Coaching Case Study Part 1: How a Skeptical Team Forged Its Own Path to Agility

Most people experience an “Aha!” moment at some point during their personal Agile journey. Before then, they may struggle to understand how Agile is different or how it helps at all. Their perspective is filtered through a lifetime of trying to solve all problems and plan all work, with a preference for finishing tasks over delivering value. 

While everyone is on their own journey of discovery, theyre also trying to learn how to work together with a different, sometimes foreign, team-first mindset. Just learning to focus on “we” instead of “I” – for example, “we delivered value” instead of “I finished my tasks” – can be quite a shift. Team dynamics, like swarming and focusing on flow, sometimes seem uncomfortable. For many, Agile introduces a very different way of working and thinking. 

Given these challenges, some teams resist adopting Agile techniques, even when there is a clear desire for transformation at the executive level. Teams may not understand how these changes will benefit them. They may doubt it will work in their environment. Perhaps, they’ve had bad experiences with failed process experiments in the past. To gain benefits from an Agile mindset it’s important that leaders find a way to overcome this resistance, and it can be instructive to analyze how others have done it.  

From Agile-Skeptic to Agilists 

In 2018, a large organization engaged us to develop programs to scale Agile-related improvements. During this work, a high-profile team was brought to our attention that was delivering products but following very few Agile practices. The team of about 25 people consisted of three functional areas – engineering, R&D, and a business unit. The team had achieved early success on a highly-visible, data-intensive project, and executives wanted to invest more in the work they were doing, but they were concerned with the team’s ability to deliver predictably at scale. 

The larger organization had been on its Agile journey for about a decade, with varying outcomes across the company. This particular team had no real Agile methodology in place. Leaders believed that transitioning them to an Agile method would improve predictability and transparency, helping the organization plan more effectively. The team, however, was skeptical that Agile could work in their context, which is about building data models at scale versus customer-facing software applications or websites. We needed to help them see how Agile approaches, when adapted to their unique set of circumstances, could benefit them. 

The Challenges 

Agile transformation in organizations of any size often requires fundamental culture changes. If this goes unrecognized or unaddressed, the gap between existing culture and Agile principles often drives resistance and hinders adoption. This team was experiencing a number of these challenges. 

Many on the team had little or no Agile experience, and about half were less experienced developers that had never been members of a high-performing team, so they had no models to pull from. The team didn’t fully understand what Agile is and how its principles and practices could benefit them. And while they had adopted a few Agile techniques, the lack of a real Agile methodology meant they were missing the opportunity to gain the rapid improvement and results Agile disciplines can provide. 

Strong team collaboration – which is essential for Agile success – was also absent. The business people on the team were located in a separate building, and while they used JIRA to collaborate, they didn’t use it consistently, so a common view of work didn’t exist. The organization also had a practice of rotating newer employees in and out of teams to vary their experience, as well as a tendency to rotate experts based on the nature of the work. They brought people to the work instead of bringing work to the team, and it was preventing real team cohesion. While these practices are sometimes optimal for smaller, specialized projects, they often keep the team from building strong communication and predictability practices. We have observed that small, cohesive teams learn how to work more efficiently and can often overcome expertise deficits more effectively than a disconnected team of experts can learn to collaborate. Of course, this depends on the situation. 

Additionally, theirs was a traditional top-down – not team-driven – culture. This was reflected in their rewards structure, which incented employees for individual contributions, not as a team, leading to team resistance to collaboration if it meant impacting an individual’s success. In this case, they were optimizing for individuals instead of the whole, which is often at odds with achieving organizational goals. It also led to heroics by individuals trying to prove themselves, which often meant late hours, burn out, and less availability to the rest of the team during regular hours.  

Finally, failing fast and learning faster is part of an Agile culture, but embedded managers feared failure, which was passed on to the team. They didn’t want to risk teams making decisions they believed required greater oversight. As a result, the team was struggling to grow and feel a sense of purpose and ownership. 

Overcoming the Resistance 

The challenges we encountered on this engagement were daunting — but not unfamiliar. In the second part of this article, we’ll share details of the Agile coaching plan we executed, which had the following four key characteristics and led to a stream of small, incremental changes to improve performance, teamwork, and culture. 

  1. Working with leadership to provide transparency and create space to experiment and learn 
  2. Adopting a retrospective process and using it as an engine for change 
  3. Educating the team on the value of Agile (the “why”) while focusing on a small set of goals 
  4. Not imposing a method, but problem-solving toward a method that worked for them 

This real world scenario is continued…

Coaching Case Study Part 2: How a Skeptical Team Forged Its Own Path to Agility

As a Trusted Advisor, NeuEon helps organizations reach their high-performance goals by applying our strategic experience to your situation. To learn more about how we can help develop a strategy for your Agile-skeptical teams or assist with other structural or cultural challenges, contact us today.