All of the above, but most specifically, trust. I am Agile-oriented. I've been doing this for many, many, many, many years, and I apply it to my life. Trust is a hallmark of Agile, trusting people to do the right thing, always assuming good intent, and I trust them to do that work.
Q. How would you describe the company culture at Agile Six?
A. First of all, we're a flat organization, so we have huge trust, and that's demonstrated every day in the teams by how they operate in such a way that actually helps them to be successful individually. Nobody's telling them what to do. We support those teams by offering that foundational support, which helps everybody to move forward, and we're getting better at that. This is an evolution. People don't understand the flexibility that's built into this company. That conversation is really important that people understand that there is flexibility and that sometimes we'll get it wrong, and the important part is that we realize we get it wrong and change it.
Q. Do you think Agile Six is a better place to work?
A. I do. I think for people who want purpose in their work. This is an environment where you can contribute to actual societal problems and feel like you're a part of the world. It is evident in how people talk about how they work at Agile Six. Don't get me wrong; it's not a bed of roses. We have work to do. But that's going to be true every day. That’s never going to end.
Q. What has surprised you the most about working at Agile Six?
A. It comes down to the heart of the people who work here. I have never felt like there was a person who did not care about the work that they were doing. Not only do they have a job and get a paycheck, but this is important to them, and the heart is in it. Even at our size, we're about 70 people. To have 70 people who all have that is a kind of a miracle. To be able to find that across the entire population of this company is hugely surprising to me. I think it's very true. They care, and they want to contribute in a positive way. I just so appreciate that.
Q. We have many roles open right now because we've just been awarded some new work, which is wonderful. What would you say to someone considering a career at Agile Six?
A. I would talk about freedom, and I don't use the word autonomy because a lot of people think that means they can do whatever they want, and that's not what that means. I say freedom to be the person you are and bring the skills you have to the workplace.
But I also think understanding the flexibility you bring with you is important. There's nothing here that's written in stone. It is a conversation I have on a regular basis with individuals and with teams: just because someone said so doesn't mean it needs to be. You have to grow your flexibility. If you're looking for a place that will tell you what to do and you just get to follow somebody's direction, this is not for you.
Agile Six is a place where you can think and apply what you're thinking about and the knowledge you've gained in your experience without fear of ridicule or somebody telling you that you're wrong. We've gotten to the place where we have honest conversations every day, and you need to be able to be in that atmosphere and contribute to it. So if that's you, this is the place for you.
I've been here for four years, and what I've seen is a growth mindset. I see flexibility and willingness to see what we could do better and how we can provide a workspace for individuals to come and enjoy their lives – the whole work-life balance. We thrive on being able to say we have the best work-life balance in the industry. Talking about it is one thing, but actually doing it and seeing it evolve over time keeps me here. It is something that I so appreciate.
Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Dotti’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.