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Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Vehicle

By Russ White and Jay Anderson

You must do this at all times or risk the peril that is associated with connection to the objects that are swiftly moving by the vehicle. People may associate this phrase with their first roller coaster ride. If I go back to the moment of my first ride and think about what I did when I heard that message, I remember being a little fearful, a little apprehensive, and a little excited. When I told this to my Dad, he said, “It will all be okay, but you won’t feel better until the ride is over. You have to experience the whole ride!”

These feelings are the same for a team of people starting to embark on the journey to Agile land. It is very important to recognize these feelings that go along with almost any change, and to realize that these fears are going to be some of the biggest obstacles to becoming an agile organization.

Let’s begin with a typical scenario. Let’s say an organization wants to be Agile. They want to improve speed of results, communication, and understanding of the product. They are not familiar with Agile—they just see it working in other organizations and they think it might work for them.

Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Vehicle This all sounds good so far…right? Well, the team starts off by asking some questions of teams that are using the scrum process, for example, to figure out if that’s something they might want to try. Sounds great! Off they go down the Agile train track, trying to use scrum. They are all excited, they are a little apprehensive, but they are sure this is going to take care of everything. They are going up the first hill…just wait!

Then fear grabs them. They are not confident they want to be on this ride, and most of all, they don’t want this ride to expose their fear. No crying on a roller coaster!

As they crest the hill of the scrum process, they realize that attending daily stand up meetings takes time. “Why do this every day?” As they go over the hill, they start to ask, ”Why do we do so much planning? Why every two weeks?” As they are picking up speed going down the hill, they are asking, “Why do we have to deliver something every two weeks?” As the team reaches the bottom of the hill, they are wondering, “Why do any of this stuff anyway?” The team is beginning to see that in order to deliver consistent results every two weeks, they have to operate differently. Problems within the structure are being exposed—problems like the commitment level of each person on the team. Problems with the social structure are being exposed. "Do I really have to worry if my team mate is getting her work done?" Problems of priority are being exposed. "Was getting on this Agile ride really necessary?"

The team is experiencing the pain of change, the fear of knowing that the problems they are experiencing are theirs to fix—they can’t blame them on anyone else. A leader has to be able to coach the team through this change process. All of these questions, fears, apprehensions, and pains to the organization will most likely come about if you begin to follow this Agile path, and if you don’t work through the pains and experience the whole ride, the excitement at the end will never be felt.

As this scenario demonstrates, one of the first and biggest challenges that Agile teams face is adapting to change. In the instance above, the Agile team is resisting process change. One of the fundamental tenets of most Agile business implementations is that of enabling and adapting to change. Changes in business priorities, customer requirements, market conditions, etc. should all be easily accommodated by your Agile environment. As such, we believe that one of the most important competencies of an Agile Ready LeaderSM is facilitating change – implementing and gaining acceptance of change within the workplace. To excel in this competency, leaders must consistently and effectively:

  • Identify and address points of resistance – Identify the specifics…exactly what’s in the way. Often the biggest points of resistance will be emotional—fear, uncertainty, confusion—opinions and feelings. These are best addressed by listening and responding with empathy. This is not to suggest coddling the team. Your job as a change agent is to cause discomfort; people don’t change and grow in a comfort zone. This is about getting to the bottom of the situation. These can be tough conversations. You should however, acknowledge both the situation and the emotions being expressed. If the resistance is rooted in non-emotional issues, then attack the core issues quickly and transparently.
  • Communicate what is changing and why – Your organization has decided to change to an Agile approach. Why? Explain the business need for change and the anticipated benefits. Provide data to illustrate both the reasons for the change and the anticipated improvements. Identify and communicate the impact of change on performance expectations and individual, team, and organizational results. Don’t cower in the face of questions and challenges. Your team doesn’t expect you to have all the answers, but they do expect you to process their questions. Collaborate with people, always be visible, make sure to interact within the organization, and be present!
  • Provide support – You need to consistently and regularly clarify the direction and the benefits of the change. Make sure the end game is clear. Constantly work to establish and specify the next incremental steps the team needs to take to make progress towards the change you’re making. Your job is not to do everything, but rather to provide resources while holding others responsible for implementing change (delegate). Explain and demonstrate how to track progress and measure the impact of the change.
  • Be the model – Your environment is changing from point A to point B. To the greatest extent possible, you must act as if you are already at point B. Agile environments require transparency—be transparent. In an earlier blog post we spoke about integrity and meeting commitments—you must demonstrate integrity. If you are a scrum master, for instance, you must attend and participate in the standups and other Agile ceremonies. And if you are a leader above the Agile teams, you must not be the HiPPO who derails the process.

Senior-level Agile Ready LeadersSM must excel at leading change. Here the leaders are driving cultural and organizational changes to achieve strategic objectives. More than just facilitating process change, these leaders are charged with transforming organizational culture. They must:

  • Identify change opportunities – You are the chief disruption officer for your organization (we mean this in the positive sense). Seek opportunities for improvement and change and mobilize resources to implement those changes. Carry a responsible message while assuming accountability for implementing improvements and change.
  • Catalyze change –  The change catalyst takes action. It does no good whatsoever to continually point out things that need to change if only other people would act. That is harmful and dishonest. It’s being a victim in a world that needs leadership. Your job is to break down barriers, both operational and cultural, to change. Create momentum by taking immediate action and encouraging others to take action to improve organizational culture, processes, or products/services. Know that these actions are not always going to deliver the desired result. That’s fine--take another action. As a leader, we believe that action trumps everything!
  • Facilitate transition – As mentioned above, organizational change is going to hurt. Your responsibility in leading change is to anticipate and understand the reactions to change. Help the organization to overcome negative reactions to change by articulating the benefits of the change, and by demonstrating sensitivity to the emotional reactions to change. Gain commitment to the transformation by involving others during the planning and implementation.

Resistance to change is perhaps one of the strongest human emotions. Likewise, cultural change is certainly one of the most challenging organizational issues that any business will face. Just like your first roller coaster ride, becoming an agile organization is full of many of the same emotions. The most important thing to remember is that you have to experience the whole ride or you’re not going to get the whole effect. For example, if you do not intentionally communicate, as in a daily stand up, then you are not going to be communicating as a team as you need to be Information will not be spreading as fast as it should.

The excitement of the roller coaster is only experienced at the end of the ride. As an Agile Ready LeaderSM, you must push teams through this dip by helping them to persevere. As a leader working to implement an agile environment, you, just like my Dad, have to ease those fears, calm the nerves, and be confident that in the end, the ride will have been worthwhile.

This is the fourth blog in a series on Agile leadership. Read more from the series:
Part 1: Becoming Agile Ready Leaders

Part 2: Agile Ready Leaders Get Their Start in Kindergarten
Part 3: Hairballs and HiPPOs - Agile's Biggest Derailers
Part 5: Agile Leadership: This is Going to Hurt

Russ WhiteRuss White is Vice President of Technology Strategy in DDI’s Global Technology Group. He and his team are experts at applying Agile management techniques to a wide range of business environments beyond software development.


Jay AndersonJay Anderson is passionate about helping people work in teams that solve complex problems. Over the past five years, he has been leading the transformation of the technology department at DDI through the application of multiple agile methods.


Posted: 17 Feb, 2017,
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