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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.

Make your meetings great (gain)

When we think about changing organizational culture, what comes to mind first is a big project, involving an enormous amount of efforts on all organizational levels. This is caused by the fact that culture is a very complex and robust system, so it is really hard to change. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy on breakfast”. When this view meets the change management mindset, that consider change as something temporary that has to be managed, this creates all sorts of culture improvement projects (most of which will fail).

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The tipping point. How small changes make big differences” introduced the idea of viewing cultural change as epidemic. These two have a lot in common: they both start with some small group of people, eventually spreading within a whole population, and they mostly have similar dynamics. This theory leads us to the idea that sometimes it’s not the scale of your changing efforts that defines the success or a failure of the change, rather it is the character of the change itself that really matters.

Continue reading…

Shakespeare’s Macbeth and agile product management

Yesterday I watched the Macbeth, a magnificent movie based on the cognominal Shakespeare’s tragedy. As described at IMDB, it’s a story of “Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself”. Besides that it is a beautiful movie (I really enjoyed it), I think that we can learn something about Agile product management form it.

If you have not read the play nor seen the movie beware — there are a couple of spoilers here. Otherwise continue reading on Medium.

Agile Courses are not Dead — Just Evolved

Jurgen Appelo’s article The Death of Agile Courses has a provocative, but fallacious title. Here is why.
Today one friend of mine, who is a business trainer and, asked me if this article really describes what’s going on in Agile world. That encouraged me to write this post.

First let’s consider qui prodest. Jurgen is “writer, speaker, developer, entrepreneur, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, freethinker, and… Dutch guy”. And he also is a founder of Agility Scales — “game app, helps people develop agile mindsets”. So the claim of an article is basically the same as his vision. This does not necessarily mean that he is wrong, but this can mean that his opinion is probably biased by what he believes in as a vision of his company. I have to admit that I am probably biased, too — part of my job is providing Agile training. So the truth is probably somewhere in between 🙂

Continue reading this article on Medium.