Tag Archives: coaching

Are leaders and the company culture the real problems to agile adoption?

Most surveys about the state of agile, point to the existing culture and leadership as the primary causes of agile struggles. But are those two, and their derivatives, really the culprits?

Isn’t it curious that our goal, as agile coaches, is to deliver value by ascertaining how best to meet the needs that are determined by the organization, and yet we consider the organization itself to be the biggest impediment to doing so. Is it possible that the problem is not in the organization’s culture and management structure but in our own assumption that there is a singular definition of value and our determination to deliver on that definition despite the organization we are trying to transform? Could it be possible that the client organization understands what is value in ways that we do not?

G. K. Chesterton in this 1929 book, The Thing, said:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody.  And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

In other words, an organization’s culture has evolved for a reason and has likely been strongly influenced by what the organization has found to deliver value in the past.

Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. ~ Edgar H. Schein

Since it’s inception, any organization has had to learn what strategies, values, procedures, behaviors, and norms work within its environment. Those that do not further the company’s mission are discarded; those that do are retained and progressively improved over time. This history of learning, by trial and error, is rarely written down but forms the basis of tacit assumptions and norms — the collected wisdom about what leads to success within the organization. What is valued by the organization, then, gets encoded in the company’s culture and their bureaucracy. To the uninformed, this bureaucracy may at first glance seem capricious, brutal, and wasteful, but it is simply a way for the organization to ensure that people pay heed to what is considered important in that organization. For example, the “burdensome” security scans, reviews, and audits in some financial institutions only point to the organization’s belief that doing right by the client is important and that their personal data must be protected at all costs or that our brand is everything to us and we shouldn’t needlessly take on risk that might harm our brand image and reputation.

The Chesterton’s fence principle applies to agile introductions as well. Again, Chesterton’s fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. Just because there doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent reason for this fence to be here doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. What this means is that Agile coaches must first come to understand those values, strategies, and goals that are embedded in the client organization’s culture.

Most agile proponents however, are far too eager to tear down what exists, without first understanding why that exists, in order to put in place what they believe is “agile” and “better.” It is the rare agile coach that takes the time to first understand what the company values — most coaches are aware of one way of doing things (insert the name of your go to agile framework here) and want to jump straight into the mechanics of implementing it. They often do this because they want to demonstrate, to the client, that they themselves are adding “value.”

The result of not heeding Chesterton’s fence is that the agile coaches frequently run into “resistance.” This resistance is chiefly due to the client management’s perception that what they value and what their concerns are aren’t being considered.

Agile proponents come in and say we should discard X and do Y instead in order to not have to deal with the negatives of the existing X.

X     |       Y
+                |
-                |

But clients believe (whether incorrectly or not) that the benefit of the agile evangelist’s point of view (Y) leads directly to a loss in what the client believes is important to her (X). In addition, they perceive that the new approach simply swaps in a different set of negatives.

What coaches could do instead, is to work together with the client to come up with a solution that explores how to get the “new” benefits without losing the benefits of the existing approach/culture. Instead of approaching the transformation in a “big bang,” where the existing culture and structure is swept away in one fell swoop, a measured incremental approach where we learn as we go might be better. Agile coaches could take an agile approach to agile adoption — drive organizational change incrementally and make course adjustments based on what they learn about the organization’s true needs and dynamics.

But clients believe (whether incorrectly or not) that the benefit of the agile evangelist’s point of view (Y) leads directly to a loss in what the client believes is important to her (X). In addition, they perceive that the new approach simply swaps in a different set of negatives.

What coaches could do instead, is to work together with the client to come up with a solution that explores how to get the “new” benefits without losing the benefits of the existing approach/culture. Instead of approaching the transformation in a “big bang,” where the existing culture and structure is swept away in one fell swoop, a measured incremental approach where we learn as we go might be better. Agile coaches could take an agile approach to agile adoption — drive organizational change incrementally and make course adjustments based on what they learn about the organization’s true needs and dynamics.

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Posted by on August 25, 2018 in Agile, Coaching, leadership


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Five Stages To Organizational Agility

Building on the previous blog post about the importance of focusing on and continually improving flow, quality, and value delivery, we can turn to the stages to achieving organizational agility. Achieving organizational agility involves deliberately improving the following (in order):

  1. Visibility
  2. Predictability
  3. Time-to-market (Flow)
  4. Value / Outcome driven
  5. Organizational Agility

All steps are underpinned by cycles of: assessing, defining the improvement strategy, training, and coaching.

