Interview with Vernon Rowland – Part 2

This is part 2 of my interview with Vernon Rowland.  If you missed it, you can check-out part 1 here.

So tell me more about your current work – are you focused on coaching in the 3M Dojo or are there other areas you are working on as well?

Coaching in the Dojo is my primary focus, however we’re all encouraged to find other ways to support Agile adoption at 3M. Around the same time IT adopted Agile, our Health Information System (HIS), adopted Agile. There’s a great article in Harvard Business Review about it.  Both programs adopted Agile fairly close to one another, and both had significant success with it: increased productivity, increased quality, and reduced cost. And now a team of us are working on creating the 3M Agile handbook.

Agile’s getting a lot of attention: digital marketing has adopted Agile, R&D is in the process of adopting Agile, and HR is interested in it. So it’s growing and expanding, and there are opportunities outside of IT.

I worked with an R&D product development team to put the Scrum framework around their process of product development, and that was a lot of fun. That wasn’t my core responsibility, but it’s something that we are encouraged to spread. Let’s help people understand what it is and get some champions because it’s a more effective way to to do our product development work.

Another one of the things I’m doing right now is taking a team through a “design thinking” process to look at 3M’s Product Owners, learning what their needs are, and figuring out ways we can engage and support them.

I think there’s at least two surprising aspects of what you just talked about.  To people outside of 3M, I bet a lot of them don’t realize that 3M develops software products like 3M HIS. And then inside 3M, I bet there are people who are surprised that Agile can go beyond IT and software and help people who are still trying to make stickier, stronger tape.

Yes and 3M’s work on those products will always continue. R&D has always been a significant focus for 3M, and the question they’re asking right now is, “How do we make this better? How can we do this better?” They’ve tried adopting Scrum within R&D with some initial teams and and they achieved better outcomes than they were expecting.

And it just makes sense, particularly using Scrum, when you think about what it’s meant to do.  It’s saying, “We don’t know exactly how to get there, so let’s try little experiments, and every so often let’s get feedback and figure out if we’re getting closer to where we want to go.” And so we’ve seen tremendous success applying that approach.

Were there any unexpected benefits those teams gained from that experience?

There are outcomes like accelerating product development processes, getting faster feedback, and such. But I think the big surprise for everyone is how it helps create high performing teams.   Soft benefits like team-building, team camaraderie, increased trust, and just healthier teams.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not about technology, it’s people. Breaking down barriers and helping people collaborate with one another, work with one another, trust one another – those are the big barriers that we have. Is there enough trust in the room? Is there enough psychological safety where everyone is willing and able to share their perspective and their expertise and build upon each other? The hard part is creating that sense of safety to enable high performing teams.

When you can help people overcome those issues, the other problems are simple. When you get people with multiple perspectives working together, you come up with great solutions.

I think that’s a great insight. And certainly no one would say that 3M lacks technological or scientific expertise.  You can’t walk around 3M without tripping over someone with a PhD.

Yes, we absolutely have the expertise. And 3M has a proven process that works. What we’re discovering is Agile injects those incredible additional benefits. When you create teams that are really collaborative – efficiency increases, we get results faster, and quality increases too.

If my understanding is correct, in HIS, they actually brought in Jeff Sutherland and Angela Johnson.

Yes, they brought in Jeff Sutherland and Angela Johnson, and they just had tremendous success working with them. IT brought in Cognizant, and they were there maybe a year, maybe a little longer, but then 3M IT got mature enough to say, “We can do this, we can take it now, and we’ll do all the training with our own coaches.”

We (the 3M Agile team) used to have Scrum Masters that we would give to teams to help them get started, but now we’ve staffed our team just for coaching and supporting others. Teams come into the Dojo where we provide an immersive learning experience, where they’re getting training and coaching while they’re also working right there in the Dojo so it’s not disrupting their work.

It sounds like you guys have definitely done a lot of hands on learning and are just really living it.

