The Fear of Agile Transformation

13 March 2014

The snake which cannot shed its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind. -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently I was attending a deep-dive study group that was hosted by Lisa Crispin and Michael Spayd of the Agile Coaching Institute. During our discussions, I began to think about all of the Agile transformation efforts I had participated in and what, in my opinion, seemed to be one of the deterrents to a successful Agile transformation.

What I determined was that a good percentage of people who resisted the change to Agile came from a very strong command-and-control background -- individuals who were managers at all levels, who were accustomed to being in charge and commanding people to do things, sometimes down to the task level. Not all of these people were project managers; some were senior technical leads who had reached a supervisory position and were no longer actually performing the day-to-day work.

As I spent 20-plus years of my early adulthood in the United States Marine Corps and the United States Army, I understand the command-and-control mind-set. Having spent the past 20 years in the civilian workforce, I can honestly say that I have found the military command-and-control mind-set to be far less domineering than the civilian one. For those of you who may be interested in this topic, I will discuss it in greater detail in a separate article.

Based on my participation in software development teams since 1992 and my personal transformation to Agile in 2005, I believe that fear is one of the major contributing factors behind the resistance to an Agile transformation.

Fear is an emotion that has been studied for decades. While the fear of change, also known as metathesiophobia, probably plays a major role in some Agile transformation reluctance, I believe we can't just narrow it down to one type or classification of fear alone.

People are afraid of losing control, afraid of failure, afraid of no longer being needed, etc. All of these fears, and many more, contribute to individual and group resistance to Agile transformation. Fear is a difficult emotion to deal with. Some individuals may not even be able to recognize their fears. Those that do may not want to admit that they are, in fact, afraid. In either case, these fears will be projected outward onto an antagonist (you, as the Agile coach/consultant). This is not a conscious decision. The subconscious mind knows that if the fear is to be destroyed, it needs a safe container -- you, as the antagonist, are that container.

Our world is pretty much fashioned on the idea of individual significance and success at all costs. All too often, this success comes at the expense of others. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I was taught that winning was the only thing that mattered, and that second place was not good enough. This winner-take-all mentality is evident everywhere in society. Sports teams are celebrated for their achievements, but the Most Valuable Player is given the most attention and the highest reward. In the film industry, the cast of a great film is applauded, yet only a few ever attain the most cherished and highly coveted Academy Award.

While success and individual achievement have always been highly valued in the business world, in today's marketplace it seems to have become the warrior's battle cry. It should, therefore, come as no surprise when those who have fought their way up the ladder of success and become the "best" recoil in disbelief and fear when presented with the Agile concept of team over individual.

As we know, a successful Agile transformation requires teams to work in a highly collaborative and trusting environment. Teams must possess transparency; management needs to trust the teams and the teams need to trust management.

Agile transformations occur on several different planes:
  • Individual
  • Team
  • Group/Organization
  • Geographic
  • Global
On all of these planes, there are individual and collective fears that should be considered during the initial transformation process. As Agile coaches, we must first recognize and confront our own fears before we can help others begin their transformation process. Once we have done this for ourselves, then we will be equipped to help individuals and teams.

As the Agile coaches, we should be prepared to help the individual/team to admit and identify their fears at each level/plane. We can do this by talking to them, individually and as a group. You do not have to have a background in psychology or sociology. All you need to be able to do is to listen to the conversation and discern what is based on reality and what is based on fear. Then you, as the Agile coach, can begin to help to turn the fear into something actionable. However, the coach should not tell the individual/team how to conquer their fears; you should only help them to prepare for the journey.

Consider the Agile transformation as a quest. In order to complete this quest, the individual/team must go through a dark forest. The Agile coach is not allowed to make a path through the forest but should only point to the forest and allow the individual/team to make their own path.

The forest contains experiences. However, like any quest, the individuals/teams must be prepared. This preparation starts with having the right tools and equipment and deciding what will help them along their journey. This is where, you, as the coach, will do the most work. By providing training, guidance, role playing, and exercises, you will prepare them for their quest.

Once the individual/team understands the concepts, then the quest through the forest begins. At this point the Agile coach does not walk into the forest with the individual/team but merely stands at the edge, observing and waiting for them to come back with their experiences. As each individual/team expresses these experiences, they, in turn, become coaches and help others prepare for their journey into the forest.

You may not be able to change a team, group, or an entire organizational mind-set. However, if you can affect one individual, then you can change the world. Remember, a stream starts with only one small drop of rain. Over time, that drop of rain combines with many other drops of rain -- and before you know it, they all merge as one, rocks are hewn into sturdy shores, and rivers are born.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (2 ratings)


Zach Bonaker, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 3/13/2014 2:10:54 PM
Wonderful article. Thank you, Steven! With your permission, I'd like to share it with my organization!
Dipendra Majethiya, CSM, 3/13/2014 3:38:41 PM
Excellent thought and shows your experence help to put this though nicely and effective manner.
Raju K, CSP,CSM, 3/14/2014 8:43:12 AM
Simply superb. The first line i.e. "The Snake which can't...." is an excellent starting point to set the reader's mindset towards transformation.
Ganesh Doddi, CSM,CSPO, 5/20/2014 6:54:17 AM
Very good article identifying one of the key reason for unable to fully commit for transformation.

I would like to add that Agile coach need to provide this assistance until the new mindset becomes a habit. We need to acknowledge that it takes time and persistence for a new practice to become a habit. This is especially important as these practices (agile) are not only new habits but replacing previous habits (waterfall).

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