Monthly Archive: April 2018

When a Manager is not Agile (but thinks he is)

Imagine you are an external Agile consultant invited to improve Scrum in a team. A product owner is a head of this department. Let’s call him Alex. Alex says a lot about self-organization and business agility and then during Sprint planning you observe this guy suppressing team’s initiatives, micromanaging, and in an aggressive manner avoiding team’s questions about business value of Sprint backlog items. It looks like Alex believes that he is Agile but enacts opposite – highly command-and-control behavior. So what should you do?

Ok, let’s talk and explain him what he’s doing wrong. Some people will start next meeting with Alex proposing some improvements. “Alex, you should be more transparent on business value of backlog items, let the team decide on “how” and focus on “why” and “what” and providing clear business objectives for each element in backlog.” They will expect Alex to open his eyes and change his behavior, or at least give it a try for a short time. But Alex gets angry, and claims that you are incompetent – he already had several agile consultants in his department, and all of them recommend the same things – the things that does not work. “All those advices could work if I had a more mature team”, Alex says – “but my team is not mature nor motivated to develop themselves. And I was hoping that you will be the one who will finally suggest something that will improve team’s self-organization.“ Someone could try to be not so direct and use “more coaching approach”. Try to ask Alex some questions that will lead him to realizing that he should change. But as soon as an inquirer has preferred answer in mind, it’s easy to get where he is arу aiming at. Alex will notice that (consciously or not), and you have the same results: anger and denial.

I have met couple of such Alexes (as many of us probably did) and spent some time thinking what can be done here. I came to the conclusion that the process-driven approach “do this, and it will make you change” will not work in situations like this – when a person at the top does not see himself as the one who needs to change. Even if you could set up some agile process, for example Scrum, you will get exactly what you can see in the example above: Alex is constantly sabotaging Scrum by micromanagement and lack of openness and trust. By the end of the day it’s all about changing a mindset, rather than just process adjustments. I have already stated in my previous post that we could (and even should) look at a science deals with such kind of changes – psychology. One possible idea of how to deal with such kind of clients I got from Carl Rogers. In “Counseling and Psychotherapy: Newer Concepts in Practice” he describes a new counseling approach. This approach has certain characteristics that are critical to a successful counseling. Rogers writes: “First is a warmth and responsiveness on the part of the counselor which makes rapport possible, and which gradually develops into a deeper emotional relationship… It expresses itself in a genuine interest in the client and an acceptance of him as a person…. He does not pretend to be superhuman and above the possibility of such involvement… The second quality of the counseling relationship is its permissiveness in regard to expression of feeling. By the counselor’s acceptance of his statements, by the complete lack of any moralistic or judgmental attitude, by the understanding attitude which pervades the counseling interview, the client comes to recognize that all feelings and attitudes may be expressed. No attitude is too aggressive, no feeling too guilty or shameful, to bring into the relationship. Hatred for a father, feelings of conflict over sexual urges, remorse over past acts, dislike of coming for help, antagonism and resentment toward the therapist, all may be expressed…. [Another] characteristic of the counseling relationship is its freedom from any type of pressure or coercion. The skillful counselor refrains from intruding his own wishes, his own reactions or biases, into the therapeutic situations…. Advice, suggestion, pressure to follow one course of action rather than another these are out of place in therapy.” By applying this traits among with some constraints a counselor allows client to express his feeling and intents openly, and by doing this a client opens his true feelings and attitudes to himself, thus being able to become aware of them. Having this awareness a client can decide what he or she is going to do about it. There is one more aspect of this approach that is crucial for success. First, a counselor does not force this awareness. He does not push client – just reflects on his feelings. This is a critical element – because bringing attention to a feeling that client is not ready to accept leads to defensive denial of that feeling and weakens (of even completely destroys) the rapport, thus inhibiting further improvements.

“OK” – you might think, “what all this has to do with Agile? We are not here to deal with clients family relationships or sexual urges!” I completely agree. But before disposing that approach (and this post) I would like to point on one additional fact. Many agileists that I’ve met have a strongly negative attitude towards command-and-control management style. We can’t hide contempt when someone says “resources”, “assigning tasks”, “status reports” and other “traditional management stuff”. Now let’s get back to the story that I described at the beginning of this article and try to connect the dots.

