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Teach your team to embrace change and create an Agile mindset

Change is always difficult, but never more so than trying to create an Agile mindset for the first time. Learn the secrets experts use to overcome resistance to change.

One of the biggest barriers to Agile adoption is resistance to change. It's natural for employees to resist organizational...

change; however, if leaders and change agents are well-educated on change acceptance tools and techniques, they can better understand the root cause of resistance and help to address any issues. In this article, we'll hear about patterns that can be used to foster change acceptance and create an Agile mindset from well-known authors Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns.

Fearless change

In their popular book, Fear Less: Introducing New Ideas into Organizations, Rising and Manns described 48 patterns that can be used in times of organizational change.

In their more recent book, More Fearless Change: Strategies for Making Your Ideas Happen, Rising and Manns are back with 15 additional patterns grouped in the categories of Strategize, Share Information and Seek Help, Inspire Others, and Target Resistance.

Organizations are constantly changing and leaders would benefit from becoming well versed in these patterns that will foster strong communication and help create an Agile mindset.

Patterns for Agile adoption

Certainly, change agents leading Agile adoption efforts would benefit from familiarizing themselves with all of the patterns described in Rising and Manns' books. The patterns provide a toolkit of ideas that provide guidance in how to best communicate in times of change.

I particularly like "The Champion Skeptic" pattern, which describes using opposition to your advantage.  By asking for help from your skeptics, you can turn them into an ally as you work together to address their concerns. In the article, "Real world Agile: Gaining internal acceptance of Agile methodologies," Agile leader Matt Weir voiced his appreciation for those who spoke up about concerns during an Agile transition. He said, "The skeptics were the ones who were asking the right questions and came up with some really great ideas."

Mary Lynn Manns suggested that the "Imagine That" pattern, an exercise to imagine future possibilities, would be useful in helping create an Agile mindset. She said:

I could picture the leader encouraging developers to have a discussion about the problems they are having with their current methods -- this would build some stress in the room.  Then, the leader could address their specific frustrations, perhaps by saying, "well, imagine if we could reduce development time and costs ... have continual feedback and the ability to adapt. ... etc etc"  The stress would subside and the listeners' eyes would most likely light up with a "tell me more" attitude.  This could lead into a positive discussion about Agile.  The "Imagine That" pattern can be very powerful for helping people "feel" their pain and then "feel" what it would be like if that pain could be eliminated.

Linda Rising points out that the "Trial Run" pattern might be useful for Agile adoption. This pattern, which promotes learning from results from short-term experiments, practically epitomizes an Agile mindset.

These days I talk a lot about science and experiments, so I will suggest that teams transitioning to Agile should use "Trial Run" and take an experimental approach to moving forward. This should involve being open to learning from experiments and making adjustments based on evidence. Most of the Agile "failures" I have heard about seem to be the result of someone (usually from outside the group) coming in to tell the team how things should be done -- as though it were possible to implant an Agile template across all organizations. I don't believe this works well.

Powerful patterns

When asked about a favorite pattern, the authors found it difficult to pick one, but each noted a pattern that they felt was powerful. Manns is particularly drawn to the "Emotional Connection" pattern in which communication is enhanced with empathy and feeling.

Leaders must remember that people are emotionally attached to the way they work -- it is a large part of their lives -- and if they have a lot of experience in the "old" way of doing things, they will be even more emotionally attached to it.  Therefore, cognitive arguments with a collection of facts about Agile, or any new idea, aren't necessarily persuasive.  What is more persuasive is finding ways to help people care about those facts -- by having conversations that uncover how people are truly feeling about the new idea.  Be ready -- these feelings may not necessarily be rational -- but this will allow the leader to truly address what is standing in the way of making Agile, or any new idea, happen.

For Rising, the "Fear Less," pattern (used in the title of the original book) is the one which she says has changed her most. This pattern, similar to "The Champion Skeptic," is one in which listening is emphasized and help is requested from the resisters.

I struggle to apply [Fear Less] whenever I meet someone who disagrees with me. I constantly remind myself as we dialog that my job is to discover what the other person has to teach me. If I can learn something in our discussion, then I know we can move forward together. We have seen that rational argument is never convincing, but listening and learning can help build that "Emotional Connection."

Rather than using a single pattern when leading a change initiative, it's more likely that leaders will use a variety of these patterns. Leaders will not only help their organizations build an Agile mindset, but they will strengthen relationships by listening, engaging in healthy communication, and working together to tackle obstacles and achieve their goals.

Next Steps

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This was last published in January 2016

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What exercises and strategies do you use to convince Agile skeptics?
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Find little simulated activities.  Build a tower with nothing but marshmallows and thin spaghetti.   try your hand at a mock example of a product you know a little about, but don't currently work on.

Try them as hackathons, with lots of rapid feedback.
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Isn't the key to treat the agile transition, as a lot of little experiments, change a little, a little, a little, by little by little by little?  Create an environment where we are scientists trying new ways, and that failure is not a reflection of the people, but of learning about how to make it better.  In fact I'd argue its this tendency to want to find a single wring-able neck that causes a lot of the problems.
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