Adopting Agile: Seeing is Believing

November 21, 2012

As Wikipedia states, “change management is an approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state.” The challenge is that at both a personal and organizational level, people have underlying beliefs about what it takes to be successful. For change to stick, people must be open to new experiences and new ways of looking at things, to use these new experiences to explore their beliefs and to change what they believe.

Our beliefs are shaped from past experience, and this is where we all need to be talking as agile is introduced into organizations. Resistance is encountered because agile is (in many cases) asking people to try something new that goes against what they believe is necessary to succeed in the first place. A couple of quotes come to mind (I’m paraphrasing a couple of common ones that I’ve frequently heard):

“We can’t deliver software without performing thorough, rigorous planning up front.”

“We can’t design [the user interface, the architecture, the database] without understanding the full requirements up front.”

I’m sure that you can think of many others!

A useful model for affecting change is The Results Pyramid. This same model was developed independently by Tom Smith and Roger Connors (and presented in their book, Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results) and Dan Mezick, covered in his recent book, The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager (Dan's version adds a couple of layers, including Values and Principles):

Working from the bottom up, consider how The Results Pyramid provides a structure for talking about and dealing with change:

Experiences: What we see, feel, and hear.

Beliefs: Assumptions about how things work, informed and guided by our experiences.

Values: As we experience the world and develop beliefs, we come to value certain things. If we believe in predictable results, for example, we value the process of planning.

Principles: These are rules of thumb that are aligned with our values and provide a link between our values and our actions (behaviors). As Dan says, “the principle honesty is the best policy links values to behavior. “

Actions: These are behaviors, and our behavior is usually in alignment with our values.

Results: The results we get from our behavior, which at the foundation are built from our experiences and beliefs developed from those experiences.

Finally, our results are returned as an experience, which either reinforces our existing beliefs or surprises us because something occurred that was inconsistent with our beliefs. That’s what we’re striving to do with many agile adoptions, to get people to try some new things – to behave differently – in small steps to drive different results that provide them with new experiences which allow them to evaluate their beliefs, and affect lasting change.

If beliefs aren’t changed you are risking a failed agile adoption, or at the very least inviting a watered-down implementation – like executing the Scrum framework as a mini-waterfall process instead of a highly collaborative endeavor where people are sharing the work, combining tasks and working outside of their roles when required. We all know that we can’t achieve new and different results by thinking and operating in the same way, but it’s easy to fall back to what we have experience with and believe in.

As the old saying goes: seeing is believing. When it comes to agile adoptions and changing beliefs, change is best taken in small steps using a consistent effort over time so that people have time to come to grips with any changes to their beliefs.