Our Agile leader, Mark Jorgenson, is a really smart guy who grew up doing XP, he was an XP developer. And he lives and breathes it, and is just all about helping us be an Agile organization, right now inside IT.  But he knows the value of it, and why not spread it wider?

What are you most excited about or where is most of your interest right now?

In IT, we’ve really doubled down on the focus of efficiency and effectiveness. We’re not a DevOps organization, but we’re learning about DevOps, we badly want to adopt DevOps, and we’re taking efforts into doing that, and bringing in more automation, particularly with testing.

How does this 100 year old company get savvy about DevOps? It’s one step at a time. We’re learning how and we’re seeing that there are great opportunities for increasing efficiency.

If you could go back and talk to yourself a couple of years ago when you just heard about Agile, what would you have told yourself?

Honestly, I’ve been questioning myself about why I didn’t get into software development. I wish I had experience as a developer.

That’s interesting. Can you tell me why?

If I could go back, I’d tell myself to learn more about software development, become a developer for a while, just to have that experience.

I think that would’ve helped me out a lot. Even though I understand IT and I understand the logic of the technology, I’m not a programmer at heart and I wish I had that experience.

That’s interesting, because I’m hearing you say you wish you had that experience, but not so that you could be a programmer today, but so you could be an even better coach.

Absolutely. Oh, I love being an Agile coach! I love it and it fits me really well. There’s nothing that gives me more energy than seeing a team be successful, overcoming their obstacles, figuring out how to be more efficient and effective, growing healthier, being better at communicating, treating each other better, and being better about delivering. I love that! That feeds me, and I get a lot of energy helping teams.

I just think more technical experience could only help me be a better coach. And I’ve taken classes – I’ve taken CSS and Javascript and HTML, I know some front-end development tools, and I’m learning Java on my own right now.

And maybe it wouldn’t make much of a difference. But it’d be easier to talk-the-talk if I had that experience.

That’s great!  And I’m impressed you’ve taken the initiative to make that happen – I hope it works out.  

Now the last thing I want to ask you about is actually something not related to Agile.  I know you’ve worked with both People Serving People and Project For Pride In Living non-profits.  Do you want to give a quick background on those organizations?

Absolutely. So I used to be on the board for PPL, Project For Pride in Living, and they focus on housing. They actually do lots of educational programming too. But they’re a behemoth in non-profit housing, with over $100M worth of affordable housing.

Minneapolis is unaffordable for many people, even for working professionals. And so they provide affordable housing for people, and they also do important work in supporting education.

The reason I was on that board is because about seven years ago they were celebrating their 40th anniversary, and they were looking for stories related to their history. I grew up going to one of their summer programs, and they asked me to share my story.

So after sharing my story at a breakfast, they asked me to join the board. And I was on their board for about three years.

Visit Project for Pride in Living at

People Serving People is a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, and they’re one of the shelters we stayed in when I was a child. I was in an article when I graduated with my MBA, and the CEO of People Serving People reached out to me and said, “Hey, I read your story.  We’re both St. Thomas alums (he has his MBA from there) and I’d love to meet you.”

He invited me out and asked me to join the board. It’s been incredibly rewarding to serve on it because they go beyond just providing four walls, a bed, and a meal. They’re incredibly interested in childhood development and figuring out how to keep people out of homelessness. They have this amazing focus on making sure all of their services don’t re-traumatize people.

So it’s been a great honor to be on that board and represent someone who might be in their homeless shelter. Most boards are made up of businesspeople and executives who probably don’t have the same experiences as the clients or customers of the non-profit. And I’ve been able to bring that perspective and those memories and stories of being a homeless person living in a shelter.

Visit People Serving People at

It sounds like you make invaluable contributions to that board, and I hope people reading this interview will check out both of those organizations and the important work that they do in our community.

Vernon, thanks for making the time and for sharing your story.

It’s been my pleasure.