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Two Problems Implementing Agile

Agile professionals and an organization’s fears

17 May 2017

Christopher Lewis
Albert Christopher Solutions

As Agile professionals, we encounter many challenges during an Agile transformation within an organization. Whether it is senior-level leadership exhibiting uneasiness about the use of Agile for project delivery or a strong-willed business analyst who refuses to write user stories instead of traditional business requirements, these scenarios will inevitably happen. The question is, how do Agile professionals move the Agile transformation forward through these obstacles?

Immunity to change

In the book Immunity to Change, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey explore the theory that people would like to make changes but tend to focus solely on the "technical" (the how: e.g., to lose weight people create a diet plan). Kegan and Lahey detail how the "adaptive" (the why: e.g., the reason I eat poorly is because of poor time management and failure to prep nutritious meals) may be the more salient reason why people want to make changes but ultimately do not or are unable to sustain changes for an extended amount of time. This is powerful to understand, because Agile methods are the technical aspect of the organizational change. For a true transformation to take place, an organization or an Agile professional must dive deeper to understand why the organization may be resisting Agile methods.

What's impeding the Agile process?

As an Agile professional, ask yourself, "What am I doing to impede the Agile process within this organization?"

In another introspective book titled The Last Word on Power, Tracy Goss details how everyone has a "winning strategy." This winning strategy is familiar because it is a guide to how people have been successful in the past, but this strategy may also be a hindrance for growth if people are not aware of its existence. Many Agile professionals have a winning strategy, and, unfortunately, the foundation of Agile principles is partly to blame and is the main reason that Agile professionals often have a one-size-fits-all mentality. It is key to maintain good Agile principles, but it is also significant to understand that organizations have a winning strategy as well, and this winning strategy may be the most significant reason why the organization resists fully embracing Agile.

The real problem: Fear of change

Albert Einstein once said, "The formulation of the problem is just as significant as the solution." This quote is important to understanding how an organization resists change. In today’s fast-paced, ever changing world, job security and explicit job responsibilities are areas of worry for many people within their occupation. Agile transformations by their very nature arouse this fear, because for many these methods are a departure from the norm and could be a threat to their jobs.

The responsibility of overcoming this fear of change lies with the Agile professional. Understanding that people fear change is not a new thought, but the truth is that people only fear change that is ambiguous or in which the outcome cannot be controlled. Agile professionals must not only wear an Agile hat but also have a deep understanding of people, which is one of the main foundations of Lean.

Deep dives to solutions

In the end, the big question is how do we, as Agile professionals, help organizations not only see the benefits of Agile but embrace Agile as an effective and efficient method to deliver value to the end user. The solution does not lie within an Agile presentation, a story mapping workshop, or a comprehensive requirement-gathering session. The solution begins with the Agile professional first realizing his or her own winning strategy and then maintaining, tailoring, or removing this strategy to help alleviate the anxieties of the organization.

In many Agile transformation projects, the Agile professional is knowledgeable and definitive, but these attributes, as already explained, can be a detriment to the organization’s Agile adoption because the professional fails to acknowledge the organization’s fear of change. The Agile professional must understand the primary problem the organization is having, which the implementation of specific Agile Scrum methods may solve. Next, the Agile professional must understand the secondary problem, which often is the set of obstacles that prevent an organization from confidently embracing and actively implementing sustainable Agile practices.

Anatomy session: The new Scrum ceremony

The Agile professional must have empathy for the organization’s fears and explicitly address these obstacles. Within Scrum, there are retrospectives that allow the team to discuss what the team would like to continue doing and what the team would like to modify to reach optimal effectiveness and efficiency. But maybe there needs to be another "reflection" meeting. A meeting or forum where the business stakeholders, possibly excluding the technical team members, within the organization can express some of the resistance they are feeling during the implementation of this new Agile process.

This new reflection discussion — let us call it an "anatomy session" — may be a new key Scrum ceremony, especially in the beginning stages of a project or the development of a new product. These sessions will be a time for the Agile professional to engage with key organization stakeholders to explicitly discuss:
  1. The main project goal, stated in their own words
  2. What currently is not happening or needs to stop happening within the project that is in direct conflict with this goal
Based on Kegan and Lahey’s analysis in their book Immunity to Change, there are two more steps that require a deeper dive: why the stakeholder views this as a conflict and what are the assumptions or consequences the stakeholder believes to be true if the why is not fulfilled. If an organization is open to exploring and taking part in these last two steps, then the road to overcoming change within Agile will be off to a smoother start. If an organization is not willing to go this deep, then the last two steps must be addressed by the Agile professional and discovered based on the information provided in the first two steps.

Once the information from the first two steps is completed, the analysis must begin. This article will not detail how to parse this information, because every project and every organization is different — but Agile professionals are special for a reason! Professionals must recognize their own winning strategy (maintain it, tailor it, or remove it), align all the stakeholder’s project goals, and then use their leadership and critical thinking skills to reduce the perceived conflicts to eliminate the fear of change within the organization.

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)


Carmine Buda, CSM, 5/17/2017 10:54:24 AM
Great article Chris! Fear of Change is a challenge in many Agile Transformations. Effective coaching and mentoring from the C-Suite level all the down the development teams is key in order for everyone to embrace the agile mindset in the organization.
Rex Lester, CSM, 5/18/2017 2:08:27 AM
I do like the idea of this new ceremony. I have often seen Scrum deliver great products, but the move to Scrum can easily go off track. Stakeholder conversations are so important in succeeding with Scrum so formalising this conversation through an Anatomy Session or sessions would help to surface and mitigate some of these stakeholder issues.

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