Imposing Agile Is a Non-Starter
For years, whenever people wanted to know about my Agile coaching practice, one thing I would bring up was, “I only coach the willing.”
Sometimes they would chuckle or nod understandingly. Yet, more often, they didn’t realize why I was saying this. I’m a professional coach, wouldn’t I coach everyone?
Coaching Agile does not equal helping someone use sprints, standups, stories, and stickies. A person adopting an Agile way of working (mindset + tactics) is choosing to change, on a fundamental level, how they interact with others and accomplish outcomes. It’s the same for teams and organizations, albeit with greater complexity and challenges. Coaching Agile means supporting them in taking on certain choices and behaviours. What if they don’t want to?
Many Agile coaches have learned that they need permission from their clients (whether they are internal or external). Permission indicates that the clients’ minds are open to the coach’s support for their growth and change. Permission is session-specific, but even if clients are consistently open to coaching, willingness is a higher standard, because it speaks to motivation. And for that motivation to be meaningful and long-lasting, it has to come from within.
What I’ve said here about coaching applies even more to leadership, with an important difference. People can easily and safely tune out their coach. Their leaders, however, usually have some positional authority; ignoring them is less safe. And if a leader says to their team, “We’re going Agile!”, what choices does the team have?
In many articles and presentations, I’ve explained that Agile transformations are doomed when leaders impose tactics (usually by “rolling out” processes, practices, and tools) while changing nothing about their mind-set (values, beliefs, and principles). But wait, what if the leaders have already adopted the Agile mind-set themselves? Is that enough for getting their teams to act in an Agile way as well? While that’s certainly a step ahead, the answer, unfortunately, is no. Their teams need to be ready, willing, and able to effect this kind of deep change.
Imposing Agile on people is a non-starter as well as a violation of the first Agile value of “people before process.” Telling them it’s an option and proceeding to cajole, exhort, pressure, lecture, oblige, tempt, or encourage them to say yes are also out. So if you’re a leader and you’d love for your group to become Agile, what can you do?
A lot, in fact, and here is a pathway:
- Accept that you can’t know how the team will evolve toward Agile, if at all.
- Discuss how they work now, articulate your motivation for considering change, listen to what might motivate them, and seek to understand gaps.
- Give them framework-agnostic Agile mindset training so they understand how it differs from their current way of working.
- Listen again to their concerns with empathy and respect, and seek helpful responses together. Be genuine and transparent.
- Take your time helping people — including yourself — prepare for the journey. It can go wrong in many ways.
- Start with a safe experiment. Make it easy to undo with no repercussions. For instance, don’t change titles, reporting lines, compensation, or performance standards.
- Communicate the business needs and goals clearly. Invite the team to cocreate the first experiment.
- Support their learning and growth during the several months of the experiment.
- If you expand agility to more teams, more work, or to more of the value stream, repeat these steps.
Throughout all this, have patience, and have their backs. This is the best way I know to end up with engaged Agile teams whose ways of working fit their purpose.
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