Alex believes that he is a nice guy, a modern manager and agileist. He probably thinks that it’s the right way of doing things, so given that he considers himself “a good manager” he suppresses command-and-control part of his personality. But one cannot just suppress part of the psyche – it will inevitably manifest itself one way or another in one’s actions. So Alex lives in a constant stress and self-deception, enacting his true set of beliefs while suppressing those beliefs. That leads him to frustration due to cognitive dissonance so he rationalizes his actions by externalizing and flipping his true attitude (thus “I am a command-and-control obsessed person” becomes “They are unable to self-organize, so I have to micromanage”). If you try to push him to acceptance of his command-and-control part, such a push creates a risk for his self-identification as a “good guy”, thus creating frustration. He is not ready to accept that part of his, so his sub-conscious part externalizing this frustration by masking it as anger towards coach. Bang! And given the described attitude toward command-and-control management one sometimes doesn’t need to say anything – this contempt is vividly displayed on his face during each interaction.
The situation that I described here is probably the worst case for any consultant: “I invited you to change them” (meaning “I am not the one who needs to change. Change the team”). Most of agileists I have spoken about such kind of situation agree that chances of success here are close to zero. You cannot force a person to change. But what if we are using a wrong tactics, pushing too far and too fast? The undirected approach to counseling described by Rogers “is characterized by a preponderance of client activity, the client doing most of the talking about his problems. The counselor’s primary techniques are those which help the client more clearly to recognize and understand his feelings, attitudes, and reaction patterns, and which encourage the client to talk about them. One half of the counselor items fall into these categories. The counselor may further achieve this aim by restating or clarifying the subject content of the client’s conversation. Not infrequently he gives the client opportunity to express his feelings on specified topics. Less frequently he asks specific questions of an information-getting sort. Occasionally he gives information or explanations related to the client’s situation. Although not the type of technique which could be used frequently, there is considerable redefinition of the interviewing situation as being primarily the client’s situation, to use for his own.” By doing this patiently enough, without pushing client too fast, counselor helps a client to recognize and accept client’s feelings, attitudes and beliefs at a client’s pace. And as soon as client accepts new facts about himself, he can start do deal with them. In order to do this a counselor must be patient, humble, and have enough compassion and self-awareness to not become judgmental about client’s beliefs. This can be hard to learn, but it is a skill, so in can be learned.

This approach has one side effect that we must be aware of. Because counceling can only be successful when it is undirective and based on total acceptance of the client, you can be confronted with a difficult choice after client’s gain insight on his beliefs and convictions. In the above example there are at least two options. A client can decide to change himself so that he will facilitate, rather than inhibit agile mindset and practices within his team. Or he can decide to accept the fact that he wants more control, and throws away the whole idea of becoming agile. This will probably have some positive effect on his organization as churn rate will probably drop as soon as manager’s declared values and actions will match (though some of current employees will leave the team). So in this scenario you can feel as if you facilitated “anti-agile transformation” of an organization. In my opinion both outcomes are rather positive. Even though the second scenario does not make that organization agile, it, at least stops feeding a myth that Scrum is just a set of rituals that do no difference. I see it as a positive change anyway.
How to implement this approach of non-directed client-centered counselling to agile consultancy? As my friend Roland Flemm says, first you need to get educated properly. But assuming you have knowledge and skills needed, what’s next? That’s an open question for me. I see that there are several constraints for this. First, this should not become a psychological treatment. This can be achieved by being constantly aware (at least by the counselor) of the fact that there is a limited set of topics that can be discussed during such conversations. Luckily enough this method does not require digging deep into psychological experiences that created this beliefs – just accepting them seems to be enough for successful counseling. Second constraint is the actual way of doing such kind of counselling. It should not be performed as an attempt to delve into the mind of a person. A possible way of achieving this is by paying attention and being truly curious about client’s feelings and beliefs. Third – you will need to have enough time for genuine conversations, so that you could build trust and help a client to reflect on his deep beliefs about how work should be done and how to manage people. You can probably agree on that upfront (while keeping in mind second constraint), so that client will be ready to spend time talking with you. Last but not least is setting clients expectations so that he will not expect (or insist on) you to give advice and guide him on what to do. A client will have to decide what to do by himself, while you may help him create a plan of how to do it.

