May 26, 2020

Agile Movers & Shakers (6): The Liberators Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem

TL; DR: The Agile Movers & Shakers Interview w/ Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem

Today we welcome Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem. Christiaan and Barry are both Professional Scrum Trainers (PST) with Scrum.org, dedicated early adopters of Liberating Structures, and co-authors of the upcoming Zombie Scrum Survival Guide.

Agile Movers & Shakers (6): Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs
Agile Movers & Shakers (6): Barry Overeem
Barry Overeem

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The Agile Movers & Shakers Interview with The Liberators Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem

Today’s interview guests are Christiaan Verwijs and Barry Overeem, the two co-founders of The Liberators. Both are Professional Scrum Trainers and Liberating Structures enthusiasts. Also, they are co-authors of the upcoming Zombie Scrum book 

  1. Please describe what you do in 280 characters

    Christiaan: We help teams and organizations all over the world release the shackles of standardization, centralized control, and traditional management practices.”

    Barry: We liberate organizations from outdated modes of working and learning. Bringing in fresh energy and creativity, we create space for everyone to be involved in shaping the future and making a positive impact.”

  2. What brought you to ‘agile?’

    Christiaan: A friend of mine started a software company. He sold solutions, I developed them. From there, it grew into a 25-person shop. We had to find some way to keep things organized, and Scrum was up-and-coming at the time. It resonated strongly with my beliefs about personal autonomy and all my prior training as a psychologist.”

    Barry: Failed software development projects. In 2010 I worked as a project manager for a web agency. I was responsible for managing software development projects. This wasn’t a success. Everyone was unhappy. Developers, because of the growing crunch-culture. Management, because most projects were not profitable. Customers, because they didn’t get their product on time, and if they did, it wasn’t the product they expected, or it was already outdated. Although we didn’t choose to work plan-driven, our approach seemed similar to waterfall. So I started searching for other approaches, stumbled on Scrum, did some more research, and made the decision: I’m going to be a Scrum Master and start my own Scrum Team!”

  3. Why do you believe that being passionate about ‘agile’ is worth your time?

    Christiaan Honestly, I don’t care about “Agile” as much as I care about people being trusted for their professionalism and being freed from oppressive forms of management. Agile is a cohesive approach for me that uses the perspective of “stakeholder value” to tap into this autonomy and professionalism of the people delivering that value.”

    Barry: In a recent Scrum.org class, a participant told me afterward that he noticed we didn’t use the word “agile” at all. He was even more surprised that we also didn’t talk that much about Scrum. Well, we did, but not about the mechanics. I’m passionate about co-creating change, unleashing everyone’s superpowers, using an empirical approach for developing products, improving team dynamics, customer collaboration, and helping teams find local solutions to persistent problems. I think that’s what ‘agile’ is about; we don’t focus on the terminology too much.”

  4. How would you characterize your way of contributing to an organization’s success in becoming agile?

    Christiaan: I’ve always been developing software to help people (users, customers, myself) solve problems. From there, a lot of what we call “Agile” makes much sense. I’ve always kept the bar of quality and being responsive high for myself and the teams I’ve worked with, while also acknowledging human factors of work like safety, team morale, and being seen. You’d have to ask my former team members and the organizations I’ve worked for, but I think that people liked that the most.”

    Barry: In a nutshell: by creating transparency, offering opportunities for inspection, and encouraging adaptation. This often painful transparency varies from how the products are built to what processes are being used and how teams and management collaborate. And how tension and conflict are being dealt with. I’ve always created a focus for myself by simply asking, “what is it that I need to make transparent today, and what are the opportunities for inspection and adaptation?”. The answer could be, “let’s create transparency around the amount of work-in-progress or how we gather feedback from our stakeholders.” Whenever organizations embraced this rhythm and actually acted on their findings, good things often started to happen!”

  5. What is in the Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem toolbox?

    Christiaan: I’m opinionated, but not in a blunt way (at least, I think). I have a pretty diverse background, from scientific training to software development and from running a company to being part of a team. So the toolbox is diverse. And I like to keep it growing too. I like doing the most by finding patterns in behavior and larger systems and then capturing that for others. On one level, that is what writing good code is all about. But it also translates into the blog-posts and podcasts we create. Less abstract tools are Liberating Structures, my training as a psychologist, and my experience as a software developer. (Which I still practice when I can.)”

    Barry: I have an educational background in journalism, teaching, business administration, and IT. For a long time, I was pretty clueless about what to do with my career and what skills and techniques I wanted to add to my toolbox. Even when my own path was unclear, I discovered that creating environments where other people can be successful is something I enjoy. Eventually, this became more tangible with being a Scrum Master, trainer, writer, facilitator, and passionate user of Liberating Structures.”

  6. Do you believe in removing yourself from a team or an organization in the long run? If so, why is that and have you done so in the past?

    Christiaan: As The Liberators, yes. I think we would’ve failed in our mission if teams and organizations come to depend on us. We want to help them build those skills. But in the work that I’ve done as a Scrum Master, there was always too much to do to make it weird to say that. Although I do feel that it’s good for people to change jobs every now and then, I don’t like making myself redundant as a Scrum Master. That feels like a sports coach who believes that her or his athlete will at some point be able to do it on their own.”

