Recovering from Failing Miserably at Agile 2012

HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT” were the words sprawled across one of our feedback forms from Shaping Your Agile Adoption Path that Don Gray and I presented at Agile 2012 yesterday.

I can’t remember a time where I scheduled a 3.5 hour session and received less value.  These two instructors provided nothing – the participants did ALL the work.  The session description should have said that was the approach.  This session is a great example of why  agile gets a bad name, it felt un-planned and chaotic from the start, no solid content/insights were delivered.

This was the first time I have received bad feedback for any session I’ve done.  There were a few ‘very goods’ and ‘satisfactory’ marks but overall the average score was between ‘satisfactory’ and ‘poor’, although I didn’t calculate the exact scores.

So what happened?

Let’s start with our session description:

Adopting Agile usually involves massive change for organizations. Making matters more complex, there are a whole bunch of paths to explore many of which generate resistance. Some people consider Agile to be a mindset. Others feel Agile is simply the adoption of processes and practices. During this experiential session you will learn how to:

  • understand where resistance comes from and how to deal with it
  • use a greater level of awareness about your people and culture to shape your path to Agility.
  • leverage your preferred leadership style and understand its impact on the change

What We Thought Would Happen

Don ran this session 3 times locally, I ran it twice to great reviews and feedback.  This session started at AYE last year when I asked Don “hey, I have an idea, wanna chat?”

First we break people into like-minded groups by asking them to self-select into groups based on figuring out which of 4 statements most closely reflects each participants view of themself.    This is based on MBTI function pairings, and by getting people into like-minded groups we would amplify the differences between the groups to show where resistance comes from.  We thought the “Green Groups” (based on the NF function pairing) would bring a more touchy/feely mission statement, which they did, and the “Red Groups” (based on the ST function pairing) would bring a more process, rigid and plan driven mission statement, which they also did.

We would also show the impact of a leader with certain preferences can have on your Agile Transformation.  For example people with ESTJ preferences tend to not like change because they can struggle with un-certainty.  They like control (when in leadership positions) and plans and can appear more resistant because they progress through change at a slower pace than people with other preferences.  An ENTP, for example can drive an ESTJ nuts by piling on too much change because they embrace change and love generating new and different ideas.

During the de-brief we expected the people in the Red Group object strongly to the Green Groups “touchy/feely” plan for an Agile Transformation and then we would lead into how resistance forms, not because people are being resistant, but because they process change differently and at a different rate than others.  Resistance is a response from our brains to protect us from physical or mental pain, and change can be perceived as a threat.

What Actually Happened

If you’re not about the details, skip to the “what I learned and what I’m trying next” part.   I suspect certain types will skip these details.  I know I would.  First of all, we moved our session to a bigger room because of the demand.  The bigger room had no chairs in it so when we had them delivered, we asked for the room to not be setup.  We wanted to send the group into chaos right away and see how they would respond.  We thought that would lead to some interesting discussion about change, which it did.  Some people were confused, some people didn’t care.  One person wanted to arrange neat rows of chairs and his collegue wanted to scatter the chairs around the room.

We did 3 exercises, each with a de-brief.  Come up with your mission statement, use your mission statement as a guide to create an agile rollout plan based on a made-up scenario and cross-examine plans with other groups.

That’s where it all went to hell.  Despite their differences and despite the differences they listed in the mission statement exercise, all groups largely came up with the same plan.  All were plan driven (except one) and they followed the same pattern of “training -> do pilot – > generate continuous improvement -> rinse/repeat”   During the debrief we got the “green groups” to examine the plan from the “red groups”, and vice-versa, and have the participants answer these questions:

– what parts of the plan made you say “right on!”
– what parts of the plan raised red flags for you?
– what did you notice about your reaction to the red flags?

Well, that bombed because they all had generic, best practice plans about building collaboration through training, self-organizing teams and all the generic Agile rhetoric you hear.  There were subtle differences, but overall absolutely no discussion was generated from any of the de-briefs.  I wanted to jump in and start telling them my observations but I wanted to practice running an experiential session so I kept my mouth shut.

After that we showed the culture, change and behaviour models we used and that’s where people found value.  We talked about how if your organization is a control culture and you come in with Agile Values and Principles, you’re more likely to be met with resistance.  Unfortunately they were so bored during the previous exercise most people had already filled out the feedback form so we didn’t get the benefit of having them validate how smart we are.  One participant tweeted that our handouts were the best part of the session!  And being a ‘greenie’ (NF function pairing), she feels bad every time I mention it, so…sorry about that!

What I Learned and What I’m Trying Next

  • We said our session what ‘experiential’.  Next time I’ll do a better job of explaining what experiential is, although when we told the attendees what we were going to do once person literally got up and ran out.  I will assume he was an ISTJ.  If you know MBTI you should think that was funny.
  • The feedback from colleagues and other practitioners was positive, they felt creating an environment that allowed participants to learn by thinking was great and thought the negative feedback was a sign we did the right thing by getting our participants to think and experience chaos instead of peddling easy answers
  • Next time I am bombing with an exercise, I’ll stop and say something like “I’m not feeling much energy from the group around this, I had planned to do ABC.  Some other options are going in this direction or that direction, what do you think?
  • Next time I’ll draw more attention to the differences by pointing out observations I see with ‘pulling’ questions.

Most importantly I learned that change is painful.  Really painful.  An Agile Transformation can be one of the biggest changes an organization will ever go through.  The negative feedback we received leads me to believe we didn’t make our audience feel good because we didn’t give them any easy answers.

We didn’t do that because there aren’t any.

I want to understand why organizations try transforming multiple times without success.

I want to understand why people want to be given best practices instead of wanting to understand what change is and that Agile isn’t the point, it’s the trigger to change.

I have started a Linked In group about Agile and Organizational Change so I can help organizations understand that an Agile Transformation is a trigger.  It’s not the goal, it’s not the problem, it’s simply the trigger that exposes how broken your organization is.  I want to learn how to transform human resources and other departments that are designed to bring and support change.

Sustainable change can only come from within your organization, not from sending somebody to a 4-day conference or brining in a consultant for a week.    Or a month.  Or maybe longer.

I am also releasing a video series on Safari Books Online about Agile Transformation in late 2012.  My goal with these Live Lessons are to give you a framework to guide you through Agile Transformation by understanding change and the impacts it will have to your organization, free of Agile BS and buzzwords.

I am happy I had the opportunity to work with Don on this session and I’m also happy that Johanna Rothman inspired me to turn this colossal failure into something positive.

Finally, I want to say thank you to the 5 people I talked to afterwards who appreciated the session.  In my mind, you are the people who ‘get it’.  You are the people I want to reach because you care enough to know how difficult this is, you understand there are no easy answers and you stress about how to make your organization better.

You are the reason I do what I do.