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Agile coaching through emotional resistance to change

Dealing with people and their emotions when they don’t want to change

I’ve found a lot of agile coaches struggle to deal with what could be called the “soft stuff” of change; people and how they feel. Clients can get emotional when told to change their way of working. A lot of the time I’m called in to help coach groups of people who are resisting the change to agile. Most agile coaches can influence behaviour for people who are ready, willing and able to change their ways. But…

“It is a specialist skill to coach where there is strong resistance and high emotion”

In this post I would like to share five techniques I’ve used in the field; no theory but practices you can try. My aim in writing this is to assist coaches to not become overwhelmed by emotional resistance to the change they are attempting to implement. What I’ll outline are not coping strategies but a means to move forward and get change adopted when you encounter resistance.

The five critical techniques to coach in the face of emotional resistance

Here are the five techniques I suggest will provide you the best chance of dealing with emotional change resistance as you deliver agile coaching:

  1. Strongly suggest the first version of the way of working

  2. Invite the elephant into the room; and keep him there

  3. Gather three points of data, triangulate opinion and establish the facts

  4. Prepare for and have “THE” conversation

  5. Have a pathway and the power to go to the worst-case scenario

Let me now explain and provide you with more detail on each of these techniques.

1. Offer (strongly suggest) or just tell everyone “this is how we’re going to work”

Assertively tell the team how they will be working (at least to start with)

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of the agile coach that answers every question (ask for help) with another question. This is an example of over-coaching where the agile coach gets a bit carried away thinking they’re a life coach. My recommendation is for you (the agile coach) to form an opinion about what way of working is best for the team and then assertively tell them that it is not up for debate, negotiation or co-design with everyone. This may sound harsh and not very “coachy” but I see too many agile coaches not being assertive enough and let the team decide everything. This is a mistake; you are there because you know agile and are being paid to provide short-cuts to improvement in the way of working. At least in the first instance you should start the team with an initial way to work and then iterate from there.

By telling the team where to start everyone understands these process guardrails and can start to settle into a rhythm of work. Then once they’re off and working you can implement a continuous improvement process to refine and adjust their processes. If the coach does not assertively tell the team what to do, the following can happen:

  1. the agile coach loses credibility

  2. the agile coach loses sponsorship (hurry up already)

  3. the agile coach has to put out spot fires as everyone wants to do things their way; no common standards

  4. the team do only what suits them (the easy bits) leading to dysfunction and chaos

So don’t be shy; politely and professionally tell the team the initial way you’re are all going to work together.

2. Invite the elephant into the room (and keep him there)

If you say there is an elephant in the room, you mean that there is an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.

By this statement I mean start talking about how the team feels, how they treat each other, emotions and any unsaid, unspoken or unresolved intra-team conflict. I remember a recent team I started coaching. On the first day I ended up in three “side” conversations about the same issue amongst the team. The team had so much unresolved conflict that everyone started complaining to me at the same time. Here’s what I did:

  1. In the first two-week sprint we held three retrospectives where I openly shared all the “gossip” people had whispered in my ear.

  2. I started having a no tolerance policy for complaining to me about other team members

  3. I mediated and facilitated conversations with the whole team; these were uncomfortable but signalled the elephant is here to stay

  4. I started doing health / pulse checks on the team. These were anonymous and gave me data on how safe people were feeling.

The team knew very quickly that we would keep talking about issues and emotions for as long as it took for the team to start norming and being open with each other. In a way they knew that complaining to me would only lead to an open conversation.

3. Three points of data you need to triangulate opinion and establish the facts

To locate the truth you need three bearings; then you can lock onto (triangulate) to the truth

In the previous technique I mentioned all the gossip and complaining within the team. I had to get to the root cause of problems and couldn’t afford to take any one opinion as the truth. So for every team issues or dysfunction I always gathered three points of data on the problem/challenge. Here’s how I do this:

  1. interview and discuss problems with the entire team; this is you normal retrospective type of ceremony

  2. interview each role in small groups and have a conversation about how they’re experiencing the team from the perspective of their role.

  3. Interview individuals (sometimes a selection of specific people relating to the problem) and get their first-person perspective on the issues and how they are experiencing it.

Every time I break my three points of data rule I always make incorrect assumptions and have to undo my opinion afterward. It may take a bit longer to form your opinion whilst you collect your three points of data but trust me it is well worth it when dealing with emotional resistance to change. To undertake these conversations the agile must adopt a nonjudgemental mindset and be genuinely open and listen deeply.

4. Prepare for and have “THE” conversation

There is usually one person with which the agile coach has to have THE conversation with

Agile coaching is a tough job and one of the toughest parts of the job is having THE conversation. What is this ‘THE’ that I’m referring to? Here’s a definition to help us…

A difficult conversation where the needs/wants, opinions or perceptions of the agile coach and client are diverse, with their feelings and emotions running strong. Usually the reason behind such strong feelings and emotions is that they have a lot at stake and they dread the consequences such as a conflict

People who are used to positions of power may find they have a lot at stake if they adopt agile (losing power); this is why they get emotional and resist.

After gathering your three points of data, talking about all the elephants and telling the team their initial way of working, sometimes there is a person whose behaviour is so disruptive to the culture of the team that the agile coach needs to have THE conversation. This is because there is no one else more qualified. As the team moves to the new way of working the agile coach is uniquely positioned to have THE conversation; their mix of agile knowledge together with their coaching skills means it is with them to open up the conversation.

So as an agile coach if this is something that terrifies you then I suggest you consider how you might practice building this capability. I’ve counted and I usually have to have one once every three months or so and usually with senior executives holding onto their power base.

5. The pathway and the power to go to the worst-case scenario

If after THE conversation you have not been able to achieve a coaching outcome then coercion could be an option

If you’ve ever done team coaching you know that 80% of time is spent dealing with issues from 20% of the people (or even one person). If after weeks of effort and all of the other techniques have been utilised you still are unable to effect a behavioural change in a person, then it no longer is a coaching problem but a performance issue.

A few years ago I had a product owner that refused to learn with the team at retro but instead escalated and complained to management and blamed the development team for all the delivery setbacks. Despite months of coaching, conversations and promises to change their behaviour, I had THE conversation. Following THE conversation there was still no change and a performance management process was initiated. Eventually they were removed and the team thrived; not all agile coaching engagements end here but an agile coach needs to be prepared to go there when faced with emotional resistance to the implementation of agile.

Final words…

I hope these five techniques are something you will experiment with. They are in order to use if things heat up as you coach a new team to adopt agile. Quite often (usually) you only need to use the first three techniques and then you have enough information to help the team move through the emotional resistance phase. The last two techniques are more extreme exceptional situations but I wanted to let you know they are there if required. Good luck in your coaching.

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