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Grumpy, Descartes, Mr. Bighead, and Mr. Blasé

Your Four Enemies When Transitioning to Agile

6 February 2014

Anybody who has had to direct any form of change in an organization must have come to realize how it is about people. This has been recognized for a long time and documented extensively (see

In particular, there always seem to be some people who will resist and make it difficult.

In a report about the Agile transition at Yahoo!, Gabrielle Benefield writes, "Not everyone is willing or able to change." She also states that "10 to 15 percent of people will not like the status quo at any given time" (see "Rolling out Agile in a Large Enterprise"). And I think I can confirm this statement from my own personal experience.

So lately I've been wondering: Is there a typical profile for those people who have a hard time transitioning to Agile? Are they always the same from one organization to another? Is there a magic formula to spot them right away?

After some time trying to describe the typical profile, I recognized not one but four distinct profiles. Here's how to recognize them, and some tips to help get them on board with Agile.

Profile #1: Grumpy (Difficulty: )

Grumpy just doesn't like change because it breaks his habit patterns. Usually he has nothing against Agile per se, nor against you. Being grumpy is his own way of saying, "I need more time to understand and adjust."

Therefore eventually, most of the time, he will adhere to the changes. He might even become a real supporter. But make sure to address his concerns early on, because otherwise his grumpiness could spread and contaminate others.

  • Spend some one-on-one time with Grumpy to address his concerns.

Profile #2: Descartes (Difficulty: )

Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician. His extraordinary ability to rationalize and systematize everything gave birth to the adjective Cartesian. He appears to have quite a few followers in the engineering/development business. How is that a bad thing for us?

Well, the fact is that Agile requires us to let it go, to just start, to embrace change, and to welcome failure. These are, to an overly Cartesian mind, very difficult concepts to get. Another way to put it is that, on paper, for overly Cartesian minds, the Waterfall model looks much more natural than our incremental, iterative approach.

How do you spot Descartes in your organization? Here are some funny ways to tell:
  • He has studied math for way too long.
  • His answers to basic questions tend to be disproportionally long.
  • He collects and accumulates stuff, just in case, and never trashes anything.
I believe the Descartes I have worked with were all fundamentally good people. They all learned over time and admitted they were wrong when proven so. Therefore, the tips I can give are pretty straightforward, and I hope they'll work for you as well.
  • Don't protest when they object with "But what if . . . ?" Admit that things can go wrong or prove to be perfectible, but explain that this is the way it is meant to be.
  • When their approach fails, make sure to point it out to them.
  • Point them to some resources on the art of letting it go (just to begin with, have them read "How to be sure you've thought of everything" on Mike Cohn's blog).

Profile #3: Mr. Bighead (Difficulty:)

Mr. Bighead has seen it all. He knows best how to perform his job, he thinks you are stupid, and he'll make sure you understand that. Surprisingly, Mr. Bighead can easily be 22 years old (right out of college) or 55. Ego is a powerful thing that does not depend upon age.

When faced with new ideas brought in by others, Mr. Bighead will find himself in a sort of cognitive dissonance (see Cognitive dissonance), in the sense that he cannot reconcile the following elements:
  1. He believes he is the absolute best.
  2. New, apparently good, ideas/ways of performing his job that he didn't know of are being brought in by someone else, not by him.
While most people faced with this dissonance would naturally reassess statement #1, Mr. Bighead chooses to fight back.

  • Don't pretend to be who you're not.
  • Make Mr. Bighead realize how much he still has to learn by pointing him to some resources and people that are undeniably the best at what they do:
    • A developer who thinks his unit tests are top-notch? Point him to Roy Osherove.
    • A developer who thinks his code is as clean as it gets? Point him to Robert Martin.
    • A project manager who refuses to let go of the man-days and the Gantt charts? Point him to Mike Cohn.
    • Etc.

Profile #4: Mr. Blasé (Difficulty:)

Mr. Blasé is someone who lacks a lot in basic motivation. Overall, he has nothing against Agile, he just lacks the passion and enthusiasm to even care about it. He sets low expectations for his work and he lacks curiosity. He won't be explicitly fighting against Agile the same way the other profiles could, but his disinterest will be equally damaging to the process, and he will leave you helpless.

Sometimes you will find out that Mr. Blasé is about to retire or quit. That will make a lot of sense. But often enough, unfortunately, Mr. Blasé is here to stay.

I guess not everybody is lucky enough to have a passion and to love what they do, so I won't even blame him too much. But as long as he is getting paid, he has to make a good effort anyway, right? So how do we help him with that?

  • I'm short on tips for this guy. If he is a soft version of Mr. Blasé, perhaps, as you transition to Agile, he'll realize that the work environment has gotten more exciting and rewarding and he'll start picking up the pace. Otherwise, you will have to learn to live with him and mitigate his impact on others.
I hope this helps! Cheers.

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: 4.8 (4 ratings)


Bill Rinko-Gay, CSM, 2/6/2014 11:21:54 AM
Nice list and helpful thoughts. My one tip for Mr. Blase is to see if you can find out what DOES motivate him (hobby, perhaps?). Then see if you can find a way to make work more like that - possibly with him in another role.

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