    Barry: Yes & No. As ‘The Liberators,’ we try to have our clients not to depend on us. As facilitators, we help them create a strategy, make decisions, and improve collaboration. The focus is always to help them build the skills to do it themselves next time. As a Scrum Master, I don’t think the goal should be to remove yourself from a team or organization. It can help by encouraging the team not to rely on you. But there’s always so much work to do in organizations when they embark on an Agile journey. It could be that your focus (temporarily) shifts: From team-level to multiteam-level to organizational level. But this can change continuously as well.”

  7. What has been your greatest success so far, and how did you manage to realize it?

    Christiaan: I know that this is a cheap way out, but I don’t like to talk about ‘my successes.’ All the things I’m proud of are things that were done by more people than just me. Some of the things I’m proud of are the team I worked with at NowOnline for a long time. Or the ‘Zombie Scrum Survival Guide’ that I’ve written with Barry and Johannes. I’m also proud of what we do at The Liberators, and how we’ve helped spread Liberating Structures into the Agile community. But those are certainly not ‘my successes.’”

    Barry: I consider my biggest success that I’ve always been honest with myself and stayed close to my principles and values. As a result, I sometimes had to make difficult decisions, like quit and assignment, leave an organization, or change a relationship. These were painful moments but eventually helped me grow as a human being.”

  8. What has been your worst failure so far, how did you contribute to it, and what did you learn from it?

    Christiaan: I have so many moments that I look back on with a frown. “Did you really have to put it like that?” or “Could you have been a bit more understanding?”. What most of those moments have in common is that I spoke my mind before listening. Also, I’ve frequently caused disruptions of production environments by running a bold experiment. One example is when I thought it was helpful to add a “Delete all products and orders” option to a multi-tenant webshop platform, and then accidentally tested it on the production environment. During Christmas of 2004! Thankfully, we had a recent backup. But it’s taught me a lot about contingency-planning before doing stuff on production. And about how it is possible to work until the sun comes up again.”

    Barry: Oh wow — many moments of failure cross my mind — from sending personal emails to the entire company. Mixing up the location for a workshop made me travel to the complete opposite side of the country. Using many permanent markers on whiteboards. Why don’t we just get rid of permanent markers? Spending the evening on preparing a presentation for a conference and bringing the wrong USB-stick the next day. But mostly, I can be blunt in my communication and how I provide feedback. That’s not always helpful. So I try to be more aware of it and use a more constructive approach to share my opinion.”

  9. Finally, what is your magic tool as a coach/trainer or Scrum Master?

    Christiaan: I don’t really believe in magic tools. It’s complex work, so every situation has its own tools that work best. But I’ve found Liberating Structures helpful in many of those.”

    Barry: Tingsha bells!”

  10. Which newsletters, blogs, podcasts, or Youtube channels do you follow that deserve more credit than they receive now? Any recommendations?

    Christiaan: Is it horrible to admit that I don’t read a lot of blogs? Most of what I read has nothing to do with Agility or Scrum. But I do get a lot of inspiration from other sources that I highly recommend. Radiolab, for example, is an excellent podcast that marries science with journalism. Hardcore History talks about history in a novel way. And I read a lot from a Dutch platform called ‘De Correspondent’. I think what these sources share is that they are reflective in nature. I like that. I feel a bit self-conscious about not reading a lot of blogs, by the way. I wrote a lot myself. But maybe it is also for that reason. Instead of implicitly rehashing someone else’s idea – which is impossible to some extent — I like not being too influenced. One blog I should mention is that of John Cutler. He writes a lot about product management, and he often brings a very fresh perspective on it.”

    Barry: I’m only subscribed to one newsletter: “Creative Facilitation” by Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters. They often share interesting ideas & articles about facilitation, complexity, group dynamics, etc. I don’t consume so much Agile-content. I prefer broadening my perspective by reading about history, biographies, stories of interesting organizations. This helps me not get stuck in the Agile bubble. A YouTube channel I do want to recommend is the one by ​Carsten Lutzen.​ Every week, he publishes an interesting video about coaching, Agile, or Liberating Structures.”

  11. If you could recommend only one book on ‘agile,’ which book would that be?

    Christiaan: The most influential book for me has been Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organizations.” Not a book about Agile, but about different perspectives on how people organize. The book starts with the mechanistic view, which is very familiar to me. It describes organizations as hierarchies with machine-like components (e.g., departments and siloes). But after that chapter, come many that align much more clearly with Agility. When I read that book – well before I knew about Scrum – most of the later chapters were exceptionally abstract to me. It offered perspectives like “the organization as flux” and “the organization as a hologram.” I didn’t get most of it, but it sounded very appealing. It makes much more sense to me now and helps me explain why Scrum works so well.”

    Barry: “Brick by Brick – How LEGO rewrote the rules of innovation” by David Robertson. It describes what an agile transformation looks like.”

  12. Whom should we interview next?

    Christiaan: The actual movers and shakers are the people that work in Scrum Teams daily. So perhaps it’s nice to interview a developer? William Water is someone I can highly recommend.”

    Barry: Chris Davies​ or ​Graeme Robinson, two guys that do amazing work in Australia!”

  13. Where can we learn more about you?

    Christiaan: Check out TheLiberators.com for much more.”

    Barry: Our ​Medium-page​ is a good starting point as well.”

Note: If you like to suggest a peer for an interview, please let us know by leaving a comment below. Thank you!

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Related Content

Adding to the interview with Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem, we recommend the following articles:

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