Every good agile coach has figured out long ago that the kernel of team dysfunction doesn’t lie with the frameworks (like Scrum or Kanban) but with individuals, and the interactions between them.
The hardest teams to coach to success often are those that have a pretty rigid, established view of what ‘agile’ either is or isn’t. This is pretty understandable and there can be a number of ways they could have got there, such as:
- An individual has ordained themselves as an agile expert and tried to drive change through, perhaps without the experience to really know what they are up to;
- A team or company that is somewhat isolated and has, commendably, begun a transition to agile on their own, with no external expertise sought;
- A company has been told to go agile and no-one has been sure what that means, but everyones had to pretend they know to get a good annual review.
In extremis, it’s possible to find a ‘know-it-all’ in charge, who finds petty solace in exerting a rigid rule structure by diktat. This can often just be a way of gaining control over others by means of petty perceived constraints, so the perpetrator can eke out a little credibility for themselves. Situations like this are amongst the most challenging for the coach as they are a threat to the status quo – meaning you can be on the back foot before you’ve even begun.
Seems bleak? Don’t worry!
Here are some thoughts on how to change those mind-sets and start to shift cultural change.
The world of work is full of constraints. Many real, many perceived. We all set boundaries and frameworks in which to live. It makes us human. And that’s OK because we all need some stability in order to operate effectively. An anchor point that allows us to create a frame of reference for ourselves, also gives us a perspective on others. This is needed for effective coaching.
Good coaches need to be both understanding of other people and open to new ideas. If we have a fixed mind-set, approach or method then that makes us part of the problem, and therefore ineffective.
Seek their perspective
Key to successfully helping your teams change is to try to understand the origins of their culture, and the history of why the people involved are where they are before making judgement on them.
Don’t let the biggest constraint become yourself. Empathy is a biggie. Try to find their perspective. Try to meet a diverse range of people to enrich your understanding of the reality of the situation – even if you think you know it already. Ask open questions. Listen with compassion and understanding. Be open minded. Don’t formulate your conclusions before you’ve heard people out.
Tip one: Listen. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Use them in that ratio!
2) Open the door, even just a little
The good news is that agile coaches are usually involved when an organisation recognises there is a problem that needs solving. This is an indication that someone, somewhere wants some change to take place. It might not feel like a lot, but sometimes it’s all there is to go on.
People may be suspicious about why you are there and what you are up to. If you’re an external coach, a top tip to mitigate this is to have your client contact email everyone a few days before you arrive letting them know you are coming to meet them and talk to them about how they work – and that they should come and find you to say hi. If you are part of the organisation already, don’t assume people know who you are or what you do.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step
Seemingly people don’t like change and you probably represent fear as much as opportunity to them. Just telling people what they need to do will alienate you. Once you have listened it’s plenty good enough to just say “well, I’m here to work with you to find a better way”. This does two things: it says you’re here to help, and suggests you’ll do that together. Change is less scary when people feel they have their own say in it.
Tip two: There is always a better way. Get people to agree with this and you’ve taken the most impactful step towards helping bring changes.
Once it’s understood you are there to help and that there is always a better way, you can practise what I call “unlearning”. It’s a simple philosophy:
- There’s always more than one way to get things done;
- Use the right tool for the right job;
- If a tool doesn’t exist, make one up;
- Trial and error is great – you just need to be good at it;
- Frameworks are there to be broken.
Agile is all about inspect and adapt. Getting frameworks like Scrum or Kanban “right” isn’t the end goal – the consistent delivery of good quality product is. That means that you can do what you like, how you like in order to get stuff done – the only advice being stick to the principles that underpin Lean and agile in order to do it.
Iterating on process is as important as iterating on product
By showing people and teams new techniques you are helping change mind-sets. As a coach, a key part of the role is to supply the confidence individuals and teams need to try new things and sustain he ones that work. Yes, there will be bumps in the road, but if you don’t try, you‘ll never know – so there’s never any harm in trying something new.
This simple act of trying new things helps people ‘unlearn’ the concept that how they were working before was the only way.
Tip three: try new things, little and often. If they fail, don’t worry! Just try something else.
4) Be a learning organisation
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is often credited with guiding the organisation back out of the wilderness. His philosophy is quite straight forward, you need a learning culture.
In a 2016 Bloomberg article, he is quoted as saying: “If you take two people, one of them is a learn-it-all and the other one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run, even if they start with less innate capability”.
If you have a culture where everyone feels they need to be right all the time, then you will squeeze out the ability to learn.
Encourage everyone to question everything. Are you brave enough to do this?
Celebrate new ideas by supporting them, listening to them and trying them out. Encourage people to be inquisitive, probe, suggest, attempt…in fact, you should help your team question everything about their culture and process. Only by doing this can you find new things to try out.
One of Google’s ‘five dynamics of successful teams’ is called psychological safety. This is all about creating a safe environment in which a team can feel free to learn – or unlearn. In many organisations, this takes courage as it goes against deeply established culture. To get there takes leadership, determination and focus. Without it though, you can’t help teams sustainably improve.
Tip four: be a learning organisation. Actively reward failure so people lose the fear of trying new things.
Key points to take away
- Listen – the more you understand a team, the more you can help.
- Embed the realisation that there is always a better way.
- Iterating on process is as important as iterating on product.
- Become a learning organisation. Question everything!