Maybe you have used such approach running agile transformations? Please share your experience on Medium.

V for Vendetta (and A for Agile)

This post in some ways extends Why Scrum does not work (and what can we do about it).

Today I was thinking on why do I feel discouraged by many of Agile transformation stories, and a speech by Slavoj ŽižekHow To Rebel” came to my mind. In this speech he asks very important question: “What happens AFTER the populist ecstatic movement takes over from the élite?” He is talking about revolutions and says that “…the measure of a successful… social change… is how will ordinary people feel the change morning after, when things return to normal.” He discusses the famous movie “V for Vendetta”:

“Do you remember the final scene? Thousands of unarmed Londoners, they all wear the famous Guy Fawkes masks, march towards parliament. And without orders the military allows the crowd to pass. The people takes over. OK. A nice ecstatic moment. And then the film ends. But, to put it in brutal terms… I would be ready to sell my mother into slavery to see V for Vendetta part 2. What happens then? You know, it’s easy for the people to win. What happens then? … How to break out of this cycle where revolt, or whatever we call it, rebellion, is just this momentary transgression, happy moment, carnival, and then things return to normal… The true problem is daily life. That’s the really difficult to change. The ordinary daily life.”

This description is very similar to what I see in many of Agile stories. We bring something new: iterations, gamification, planning poker, all kind of inspirational talks on self-organization, and everybody feels as if it is a beautiful carnival. People are energized (at least some of them), and see it as if this is a new beginning. But then the “next morning” comes (and a that point Agile Coach usually leaves for next client). And the ordinary life still the same, nothing has changed and things get back to ordinary (while some new terms and role’s names can preserve). Repeat this process for several times and nobody would believe that change is even possible. “We have already tried Agile, and it just does not work here” attitude is a blocker for any transformation.

So the question is “What should we do instead?” For now I don’t see any answer other than “Be patient and move slow”. Stop telling those “‘A’ for Agile” stories about revolutionary change, and focus on sustainable transformations. This can look boring (and sometimes it is boring), and they probably do not sound like a good selling story. But if we aim at making this world a bit better by helping organizations to adopt Agile, we should live by Agile values before teaching others how to do this. This (among other things) mean being open and build trust. Telling truth – even if the truth is “you will need a lot of work to become Agile, not just 2-day training and a certificate” will lead to losing a contract.

What do you think about the problem of “new ordinary life”?

What Agile Coach Can Learn from Psychologist

I’ve been recently thinking about popular Agile frameworks and approaches to Agile transformation. It seems to me that they are too mechanistic, and this seems to me one of the reasons why many of transformations fail. In my previous post I wrote about situations when changes cause too much pain in organiation, and this lead to rejection of new processes (or mutation of them into some cargo cult).

A successful Agile transformation implies changing of culture, mindset and behavioral patterns. Psychology addressed the same problem (with a different goals and conditions) for quite long time, so it probably has some things that we could adapt for transformational purposes.

In his book “Counseling and Psychotherapy: Newer Concepts in Practice”, Carl Rogers (on of the most influential psychologists of 20th century) provides a set of questions that a counselor should consider working with client that play key role in selection of appropriate treatment. With a slight adaptation this questions can be used in context of Agile transformation to determine approach to change.

Is client under stress?
“One of the first observations which the wise clinician will make is the extent to which the client is in a state of tension or stress.” – Rogers writes,- “Counseling can be of help only when there is a certain amount of psychological distress arising out of a condition of disequilibrium.”

