How to “Be More Agile” Without “Doing Agile”?

Eugene LaiThu, 02/28/2019 - 10:38

Recently, a co-worker whom I have been mentoring for a few weeks asked me a question that I could not answer immediately. I actually enjoy these types of situations because they challenge me to think about the situation and try to come up with a solution; in a way, it’s almost like solving a puzzle.

His question: “How do you convince someone to try Agile if they don’t think it will help them?”

My initial thought was, “Just walk away and let them come to you when they are ready to try something new.” However, after thinking about it a bit more, I asked myself: “Does it make sense to ALWAYS wait until someone is ready to change to offer advice or guidance? Wouldn’t this take a long time and result in many missed opportunities?”

Change is a tricky thing. Some people will resist change no matter what. Some will wait until there’s a critical mass before taking a risk to do something new and different. Some will go along, whether they truly believe in the cause or not. Others may do what they are told, especially if the mandate comes from a more senior member of the organization. The challenge is to motivate change and somehow form a new habit that will persist the test of time, because momentary, temporary change typically does not lead to meaningful benefit or value.

Changing human behavior is often associated with the psychology of needs, as illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy. As human beings, we all crave safety and security above all else…it is simple survival instincts. If those needs are not addressed, there is very little change we will take a risk to pursue something else. Hence, changing the mindset on how we do work is really an effort on fulfilling and reinforcing basic needs so that we feel comfortable enough to try something new and different.

To transform how we do work in the professional environment, we must also feel a sense of psychological safety in order to do things in a new way. We need to be encouraged in a positive way, to know that if we fail, it will not lead to a penalty, but actually encouraged to learn from the experience and make another attempt.

Helping teams make that transition from a resister to a champion is a giant step, but in most cases, it IS possible to build a safety net that is strong enough to encourage change to happen. There are a few tactical things that can be done to help teams cross that bridge to continuous improvement and innovation.

Interestingly, in my experience, some teams don’t need (or want) to know the details of “why” they are doing something, but just the “how”; if they can do something well and master the skill, they will see a benefit in mastery as value in itself. This means that you don’t necessarily need to train them on all the theoretical principles behind why the team will benefit from “doing Agile”, as long as you give them a new set of tools to be successful and effective in executing work. This may seem odd, but sometimes this does work. One team I worked with was resistant to this thing called “Scrum” because they didn’t understand it and were too busy to take a class. When I offered the idea of having a quick “check-in” every morning with the team, they were a bit skeptical, but receptive. I didn’t declare that “we will start doing Daily Scrums on Monday!” I simply offered the team a technique to get everyone the opportunity to get aligned on what is going on for the day and how everyone can help out another person to complete their work.

Coming back to my original story…

After a few days, I asked the team to look back on how things went and asked them to share what they liked or didn’t like about the daily collaboration events. There were some criticisms, such as too many detailed conversations that didn’t pertain to them, but there were also many comments about having better visibility into who is doing what that day. I didn’t tell them they were doing a “Retrospective”, but the team was able to reflect back on their experience to identify things that may be improved.

Sometimes the best way to encourage change is to NOT tell people they are about to change, but to give them an opportunity to try something small that might help them be more effective in a small yet meaningful way. At the end of the day, we all want to be successful and feel good about what we do, but sometimes we need to start doing it before we realize that we are actually making a change.