1. Visibility

Visibility presupposes a culture of transparency, openness, and safety (protection from retribution and loss of reputation, health, money, and relationships). Without such a culture, you will not have true visibility and visual management will be a sham. Michael Ballé, in The Lean Manager, defines Visual Management as “seeing together, so we know together, so we can act together.” When information is hidden, people cannot see together and are likely to act in sub-optimal ways.

2. Predictability

With clear visibility you can begin to gauge and improve the predictability of your overall process. Predictability implies the ability to accurately answer, “When will it be done?” Making your processes more predictable and being able to reliably and consistently meet delivery commitments is the first step in building trust with business partners, stakeholders, and customers. Predictability can be gauged by studying Cumulative Flow Diagrams and work item completion cycle time scatter plots. These give you a baseline from which to start your improvement efforts.

It is important as a first step to regulate the arrival rate of new work to the completion rate of work by the teams. Work should not be started at a faster rate than work is completed. If it does, then you are faced with a situation of ever increasing work-in-process (WIP) and lengthening cycle times — the perfect recipe for increasing unpredictability. Stabilize the system (i.e., prevent cycle times from increasing) to have any hope of achieving the goal of predictability.

3. Time to Market (Flow)

Once you have a baseline and a sustainable stable system, you can begin experimenting with a view to increase flow and predictability. A fundamental approach is to begin by removing impediments. Use the scientific method. Determine what to improve, propose a hypothesis (an impediment to remove), plan the implementation, define expected outcomes, implement the change, compare the actual results to those expected, and then determine next steps: persevere, pivot, perish (or kill).

Improving flow (to shorten the cycle to discover ideas, develop and deliver solutions, and validate learning) can be discerned by the increasing rate of progress of work items from left-to-right on the team’s work-flow visualization board and by the lack of large buildups of work somewhere in the process. Flow is enabled by ensuring alignment around intent while granting autonomy around actions — state the goals clearly, but let teams navigate towards the goals by determining the best approach locally.

4. Value- or Outcome-Driven

While value is important, it has been mentioned fourth for a reason. If the delivery system is broken, inefficient, or unpredictable, it makes little difference what is fed into that system or in what order. With a stable, smoothly flowing, system you can now really start focusing on ensuring that you are providing the most value possible.

Improve your capability to define and deliver working solution increments that meet customer needs and solve their problems. Use a clearly defined purpose and these sequenced increments to align business, technology, and operations. You will now likely run into challenges with how funds are budgeted and allocated to projects and/or products. Having conversations with Finance about alternate approaches will now be much easier because you (IT) already have a track record of execution and predictable delivery.

Being value- or outcome-driven implies building the right thing, being focused on product rather than execution, and having the skills to figure out earlier what to make. Start with the end in mind then ask, “What experiments can be run to affect the outcomes?”, “What capabilities do we need to develop to realize the outcomes?”, and “What behaviors do we need to develop?”

5. Organizational Agility

There is a laser focus on identifying measurable goals, determining probable success factors, identifying necessary conditions for those factors to occur, and implementing a plan that helps create the required necessary conditions. Leaders are proactive in designing organizational structures, rules, and policies that enable agility throughout the organization. Agile practices have permeated the culture and have eliminated most or all of the business pain points. Finance, budgeting, HR, and governance groups are all agile and can work with agile artifacts for satisfying audit/governance needs.

Everyone understands the dictum that “Lean is not about removing waste but about problem solving towards a vision!” and without prompting continually strive to improve himself, the process, and the organization. This is also where leaders can set challenging goals for teams and help them improve via self-development learning cycles.

An Approach to Achieving the Agile at Scale

Table 1 provides a little more information on steps 2-4 discussed above for improving your organization’s ability to deliver value to customers. Over time move from Level 1 to Level 3 for the three areas: Product, Team, Management.


Table 1. Steps to realizing Agile at Scale

This journey is not easy and can easily take you a couple of years or more to become truly nimble and customer-focused. There is significant additional detail about the practices recommended and behaviors required for each of the nine cells above.


While this blog provides a high-level view of the approach we recommend, it doesn’t go into all the detail needed to move from stage-to-stage (visibility to predictability to flow, etc.), what aspects to pay heed to, and how to sell and implement the changes.

We would love to continue the conversation with you. Reach out to us if you’d like more information or if you think you aren’t seeing the business benefits you had originally envisioned before starting on your agile journey.


Posted by on February 8, 2017 in Agile


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Managing Risk on an Agile Program

Somehow, risk management is often given the short shrift when companies are transitioning to Agile. Either they create a risk register at the beginning of the project and then forget all about it, or worse, pay no heed to risk management. Neither is a good option; instead, they can use a light-weight approach to identify and manage risks.

Yesterday, I reused an old (2007) risk management presentation (Risk-Management-eBiz) at the current client and the workshop was surprisingly well received. I thought I’d share. Download the Risk-Management-eBiz PDF to follow along.

