Why Leaders Resist Agile Transformations and How to Win Them Over

Despite the fact that executives and managers are the ones who initiate Agile transformations, they can sometimes be the greatest impediment to successful implementation. This presents Agile coaches and team leaders with an unfortunate professional paradox: the individuals who employed them are the same ones who are offering the most resistance.

Involve Leaders

At times, what appears to be opposition to leadership may actually be a lack of engagement. Leaders may be receptive to the notion of change in principle, but they may perceive it as something that only affects their staff, not themselves.

Mike, a Works network Agilist with considerable experience in the field, noted that leadership’s lack of involvement in the transformation process is not necessarily a result of a desire to impede progress, but rather an unwillingness to be involved.

For organisational agility to be successful, it is essential that executive leadership actively participates in Agile transformation. This will set the tone from the top, and should be replicated by lower-level teams. If leadership does not take part in the transformation process, even those teams that have embraced Agile principles will not achieve the desired results.

Mike insists that management must stay actively engaged in the new workflows in order to remain in sync with their proposed cadence and rhythms. He further cautions that if management continues to adhere to a weekly approval schedule, the anticipated productivity gains from the new approach may not be realised.

In order to successfully implement Agile methodology and ensure that all stakeholders are invested in the process, Mike recommends that organisations set clear expectations for leadership’s involvement. This should be formalised in the contract by specifying the individuals who will be involved and explicitly stating that they must be a part of the process. This will help to avoid any misunderstandings in which leaders wrongly assume that their employees will become more productive without their active participation.

As leaders, it is essential to invest in and provide support for transformation initiatives that do not depend on their direct involvement. Mike emphasises that if upper management does not make agility a priority, then their attitude towards change will be a detriment to its success, as it will syphon resources away from it.

Unravel Agile Values and Terminology

Despite Agile being widely adopted by development teams, there is still a significant lack of understanding of it among business leaders and managers. When first exposed to the principles of Agile, such as responding to change rather than rigidly adhering to a plan, and prioritising working software over comprehensive documentation, it can seem unfamiliar and strange. It is important to ensure that these individuals are educated on the value and benefits of Agile in order to fully comprehend and embrace the method.

George, a highly experienced project manager, Certified Scrum Master, and DevOps engineer with extensive experience working with both startups and Fortune 500 corporations, believes that a lack of understanding is the primary source of resistance to Agile transformations. According to George, “Leaders might not understand what it means to be agile, or they may have different expectations from an Agile transformation.

It is essential that all personnel in an organisation comprehend the values of Agile and recognise that they cannot be altered. It is important to note that Agile cannot be selectively implemented; areas that are proving challenging or difficult likely require the most attention. As such, it is of utmost importance that everyone involved is appropriately educated about Agile and its fundamental principles.

As a Product Manager, Mitchell explained to his clients that they have likely already been incorporating agile practices into many aspects of their work and personal lives.

He explains that to demonstrate agility, he asks his team to imagine themselves walking into a house the day after a big party. He then poses the question: if they had eight hours to clean up the house, what would they clean, and what would they clean if they only had two hours? He emphasises that the difference between the two answers is an unavoidable demonstration of agility, as it requires selecting deliverables based on the amount of effort available and then ordering the most impactful results.

Many people find the jargon associated with Agile methodology to be confusing and intimidating. In my experience, this often presents a barrier to organisations considering an Agile transformation. To make it seem more approachable, I have found it helpful to frame the conversation differently. For example, instead of referring to ‘Agile’, I will refer to the process as ‘becoming more effective at our jobs’. Similarly, I may refer to daily standups as ‘daily planning sessions’ and sprints as ‘iterations’. By switching the language in this way, I have found that leaders are more open to the idea of an Agile transformation.

Experimentation to Demonstrate Value

If leaders do not comprehend the advantages of Agile, then illustrating them in action can be a successful way to resolve the problem. There are two options for doing this: implementing a team-focused approach or a leadership-focused approach. Regardless of which method is chosen, it is essential to regard any modifications as a trial.

At the leadership level, I typically present a concise, one-page written proposal outlining the proposed change, the rationale for the change, and the anticipated outcome. This provides an opportunity for leaders to ask questions and voice their opinions.

