Spiraling Up Towards Agility

February 13, 2013

My last post introduced an upward spiral of change from the book Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions by John Norcross and Kristin Loberg. This spiral illustrates a progression of 5 steps related to personal change and how people iterate through those steps, progressing in a non-linear fashion. This is because Norcross and Loberg acknowledge that we’ll make small slips along the way, reverting back to old habits in small ways as we implement change.

The same process is followed as people and teams strive to become agile. They iterate towards greater agility over a period of time, undergoing continual change as they learn more about what it means to be agile and as the team collectively shifts its very thinking about work and its approach to work. And there will be slips back to old habits and ways of thinking along the way.

For example, a team might start out by learning the Scrum framework, learning how the Scrum artifacts, ceremonies and roles are designed to facilitate a self-managed team in delivering software in short sprints. As the team continues to learn and improve, they will look to add technical practices, doing so in ways that support agile thinking.

This agile thinking is expressed in how we approach work, such as combining tasks in ways that eliminate overhead and accelerate delivery without impacting quality. Creating executable specifications that describe how the software should behave along with being an actual test to validate the correctness of the software is one example. Utilizing pair programming to design and write complex pieces of software while simultaneously conducting a design and code review as the code is being written is another.

Norcross and Loberg advise us not to rush through the Psych step to get to the later steps. You need to make sure that you are mentally ready to accept making a change. And making changes in small steps is also advisable. Taking on too much change at once can overwhelm anyone, including teams and organizations that are just starting down the agile path.

When it comes to planning (the next step after Psych), and Norcross and Loberg point out that change efforts often fail because people fail to plan. Adopting agile is really about planning for what you will do next once you've decided to go agile. Will you make use of Scrum, XP or Kanban? How prepared are the people and the organization for change? How will change be managed, expectations set, and new information and learning be communicated?

An important component of planning and change is the fact that the future is not as predictable and stable as anyone would like, so be ready to revise your plan as you move forward. As Helmuth von Moltke once said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or in the case of us civilians managing change, no plan survives contact with reality as we interact and engage with others. Be flexible!

Be mindful to reward each small step taken that you take towards that bigger and better destination. In Changeology, Norcross and Loberg state that, “Most complex human behavior develops this way, be it speech, exam taking, or sports. So reward yourself for the successive small steps and then up the ante slightly: give yourself a reward, say, for walking a half mile; then give yourself another reward for going three-quarters of a mile and so on.” The takeaway for teams is to celebrate their successes! Don't let positive change go unnoticed.

And be wary of using punishment, as it can leave you feeling discouraged and feeling like a failure. If used too often, Norcross and Loberg note that punishment can, “…foster certain behaviors that do nothing to reward the positive behavior and can actually trigger a whole other set of problems.” Like causing you to avoid productive behaviors and make you more aggressive in dealing with other people.

What about addressing tough challenges or aggressive targets? We can always set aggressive targets and work towards them in a positive way. Instead of agile teams asking themselves questions such as, “What is wrong with…” (our practices, teamwork, etc.) or, “Why did we fail…” (to respond to customer demand, meet a sprint commitment, etc.) they can ask themselves things like:
  • What can we do to improve our technical practices? Our teamwork?
  • How can we improve our responsiveness to our customers?
  • Let’s understand the reasons why we missed our last sprint commitment so that the same thing doesn’t occur in the future.
The importance on focusing on the positive was proven by one study conducted by the University of Wisconsin. (Source: Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage by Colin Price and Scott Keller.) The study involved the filming of two bowling teams, where each team was given its own video to study. One team received a video that showed only its mistakes and the other received a video that showed only its successes. After watching the videos, the team that studied its successes improved its score by twice as much as the team that studied its mistakes.

So, when it comes to changing human behavior, it’s always better to focus on the positive than the negative. Heck, I recently learned that positive reinforcement is recommended for training dogs.

Another important tip from Changeology is that by the time you are in the Perspire step, you need to transition from the “rah, rah” motivational talk that is useful in the Psych step to more instructional self-talk. This applies to agile adoptions as well.

New teams that move to agile on their own accord are certainly motivated to try something new, to address the problems and shortcomings that they have most likely experienced in the past. But motivational speeches won’t help teams as they implement agile practices. They need instruction – the, “here’s what to do and why it will help you” type of talk. This is where having an experienced coach comes in handy, because being excited, motivated and committed to change will only take you so far. If you are at a loss on how to proceed, you won’t be able to sustain your change.

Finally, Norcross and Loberg tell us in Changeology that, “Virtually every research study documents the high prevalence of lapses and relapses. In our studies, 58 to 71 percent of people slip at least once in the first 30 days of Perspire. The average number of slips is a breathtaking six!” And this is with personal change.

Now consider what it takes for teams and organizations – and the friction that results as agile teams bump up against a non-agile organization – to change. Change is occurring with each individual and the collective thinking and approach to work at the team and organizational level. There will be challenges at all dimensions that will require both patience and persistence over a period of time. But it’s still worth it!