Dose this applicable for transformation? Definitely yes. If people in organization are satisfied with the way things are, change perceived as some undesirable disturbance. This will create a very strong resistance to change, making it almost impossible. But if people feel that things are not as they want then to be, if they feel that something has to be done differently – such king of stress can provide enough pain that will justify stress from change itself. “Basically the most accurate statement of this situation would seem to be that, before counseling can be effective, the tensions created by these conflicting desires and demands must be more painful to the individual than the pain and stress of finding a solution to the conflict.” That is why management scholars and smart executives emphasize importance of cultivation of sense of urgency and dissatisfaction when starting a change. Dissatisfaction and urgency create stress needed to justify (of even make desirable) pain of change.

Is the Client Able to Cope with His Situation?
“It is sometimes forgotten that any type of psychotherapy depends for its results on the assumption that if the individual is helped to reorient himself, to reorganize his attitudes in new patterns, he can meet his life adjustments more normally and with less strain, and can find healthy satisfactions in a socially approved manner.”

This question is very important for to Agile transformation. If the organization you’re helping to transform is unable to cope with new ways of working, it cannot transform. Imagine a team that customizes software developed by large company. 98% of their customizations depend on some updates from company. Software manufacturer deliver this updates twice a year in large batches. So the team spends most of their time in idle state, awaiting for new update. Cat this team get benefits from implementing small batch release policy with 2 weeks iterations? Maybe, but most of iterations will be idle (with zero releases). So such a changes will lead to frustration of team members, and will not create any benefits nor for the team, neither for a customer. Other example could be a component team working in a plan-driven environment doing Scrum. Of course they could get some benefits from improved collaboration and frequent planning. but this benefits will be limited by the fact that they have too much external dependencies to deliver every Sprint. In this case Scrum will probably bring too much overhead compared to benefits.

Can the Client Take Help?
“Another basic question which the counselor must ask is frequently phrased, “Does the individual want help?” 

Consider a situation when a top management decides that “we all need to be more Agile”, and prescribes all departments to implement Scrum ASAP. You are invited to help with this transformation within a department. But that department fells no need to change. They are fine with how things are and do not want to change anything. Or, feeling threatened by the change, team members do not want to talk about their problems. This issue, if not addressed properly, could lead to all sorts of dysfunctions and eventually failure of transformation.

Is the Client Independent of Family Control?
“Still another question which the counselor will need to consider in planning the focus of therapeutic work, particularly with the child or adolescent, is the nature of the client’s tie to his family.”

According to Rogers, “effective psychotherapy with a youngster usually involves treatment of the parent also, in order that the parent and child may jointly make those changes which will improve adjustment.” This may look odd, but replace “family” with “management” – and it will makeу sense. There are a lot of similarities between child-parent and employee-manager relationships. Consider a manager, inviting Agile Coach so that he “change all his teams to be more self-organized” and bringing exact step-by-step plan of how they should self-organize. “Change them, I am OK” is a wide spread attitude among command-and-control managers trying to increase organization’s agility. This question is to be considered regarding CEO-investor relationships – I have seen a company whose CEO was trying to make company more focused, reducing WIP projects to a handful, but the investor brought new “do-it-now-it’s-urgent” projects every couple of months, making CEOs efforts meaningless.

Is the Client of Suitable Age, Intelligence, and Stability?
“Although our information is meager, there is reason to suppose that counseling is a more appropriate and successful procedure with certain age levels and certain intelligence levels than with others.”

Information on correlation between this factors and Agile transformations of even more meager, nevertheless this question should be considered. While intelligence is (hopefully) not a problem in corporate environment, stability and age can play their role. If a team of some team members are overstressed to the point of emotional instability, they can react to change in unpredictable way, so they probably will need additional attention form Agile Coach. Same with the age – it can be challenging for a person with several decades of (relatively) successful waterfall delivery to adopt Agile Mindset.

(At least) increase you chances for success

Although none of this factors seems to be an insurmountable obstacle for Agile transformation, they all can have strong impact of effectiveness of a given transformational approach. Paying attention to those factors does not guarantee successful transformation (while inattention probably guarantees failure) but will increase the probability for success.

