This post is adapted from Chapter 1 of Sooner Safer Happier by Jonathan Smart, with Zsolt Berend, Myles Ogilvie, and Simon Rohrer.
Focusing on “Agile,” “Lean,” or “DevOps” as the end rather than the means to an end is using old ways of thinking to apply new ways of working.
A capital “A,” capital “T” Agile Transformation, from the perspective of employees, infers involuntary, mandatory change being done to them, whether they like it or not. The capital “A” denotes how they are going to change. The capital “T” tells them they have to change. Both of these words carry baggage. They suggest extrinsic (push) rather than intrinsic (pull) motivation.
Capital “A” Agile in this antipattern tells employees that they have to be a Product Owner, Scrum Master, or Team Member. They have to adopt standups, retrospectives, stories, epics, and stickies. They must learn new jargon and become comfortable talking about velocity, story points, story mapping, planning poker, burn up, burn down, spikes, MVP, OKR, VSM, XP, CI/CD, squads, tribes, chapters, guilds, Dojo, Kata, kaizen, Obeya Room, and cumulative flow diagrams. It’s revolution, not evolution, and you don’t have a choice. Not quite as extreme as the Spanish Inquisition, it’s an Agile Imposition.
Capital “T” Transformation in this antipattern represents an imposed change. It represents a program of work with a start date and an end date when the firm will have magically and permanently transformed, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It is a top-down mandate, treated as a project like any other, with a deterministic mindset; big up-front planning with “deadlines” (that death analogy again); and an eighteen-month countdown.
In some cases, it’s a dressed-up cost-cutting exercise as a big-bang change, with a reorganization into squads and tribes, new roles, and staff layoffs. In some cases, people need to reapply for their own jobs with months of uncertainty. Are your top talent, who are able to get a job next door, likely to hang around with that degree of instability? In at least one organization that I know of, they didn’t.
Typically the response in large, old organizations is a cynical: “Here we go again, yet another Transformation program. I’ll sit tight, put my head in the sand, and wait for it to blow over.” I’ve observed some long-tenured colleagues who have developed an incredible skill and mastery in maintaining the status quo. The force is strong. For some people who are at the tail end of the job-for-life generation, and who are now in sight of their final salary pension, there is no incentive to rock the boat. Quite the opposite.
Transformation as a mandated program uses old ways of thinking to apply new ways of working. It is applying a way of working that originated in the Age of Electricity and Engineering in the late 1800s, evolved from repetitive manual labor in factories to unique emergent change in the Age of Digital. It is not applying an agile mindset to agility. To quote Martin Fowler, one of the Agile Manifesto signatories, “Imposing agile methods introduces a conflict with the values and principles that underlie agile methods.”
That conflict generates a number of emotional reactions, as I discuss next.
1: Fear and Resistance
Not surprisingly, mandated change and mandated how trigger fear and resistance. There are worries about a loss of control, uncertainty, changing habits, fear of failure, fear of incompetence, more work (“I have to do this work AND you’re asking me to change how I do the work?”), change fatigue, and “better the devil you know.”
Managers used to traditional ways of working—to a command-and-control culture in which they give orders and see those orders carried out—fear that the change will result in a loss of control. Leaders and stakeholders accustomed to a theater of control that plans each step of a project up front (at the point of knowing the least) and assumes that the future is predictable fear embracing the reality that the domain is emergent and requires experimentation. It’s easier to try to command and control the future. Leaders of role-based silos feel threatened, fearing for the empire that they’ve built and what that means for them. Everyone fears changing habits that they’re used to and are comfortable with. Even the most confident employees can suffer from imposter syndrome. There is fear that changing a system of work that has brought them to their current position will reveal an inability, a weakness, or a vulnerability.
Other fears include concerns that the change will increase workload. With an existing need to deliver value come hell or high water, people are now being asked to change how that business value is delivered with jargon like “velocity,” “sprint,” and “points.” Inertia plays a role too. For many people, “the devil you know” looks better than an agile and lean devil they don’t know.
