Is your Agile Transformation ship stuck in troubled political waters?

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Javier is an agile transformation coach leading a major initiative around business agility in a large global enterprise. The program has the blessings of senior executives and is well funded. Yet it struggles, and Javier often feels like the captain of a ship in the middle of a storm. The middle management gives him a tough time. They say all the right things, but it is often the opposite when it comes to action.

A Tale of Two Leaders

The story of Javier actually starts more than a year ago. A senior executive in the organisation wanted to roll out an agile transformation. He has two regions led by their respective region leads — Tom and Mary. They get full responsibility and authority to lead the transformation efforts in their areas.

Javier was hired as an enterprise transformation coach to assist Tom and Mary. Tom and Mary decide to attend conferences and get trained to better equip themselves before plunging into the transformation. In one of the sessions, they heard one of the participants voice a concern that agile will make middle management jobs redundant.

Tom is a confident, self-assured guy who leads the transformation successfully without worrying whether it makes his job redundant or not. He also assures his middle management that agile will create new roles and opportunities to enhance their careers further. The effect — Tom was able to transform his region into a genuinely agile operation in a few quarters with great help from Javier and his team.

On the other hand, Mary is unsure of what to do. She delegates the responsibility of transformation further down the chain and is not passionately involved. The teams do the minimum to show Javier and management that “transformation is underway”, but the results don’t show any gains. There is actually a decline in quality and team morale. Javier and the other coaches working with him attribute the failure to Mary and her teams not taking the transformation seriously and playing games to push back. While Mary may seemingly not be playing politics here herself, her apathy allows others in her region to play the game for their vested interests.

While Javier is pleased and excited about seeing the positive change in Tom’s group, Mary’s group gives him the feeling of a captain of a ship in the storm.

Larman’s laws of organisational behaviour

With Mary’s group, Javier is getting first-hand experience observing Larman’s laws of organisational behaviour:

Organisations are implicitly optimised to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customisation for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

While some are vocal about their resistance to the new ways of working, others who are more politically astute play games and tricks to maintain the status quo while sounding all excited about the change.

Agile transformation initiatives are not happening in ideal environments, especially large enterprises. Several factors influence agile transformation, and as with all human endeavours, politics also finds its place here.

Based on my experience so far, I have found four considerations that can help Javier navigate the stormy waters b better increasing his chances of success.

1. Acknowledge that politics is the art of making your selfish desires seem like national interest.

Given the frailties of human nature (without getting into the philosophical side of right or wrong), most people will act out in a way that prioritises their self-interest, sometimes even without being aware of it explicitly. They may make it sound like organisational needs and constraints, but ultimately it’s driven by the need for self-preservation and growth.

While it may seem irrational for the coach as to why this leader won’t get something as “simple” as agile, it’s only a point of view. From the other side of the table, the behaviour is perfectly natural and in line with what they want to achieve. It is like the iceberg model in a way. What is visible are the actions. The motivations and drivers are much harder to figure out.

Navigating a charged political environment requires acknowledging and preparing for it. You do not have to be naive and get caught in it, but rather accept it as a way of things and proactively address the challenges.

2. Get the leaders to be vocal about their support.

Politics impacts transformation not just because of a few individuals’ actions but also because of inaction from many, especially senior leaders. These leaders do not oppose the transformation but play the silence game. For the change to succeed, senior executives and leaders who are passionately involved, engaged and vocal are critically important. Their voice must be heard and felt by everyone in the organisation, and it should not be another initiative for review only for the quarterly meeting.

As a coach, you must create opportunities for the leaders to make it clear that the change is here to stay, and they expect real change, not lip service. Leaders need to do that in public forums like town halls and also in their private conversations with the key stakeholders, especially the middle management.

3. Not all pushback is politics. Use it as feedback and opportunities to course correct.

Fundamentally politics is neither good nor bad. It is a reaction to a situation which can create positive or adverse outcomes. Adverse outcomes are typically associated with what we call someone playing “politics”. However, it need not always be someone playing games. The change is hard for them, or there are some real challenges they may be unable to convey to you properly.

Use the adverse reactions as a feedback loop to discover and resolve systemic challenges in your organisation. Agility needs the removal of these systemic problems to create flow. Turn the pushback into an opportunity to take corrective actions instead of labelling it always as something that needs to be “dealt with”.

There is no magical potion; however, you must ensure the adverse reactions are contained or channelled towards positive outcomes.

Teams are often over-stretched beyond capacity. If Agile is used as a tool to “throw more work” on them, the team will resort to playing the game of manipulation. In this scenario, while agile may be a great thing as described in the books and by the consultants, it is practically making their life more miserable. This reaction can take several forms. The most common one is — agile is not for us. Our domain / product / technology / whatever make us unique.

To elicit a more positive reaction from the teams to agile adoption, we need to see how agile can add value to them and improve their situation. Instead of operating from high ground, explore how you can be more empathetic and listen to the field. Forced agile never works.

4. Be conscious of how much you stretch the rubber band.

The Agile transformation approach needs to use the right tools and practices for the context that will trigger more harmony than conflict. This does not mean teams should not leave their comfort zone. However, how far and at what rate is something that solely depends on the organisational context. When you use a rubber band to wrap something up, you must be conscious of how much you stretch it. Too little and the rubber band cannot wrap on the object; too much and you would break the rubber band. You have to pull it just right.

Similarly, the resistance may kill the transformation effort if you don’t change a lot and are slow. No one will notice any change, and it will soon be forgotten. If you move too far and too fast, you are stretching the system beyond its breaking point and may elicit reactions that will jeopardise the transformation. You may call some of those adverse reactions as games from people playing politics, yet these are often just examples of the rubber band snapping for being stretched too far.

The Wrap

Ultimately, it would not be prudent for Javier to ignore the role of politics in organisational change. The transformation needs to start with Mary, and Javier needs to work with her towards it. We should not assume the support of leadership as obvious but work towards helping them express it adequately. Javier and, in general, all agile coaches need to develop the political skill and acumen to navigate the complex enterprise landscape to make the agile transformations successful. Knowing frameworks is one thing; navigating the maze of organisational bureaucracy and politics is another.

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You might also want to read my book “Perspectives on Agility”, available on Amazon in print as well in Kindle format. Kindle Unlimited users read it for free. You might enjoy a quick summary of the book before you buy.

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