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.

Share