Step 1: (5 minutes)

Explain the goals of the workshop, the process that you’ll be following, and show samples of the outputs the group will be producing. Also provide a brief overview of why risk management is important.

Step 2: (30 minutes)

Get team members to identify the risks and opportunities on a handful of dimensions — the attached PDF shows the six I used but you may get more mileage by using other dimensions.

First, encourage team members to identify (without scoring, ranking or solving) as many risks as they can about that dimension. Second, ask them to identify opportunities (“good” risks or fortuitous events), for each of the dimensions, that would have a positive impact should they occur. Examples: consolidating teams geographically, forming an enablement team, getting Chief Product Owner to prioritize work requests with stakeholders, etc.

Use different color stickies for risks and opportunities (blue) to visualy set them apart. You don’t need to create the circle (as shown in the PDF), just blue tape to draw the spokes will suffice.

Step 3: (30 minutes min)

Better understand the impact and probability of the risks occuring by visualizing them in a chart. This is where you qualitatively access the impact and probability of the risks.

Step 4: Optional quantitiative analysis

Use basic quantitiative analysis to determine where the next-best dollar should be spent — compare features from the backlog with the risks to mitigate to determine what to do next: build a business feature, or reduce a risk.

Step 5: (30 minutes)

In the Risk Response Planning step decide what to do about the risks the group has identified, ranked and measured.

Inject risk avoidance, mitigation, and opportunity stories into the backlog. Without explicitly adding them into the backlog, you run the risk of the items remaining unaddressed.

Step 6: (30 minutes to create and seed the initial Risk Radar)

Use a Risk Radar to monitor & control the risks throughout the project lifecycle. Hold a weekly meeting with stakeholders, PO, SM, and management to review the risks and determine new steps. When running properly, risks are identified early and addressed before they become issues.

Risks should pop-up at the outer edges of the chart (still a few sprints away). As time passes, risks if left unaddressed move inwards and become immediate when in the inner most rung. You know there is a problem with:
– risk identification if risks just pop-up in the middle quadrant (i.e., urgent right off the bat)
– addressing risks if they continue marching inwards unimpeded

Use color coding to indicate potential severity: green signifies miminal, red severe. Also, use a foam board, if possible, for creating the Risk Radar — it makes it easy to carry to meetings. Leave some space on the right side of the foam board to (1) stack risks that have been accepted but need to be watched, and (2) risks that have been addressed/mitigated.

Note: When coaching a large program with multiple teams, I use an Excel sheet to identify teams and risk areas to focus on. The attached example Team-Risk-Monitor, is based on a conversation with Dennis Stevens from LeadingAgile. In this worksheet, any team scoring 70 or higher on any of the 6 dimensions (Column C through Column H) is flagged for follow-up/monitoring.

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Posted by on October 13, 2015 in Agile


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Our Agile #transformation is struggling without #management support — can’t we just fire them all!

While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

A significant number of agile coaches and agile zealots often portray managers as evildoers. But, how often do these agilists:

  • Practice empathy and try to put themselves in the manager’s shoes?
  • Consider the very real fears that managers have to face — fear of looking silly, fear of all their effort over the years coming to nought, fear of being sidelined, fear of taking “unnecessary” risks, fear of not delivering and looking bad?
  • Say what needs to be said without embarrassing, humiliating, or otherwise offending the manager’s self-worth?
  • Make the managers “feel felt?” Not just heard, but also being aware of and demonstrating awareness of how the managers are feeling and the emotions they are grappling with.
  • Take the time to understand what managers want, what they feel, what they struggle with, what they enjoy, what irritates them, what they fear, what pressures they face, …?
  • Realize that managers feel lost in the new world and are asking for help in making the change stick?
  • Suggest approaches that works smoothly and take a load off managers’ shoulders?
  • Spend time 1-on-1 with the managers to guide them in impediment removal and more importantly in creating the right structures of fulfillment?
  • Spend time 1-on-1 with the managers in co-designing a step-by-step approach versus just talking in generalities?

Not very often, I presume. It’s so much easier to point fingers than to consider your own role in exacerbating an “unseemly” situation. So is it any surprise that a potential ally is often turned off by the behavior of the change agents?

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Posted by on September 22, 2015 in Agile, Coaching


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Becoming a better listener …

Do you think you are a poor listener or do others perceive you to be one? Have you ever been told that you aren’t listening? If yes, then this blog post may help you become a more engaged and active listener.

