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How to Thwart an Agile Transformation

Agile Transformation Challenges - Employee Resistance

Anthony Mersino

Wed Nov 22 2023

4:08 PM

An Agile Transformation is a program of organizational change that requires strong leadership to succeed. Those that want to resist the change can create agile transformation challenges. They do what they can to undermine and thwart the change.

One of my agile coaching colleagues recently shared a link to the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, a document published during WWII by the Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

If you haven’t read this document, I suggest you get a copy. It makes for entertaining reading, in particular, section (11) General Interference with Organizations and Production.

Entertaining but also somewhat sad because these tips for interference with organizations seem to be alive and well in many large bureaucratic organizations today.

How to Disrupt and Thwart an Agile Transformation

Here is my summary of the items in section 11 of the Sabotage Field Manual about interference in organizations. Take a look at this list of instructions from the manual and see if you have experienced them in your own organization. Are people using steps like these to undermine or thwart your agile transformation?

More importantly, consider how doing the opposite of each of these would help people and organizations to change and grow. This is what is needed for an effective Agile Transformation.

1) Follow the letter of the law

“Insist on doing everything through [proper] “channels.” Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to, expedite decisions.”

I had to laugh when I read this because it reminds me of when we coach new agile teams. Every change we propose or suggestion we make is countered with the reasons we cannot do that. People don’t feel empowered – and typically they are not!

Whether it is removing cubicle walls, moving into a conference room, or just moving people from one desk to another, there is a myriad of people to consult. It is not simple or fast as we need to follow the chain of command and make sure we get all the correct approvals.

Contrast those delays and that experience with the description of an employee move from the Valve New Employee Handbook. Valve leadership recognizes that people will frequently want to change who they work with so leaders removed the friction involved in moving people around. People are empowered and not expected to wait for permission to make the move happen.

Check out the funny diagram describing the process from that Valve New Employee Handbook shown below.

Valve New Employee Handbook - Empowered to Move Your Desk


2) Run out the clock

This is when people just keep talking to forestall any type of decision or call to action. The Sabotage Manual says:

“Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.”

Have you seen this type of behavior before? Have you found people bringing up the same arguments over and over to prevent real progress from being made?

One way to counter this behavior is to use participative decision-making tools to facilitate group decisions and encourage action.

Brainstorm ideas and then have the group dot vote to see which is the most popular. Then move the group toward decisions and actions.

3) Call a Meeting

“When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible – never less than five.”

Most of us have probably attended our fair share of meetings and many were not led well and frankly wound up being a waste of time.

Like the previous item, good facilitators will prepare agendas, keep the discussions focused, and end meetings as quickly as possible.

4) Argue without Merit

“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”

5) Wordsmith things to Death

“Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.”

Anyone who has sat through the review of a requirements document or other specification can appreciate the pain involved in the haggling over words. It hurts just to think about it.

6) Re-open Decisions

“Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.”

7) Exercise Extreme Caution

This is one of my favorites. It frequently comes up in the context of adopting Scrum when leaders suggest that we should not use it as it is, or by the book, because it needs to be tailored to fit their unique situation. It will always thwart progress in your agile transformation.

I once had a leader say his organization needed to be “pragmatic” in contrast with what he called the fanatical approach I was recommending to follow the Scrum Guide. It is all about change resistance and protection of the status quo.

“Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”

8) Act Dis-Empowered

“Be worried about the propriety of any decision – raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

For this one, I will share another counterexample from the Valve New Employee Handbook which describes how to act without a boss. This is the kind of behavior we encourage in self-organizing agile teams:

Valve Example to Support Agile Transformation

Action Steps to Overcome Agile Transformation Challenges

Now that you have read these ways to thwart progress, which do you recognize in your own organization? Is your own Agile Transformation being held hostage by any of the techniques above? What can be done? Consider taking some of the following actions.

1. Get the right people on the bus

Frequently the desire to slow progress, to haggle over words, or to re-open decisions that have already been made is limited to one or a few key people.

It may be time to get those people off the bus and invite others on the bus. Yes I said invitation. People need to volunteer – not be voluntold. It is hard, but if you want to transform, it may mean getting those people who resist out of the way so the rest of the organization can move forward.

2. Empower People

Take a hard look at the level of empowerment you have given employees and team members. Aggressively push down decision-making to the lowest level of the organization.

3. Encourage risk taking

Most organizations say that they want people to take risks but don’t create the psychological safety for it. Instead, they blame when the inevitable mistakes are made and punish failure. If you want people to be innovative, you have to create safety for it.

For more information on moving to Agile, visit our Agile Transformation Consulting page.

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