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Why Teams Fail During Agile Transformation

12 December 2014

When an organization or team initiates the transformation into Agile, the sudden changes are not easy on anyone. The main reason is that everyone has adjusted to the existing system and knows it inside out. The behavior of the individual has also adapted to the system.

So the change of mind-set is a primary focus that is emphasized when undergoing any transformation. It's the change that everyone has to condition themselves to. This means unlearning your old ways and developing new ones. data-cke-saved-name=habt+formation.jpg name=habt+formation.jpg

Opposition during the transformation is normal and can come from the organizational heroes who feel threatened that, with the collective empowerment of the team, they will lose visibility and power within the team and the organization. The naysayers and laggards will also tend not to want the change. The best way to handle scenarios like this is to make sure those in opposition don't feel threatened by the upcoming changes and that queries are answered more than once. When these people finally calm down, they will eventually open up a line of communication.

The trainings, the coaching, and the constant presence of a coach ensure that the team is picking up the right cues and adopting the new mind-set. However, in most cases, sprint after sprint, you will see that some teams will always fail to meet their sprint goals. The problem doesn't lie with the team members who, by now, are honestly doing their part and want the team to succeed. Stand-ups happen, burn-down charts are in place -- and suddenly, toward the end of the sprint, things start falling apart. No matter how many times you meet or try to resolve issues, the comeback is never 100 percent. You have failed your sprint.

The problem is, why does a good team suddenly fall apart and find itself unable to pick up the pace they had been working at?

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, talks about football coach Tony Dungy (p.33), who believed that for the team to win he needed to change the player's habits. He trained teams to ensure they played according to trained responses, given a certain situation, and not by thinking in split-second decisions. By doing so, he believed he could reduce the chances of mistakes that could cost them the match. Surprisingly, but like all teams when under pressure, they fell back into their original mode of thinking and forgot the training. Their comfort level and older habits took over the new and they lost.

Can you see the emerging pattern now?

Most teams working in the transformation model behave exactly the same way as these football players. When under pressure, teams go back to their original mode of working and resorting to an external reason to justify any failure instead of introspecting and resolving problems as a team. Also when under pressure, the team members start thinking individually instead of collectively, as they want to come up with their own defense regarding why things went wrong, and they want to show that they are not to blame because they completed their task.

The way to get around this is probably not more training but figuring out what triggers the individual behavior. The state of disorder that happens in the team during moments of crisis can also be found in the Cynefin model (the fifth state). When teams go back to their entrenched thinking, little can be done to stop it. That's why reinstating the new habit over and over again is a way to get it embedded in the team's way of thinking while going through the transformation.

The team that behaves collectively has a lesser chance of failing in an Agile transformation than teams who are just a collection of individuals acting individually. The reason the transformation, especially into Agile, starts with a set of ceremonies like the stand-ups is because that's the cue for the daily transformation that the team will participate in. When the day starts with the stand-up, it's easier for the rest to follow -- the reward obviously being the completion of a user story and the updating of the burn-down chart.

Any Agile transformation that is successful is probably one that has instilled the new habits within the team members. By doing the right things every day, they make it easier on themselves than do the teams who sometimes hold stand-ups and sometimes don't. It's similar to those who have begun exercising recently: If you can do it every day, chances are you will maintain the new habit. If you don't, you will slip back and end up including exercise, again, into your resolutions for next year. The successful "next year" never comes.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they engaged in the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt. She found that, on average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic -- 66 days, to be exact. So, expect a 66-day period before teams will automatically follow the Agile ceremonies and work accordingly.

The composition of the teams is also one of the factors in team behavior. There are very few organizations that will place a new member based just on the team composition or personality type. Teams that have majority of Type A personalities who are goal oriented and impatient and who thrive on success will not wait for the rest to catch up. In most cases the team members will have a tendency to work individually. They will take on more responsibility than they can chew, perhaps overworking in order to get things done. With the imbalance in the team and other members feeling left out, the team might spiral down because of a lack of inspiration and of a collective sense of achievement.

The way out would be to discourage hero-worshipping within teams as much as possible, and to identify these patterns when they begin. The ScrumMaster and/or the coach need to watch for this tendency and handle it sooner rather than later. Try to discourage one team member from taking a big chunk of the interesting work and leaving the routine work to the others. By allowing every member to participate equally in the team's success, the buy-in of the team is much more easily achieved.

A failure of a team is a summation of minor behavioral problems that go unnoticed and uncared for. Identifying these traits early on can lead the team to success more easily.

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: 4.5 (4 ratings)


Balachandra Sekhar M, CSP,CSM, 3/7/2016 4:23:55 AM
Thoughtful & awesome article.

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