Why Scrum does not work (and what can we do about it)

Scrum is the most popular agile framework. Period. If we look at VersionOne 11th State of Agile report, Scrum is praciced by 58% of respondents (68% if we summ up Scrum and Scrum/XP hybrid). Among scaling frameworks Scrum although dominate: while Scrum-of-Scrums has 27% (1% less than Scaled Agile Framework), Scrum-of-Scrums, LeSS and Nexus combined have 31%. I believe that there are two main reasons for such popularity. First, Scrum is simple to understand and comes with a clear recipe – Scrum Guide. Second – it works by helping team to succeed in value-driven agile delivery.

So it looks like within a first paragraph I have reached the conclusion that contradicts my initial claim made in post heading. Well, no. Scrum really works – but only if you succeed in its adoption. I do believe that Scrum is extremely powerful, and its power emerges out of tight interconnection of Scrum roles, artifacts and practices. Its holistic nature emphasized in Scrum Guide itself: “Each component within the framework serves a specific purpose and is essential to Scrum’s success and usage.” This means that the one and only way of getting full benefits of Scrum is literally follow the Scrum Guide. This does not mean that you cannot get at least some benefits from using part of Scrum (often referred as “Scrum, But”), but a) one should not call this thing “Scrum, and b) actual results are highly unpredictable.

Why would you want to implement ScrumBut? Well, assuming that you are not ignorant, the main reason would be “It contradicts our organizations culture.” Among main challenges of Agile adoption “Company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values” is at the top (and rising) for at least 6 years with 63% last year. So in Agile (and Scrum) adoption key question is “How can we change organizational culture so that it will embrace (or at least will not contradict) Agile values and principles.” One possible answer to that question is known as  Larman’s 5th Law of Organizational Behavior: “Culture follows structure.” If you want to really change culture, you have to start with changing structure, because culture does not really change otherwise. Make people act differently, they will adapt their mindset so that this new way of doing things will be aligned with their way of thinking about their actions. This is what Scrum does (when fully implemented) – it creates a structure that forces organization to become Agile.

I believe that Scrum works exactly like that – not only changing the way of doing, but changing mindset and belief system of people involved. But (and it’s a big butt!) putting people in new environment with new rules is painful1, so as changing one’s mindset. And when choosing is between two painful paths, people tend to pick the one that associated will less pain. Or at least the one that they think will bring less pain. 2.

This leads us to understanding a key reason for Scrum failure: it just requires too much change (and too much pain) to do the Scrum. If an organization’s culture is close enough to Agile, implementng Scrum works is like magic: it will add necessary tension that will force cultural changes, leading to success of Scrum adoption and Agile transformation. But as soon as the distance between organizational culture and Agile becomes too big, enforcement of Scrum framework does the opposite. Now it’s not just structure vs culture, it’s structure vs culture and pain aversion combined. And we all know how much energy people can direct on pain aversion. So Scrum is doomed to fail, and there are basically two ways how events can unfold after that. One is stepping back to what is, claimimg that “Scrum (and Agile) does not fit our company”. The other is changing Scrum so that it won’t bring so much tension (and pain). The latter leads to all sorts of “ScrumBut”s and Cargo Cults, and in best case will lead to frustration, irritation and unproductive behavior (and in worst case it can lead organization to total disaster).

So Scrum does not work when forced on organization with poorly compatible culture. Does this imply that Scrum is bad? No. But what it does imply is that literally following Scrum Guide is not suitable for every organization, and Scrum Master has to carefully think out a way of Implementing Scrum. This could possibly mean that we do not do Scrum from the very beginning, and trying to gradually approximate our structure to Scrum, and avoiding “get it right from the first time” attitude.

This is a first of a series of posts on my perception Agile coaching, it’s challenges and faults. By no means I’m claiming that I have all the answers. Rather, I hope that by writing this (and by reflecting on your feedback) I could think through this and maybe find some plausible answer on the main question of agile coach: How to help an organization make it’s way through successfull Agile tansformation. In next post I will consider some of the questions that a Change Leader should consider designing a plan for Agile transformation.