In order to secure their approval, it is important to set a low standard for consent and make it crystal clear that this is a short-term experiment. People tend to gravitate towards the idea of “trying” something rather than having to commit to something because it allows them to feel more secure. Generally speaking, I ask the leadership team for their permission by inquiring, “Are there any potential risks associated with this that we should be aware of?” It is a rare occurrence that someone raises their hand in response. The use of sociocracy that is based upon consent instead of a voting system has been a key factor for why they are agreeable to the trial. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with the plan in its entirety, they are prepared to give it a go for a test.

Once consent has been obtained, it is the responsibility of the group to determine the parameters of the experiment, as well as the date on which their progress will be assessed and a decision will be made whether to abandon, continue, or modify the changes.

It may be beneficial to conduct experimentation at the team level if feasible. Allowing teams to engage in a trial period with Agile processes can help them grow and develop, and the outcomes of this period can then be used to inform leaders and help them make decisions. As a method of exploring Agile processes, I often suggest that teams use Scrum for several sprints. This approach helps teams to collect evidence-based data and present it to management, rather than relying on subjective opinions. This data is more likely to convince leaders, as it provides a factual basis for decisions.

Consider both Emotional and Practical Needs

According to Bobby, the Project Manager at Works Agile, it is essential to be aware not only of the regular operational requirements of an organisation, but also of the anxieties and emotional discomfort that executives may be feeling as a result of the transition process.

Leaders may experience feelings of fear and vulnerability when undergoing an Agile transformation. This is because it requires them to make drastic changes to the way they perceive their roles, as well as the authority and control typically associated with those roles. Consequently, Agile transformations necessitate that leaders undergo a shift in their professional identity.

It is important to ensure that leaders are comfortable with the transition to Agile by openly addressing their concerns. According to Bates, having a series of conversations at the beginning of each project about the benefits and challenges of Agile is essential in helping people prepare for the change. He emphasises that it is normal for individuals to feel uneasy in such a situation, but there are measures that can be taken to reassure them and help them feel more in control.

George suggests that the first step in the transformation process should be to gain an understanding of the reasons behind the transformation. Subsequently, it is important to evaluate the impact of the transformation on each individual involved, including how their role may be altered, and if their authority will be affected.

He expressed his apprehension concerning the sudden emergence of a new group of people who he did not have faith in, and their unfamiliar introduction of the Agile concept which he was not familiar with. These people, he continued, were the ones who were in control of making the regulations.

At times, the difficulty lies not necessarily in the opposition to Agile, but the resistance to any kind of alteration. It is a common response, particularly in the corporate environment. Leaders may be particularly sensitive when a change is required as it could entail that they have not been successful in certain areas, while managers may be emotionally attached to a status quo which they have contributed to creating. Thus, organisational transformation efforts can come across as a personal attack.

Patrick, a Professional Scrum Master and Works project manager, emphasises the importance of understanding the individual circumstances of team members when approaching an issue. He states that everyone has their own perspective and that empathy is essential in order to appreciate the differing journeys that people are on. He further points out that those nearing retirement may be particularly resistant to change given their lack of motivation to do so.

Ms. Saini successfully incorporated leaders into her latest transformation initiative by emphasising the importance of mindset rather than Agile. She remarks, “We initially explained the reasons why changes were necessary. While the current methods may be successful and the company may be flourishing, we needed to make them understand that transformation was necessary. People were worried that the change would lead to failure, so we had to emphasise the potential for innovation that the changes would offer and make them see it as an exciting chance to grow, rather than a criticism of their existing processes and structure.

Identify and Address the Root Causes of Resistance

As you initiate your next Agile transformation journey, it is essential to keep in mind the issue of leadership resistance and prioritise it accordingly. Leadership resistance can impede the progress of the transformation and undermine the hard work and effort invested in other aspects of the organisation.

It is important to recognise that resistance to Agile methodology is often symptomatic of a more fundamental issue. Therefore, it is essential to consider the underlying factors at the commencement of a project that may be contributing to the resistance. These could include a lack of knowledge about Agile, reluctance to embrace new practices, or hidden anxiety. In order to successfully overcome any resistance, it is important to operate with patience, empathy, and strong communication skills. These qualities are all essential for a successful Agile coach.

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