Here are five things you can do to become better at listening:

  1. Remove distractions to permit paying full attention to the conversation. Put your phone aside and stop glancing towards your laptop. For the duration of the conversation just think that the person talking to you is the most important person in the world and deserves your full attention.
  2. Use reflective listening. Active listening involves paraphrasing what the speaker said to check clarity. Reflective listening implies that you also pay attention to emotional elements and non-verbal cues. The goal is to undertand the other, not just hear her.
  3. Genuinely empathize with the speaker’s point of view — look at things from her perspective and feel what she feels about the topic at hand.
  4. Be non-judgmental — judging or arguing prematurely is a result of holding onto a strict personal opinion. Set aside your opinions and views for a bit while only hearing and understanding the person speaking. Ask her questions to understand why she is making the statement she is — what facts is she looking at, what assumptions is she making, what unspoken beliefs are influencing her reach the conclusion she is reaching. Finally, remember that the opposite of what you know is also true. So, don’t judge others by what you believe because their perspective on reality is as valid as your own. No matter how certain you are that you’re saying or doing the “right thing”, you must humbly accept the possibility that someone who says or does the exact opposite from you might actually be doing the “right thing” as well. Imposing your values and beliefs on others is a sure way of generating resistance and antagonism.
  5. Trust that you can add value after listening (rather than doing so during listening). Let the other person speak without interrupting her.

Despite your best intentions of being a good listener, there are numerous pitfalls that can sidetrack you during a conversation. Some of these are:

  • Dreaming / Drifting off
  • Rehearsing what you’ll say in response
  • Preparing for the counterattack — planning your own defense or how you’re going to cross-examine the speaker while she’s still speaking
  • Selectively hearing only what you want to hear
  • Inability to stay on the subject and constantly changing it
  • Being overly sensitive to emotional “hooks”
  • Agreeing with everything you hear just to be nice or to avoid conflict
  • Mentally tuning out when a topic seems new or too difficult
  • Referring everything you hear to your experience
  • Assessing/prematurely judging the messenger or the message
  • Interrupting constantly
  • Belittling or discounting what you hear

Pay attention to what’s going on in your mind and catch yourself if you are getting sidetracked. If you find yourself babbling or interrupting constantly, use the acronym WAIT — ask yourself, “Why Am I Talking?” Bring your attention back to the speaker, her words, her emotions. Remember, if she doesn’t feel heard it’s a good indicator that you aren’t listening.

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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Coaching


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The ScrumMaster “3-step dance”

I like this step process that my friend Mike Dwyer (@MikeD999) introduced to me back in 2008. It clarifies the proper approach for coaches and ScrumMasters, especially those who at times are hesitant in being directive. Yes, team empowerment is good, self-organization and self-management is good, but if the team doesn’t have the skill and doesn’t understand what they are doing and why they’re very likely to fail miserably if left to their own devices. Too much choice and freedom to someone at the Shu stage of the Shu-Ha-Ri model just confuses them and isn’t an effective strategy for learning or progress.

Step 1. Lead from the front (directive) using the leader part of servant leader.
Use when the team is lost, going off the rails or about to run back into the burning barn of traditional project management. As soon as the team gets their bearings, starts being honest with themselves, or chooses not to get burned again, move immediately one step back and to the side.

Step 2. Coach from the side (mix of directive and non-directive)
Be there on the sideline giving support, offering suggestions, and providing guidance. Shift to a socratic method. Once the team gets their confidence back, take another step back, moving behind the team.

Step 3. Mentor from the rear (non directive)
Remember you are now a fireman always ready to go when the team rings the bell. When you get to the fire you’ll know which steps to take.

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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Agile, Coaching


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The opposite of what you know is also true

While watching a movie (The World Before Her) last night with my family, I was reminded of a lesson I learned the hard way when I started my coaching career. The movie was about two women from very different backgrounds — one was an aspiring model; the other a religious fundamentalist. They had very different world-views influenced by their situations and their environment. Both had a narrow view of society and how they fit in and both felt they were right in what they were doing.

Anyway, the lesson …

“Never judge anyone for the choices that they make, and always remember that the opposite of what you know is also true. Every other person’s perspective on reality is as valid as your own, so no matter how certain you are that what you’re doing is the ‘right thing,’ you must humbly accept the possibility that even someone doing the exact opposite might be doing the ‘right thing’ as well. No matter how certain we are of our version of the truth, we must humbly accept the possibility that someone who believes the exact opposite could also be right (according to their time, place, and circumstance).”

Hawkeye, Timber (2013-02-19). Buddhist Boot Camp. HarperCollins.

So what you ask? It’s important to recognize that clients are often stuck in a specific context, a set of beliefs, and a defined approach. Good coaches serve as change catalysts and help them see other plausible states while always treating them and their view points with respect (even if counter to your own).

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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Coaching


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