From an evolutionary perspective, depending on the messaging of the why and depending on how the change is approached, especially for those with a fixed mindset, change drives a fear of survival. That leads to resistance and less rational thought as the primitive brain takes over: Can I change? What if I can’t adapt? Will I still be able to pay the bills?
As Robert Maurer explains in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, the problem with the amygdala and its fight-or-flight response is that it triggers alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines:
“The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity triggers some degree of fear. Whether the challenge is a new job or just meeting a new person, the amygdala alerts parts of the body to prepare for action — and our access to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is restricted, and sometimes shut down.”
2: Loss Aversion
This evolutionary fear of change is also seen in loss aversion: people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains of similar value. Studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. The fear may be an evolutionary holdover. For our ancestors on the edge of survival, the loss of a day’s food could be enough to cause starvation. The gain of additional food would be nice, but they’ve already survived. The extra food now needs to be stored and protected, and it’s not going to add years to their life. In this scenario, the implications of loss far outweigh the benefits of gains. This evolutionary tendency to avoid losses, even to obtain gains, further cements people’s desire to maintain the status quo.
3: Agentic State
Forcing change on people and dictating how they have to change creates extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. In some people this leads to an “agentic state,” in which they feel compelled to obey orders, sometimes even when they think those instructions won’t lead to the best or even morally right outcomes. They pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders.
In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began conducting a series of experiments to see whether volunteers would be willing to obey an instruction from an experimenter in a white coat to deliver high levels of electric shocks to a stranger who had answered a question wrong. In one experiment, Milgram reported that as many as 65% of the volunteers agreed to deliver what they thought was a 450-volt shock even though they feared it could be fatal.
Since then, researcher Gina Perry has been through Milgram’s notes and interviewed participants, publishing her findings in 2013 in the book Behind the Shock Machine. According to Perry, looking at the many variations of the experiment, about half the people who undertook the experiment believed that the shocks they were giving were real, and in some cases two-thirds of those refused to administer them. However, people still exhibited a state of agency, of obedience. While some people were complicit in doing something they believed was harmful, others still went through the motions, doing what they were told. They were playing their role in taking and carrying out orders from a person in perceived authority.
Be wary of generating an agentic state in people. If new ways of working are imposed with an old way of behaving, as a command-and-control order, as a dictate, allowing for some national cultural differences in obedience, the majority of people will obey the order even if they don’t believe it will necessarily result in a good outcome. I’ve come across cases where people are following orders while also wanting a change to fail. They are sabotaging it specifically by following it to the letter in order to prove their point.
A similar psychological state is “learned helplessness,” where people are frozen while waiting for the next order, due to a lack of psychological safety and a command-and-control culture. If old ways of behaving and thinking are used for new ways of working, people will not think for themselves; they will not improve; they will follow orders and wait for the next one. I’ve seen this a number of times, with teams following mandated robotic maneuvers of agile. It did not optimize for outcomes, and it is not living the values of agile and lean.
4: Removing the Top Three Motivators: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose
In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that what motivates workers today, and especially workers in the knowledge industry, isn’t the promise of financial rewards. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s model famously used a few more dollars’ salary as an incentive for manual laborers, but a couple more dollars won’t motivate today’s workers to move more lines of code. What will have people delivering better outcomes are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We all want to feel that we control our own lives, that we’re good at what we do, and that what we do matters. These are all intrinsic motivators.
When employees hear that they’re undergoing an “Agile Transformation,” at least two of those top three motivators are taken away. There is a lack of autonomy (you have to do this thing, you have no choice) and there is a lack of mastery (you’re a beginner again, possibly after a long career).
So increasing agility can feel like a big price to pay. What are people getting for that price? Why are they being asked to pay it? If the why is articulated as the achievement of cost reduction or an increase in profitability—if the reason for the transformation is only to make more money for the company, perhaps also to work themselves or their colleagues out of a job—then purpose is also removed, taking away all three categories of human motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Often, people are being forced to adopt agile or lean practices instead of being invited and incentivized to create better outcomes. As Peter Senge put it in The Fifth Discipline: “The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.”