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Coaching the Whole Person

Understanding the cynical side of human nature when bringing in an Agile transformation

1 May 2017

Ranjith Varakantam
Red Hat Inc

It is surprising that when we introduce Agile in an organization, we often find that people who were previously champions of innovation now become our sharpest critics. These people have worked hard over many years and have managed to achieve a level of performance for themselves and their teams. Their resistance probably stems from the fact they have found success and have grown comfortable with the status quo. There may also be a few underlying problems in the organization that they are acutely aware of, which we might not be privy to. Now we are asking them to risk it all by trying out something very different from what they are accustomed to or believe in.

So what do we do when we are up against strong and influential people in the organization? We can't win them over with arguments, quoting statistics, or getting pressure from higher-ups. Nor can it be a negotiation, wherein we get to bring in half-baked frameworks and processes that might prove to be more damaging than doing nothing. The intention is to find ways and means to help them become willing to take up Agile ways of thinking and working — not just in form but in spirit as well.

This is when the realization hits us that what we have signed up for is an incredibly difficult endeavor, because we are not just trying to change the way people go about their work but change their mindset. So naturally it takes a few months for the thought process to take root, and another few months before the teams start learning and performing.

Sometimes it is easy to identify these folks, as they might be quite vocal in meetings, announcing their skepticism and spelling out the reasons why Agile will not work for their division or team. Others will passively resist, quietly ignoring us and sticking to their old ways of doing things. Either way, probably by about three months into the attempt to bring in an Agile transformation, we will have a pretty good idea where everyone stands.

This is where we will need to fight with our own human nature of being cynical. This starts with having frequent conversations. These cannot be direct — we can't ask, "Why are you having such a difficult time adapting to change?" That is a surefire way of turning someone against us for good.

The question why often brings out ugliness and hostility in people. The question can be loaded with the assumption that the person is acting difficult and that there is some explanation for their unreasonable behavior. It also sounds like more or less like a rhetorical question rather than a search for genuine answers.

Instead, these conversations should sound more like, "What can we do to incrementally improve not just productivity but the capability of the team?" This line of questioning is much more conducive to getting people to open up and talk through challenges, how they personally are affected, and what they might need or do to solve the problems.

It's is equally important for us to be as open as possible in talking about the current challenges that we are facing. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a mindful and courageous step to opening up to people you work with. Usually people are willing to step up to help when someone reaches out to them; but often Agile evangelists take the tone of "fixing" the team or the organization, which invariably makes the barriers rise up. The very notion of fixing implies that something is broken. Instead, the conversation should revolve around incremental improvements.

When we learn coaching, one of the things that we are made aware is that our focus should be on helping the coachee discover solutions and nudge them in the right direction. Most people (ourselves included) are much more likely to engage with answers or suggestions that we have come up with ourselves, rather than those that are forced upon us.

We should actively encourage our teams to experiment, even if we think what they come up with are bad ideas that will end in disaster. We just need to ensure that we timebox such experiments and write down the objectives and key results. When we are totally willing to be open and experiment, they will also be willing to do the same. Sometimes we should have the courage to let people learn from trying and failing instead of just taking our word for it and following a prescribed solution.

In summary, as Agile coaches we will be a lot more effective if we embrace all facets of human nature and be willing to take the time and thought needed to slowly but surely usher in the Agile transformation.

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.

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