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How to stop DOing agile and start BEing agile



I've had many discussions when advising on agile adoption with clients; a question always comes up

"Do we emphasize changing mindset or focus on the adoption of agile practices?"

You could rephrase this do we focus on DOing agile or BEing agile. I want to use this post to go into my thoughts on what these two elements mean practically for an agile coach. How do we work with these two aspects as we coach agile adoption?


A Behaviourism view of agile adoption

We could consider a successful agile transformation to simply be the implementation of a playbook of practices. What you can see/hear is real and observable and signals the job is done. The focus is on the tip of the iceberg.


Do we care what is happening in people's inner world (thoughts, attitudes) as long as they behave? A lot of transformations are conducted like this with a focus on the hard processes of agile adoption. Does this approach maximise the chances of the new ways to work will stick..?


Hold that thought and whilst we examine a few more aspects of this discussion before arriving at a conclusion.


A Cognitive view of agile adoption

If we probe a bit deeper and go "below the waterline" in our iceberg picture, what do we find?

Attitude, thoughts and other cognitive elements of the mind.

Cognitive psychology has made an important contribution to us understanding how people develop and stay healthy, it also informs agile coaches on some unseen aspects of how humans change their mind.


How important is intention and attention (what we keep top-of-mind" as we work) in the adoption of agile? If it is important then the agile coach would be required to have techniques and practices that enable introspection; reflective practices for teams and individuals. How many of your retrospectives or one-on-one conversations go this deep?


Leadership coaching and experiential workshops often aim to influence the mindset of those participating in a change to agile. Is mindset the first and most important aspect of agile change? I've spoken to some agile leadership "evangelists" who firmly state that if the leadership do not participate in mindset change workshops then the entire agile implementation is a complete waste of time and is doomed. Although I suspect this view is more shaped by the fact their selling courses offering a leadership solution to agile adoption; there is merit in considering how we coach for mindset and cognitive change in our clients.

So what's the best way to do this; read on..


A Cognitive-Behavioural view of agile adoption

l'm sure you have worked out where I'm going with this article; a third alternative to the above two approaches is a combination. If we consider cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) as a model for how we could coach for agile adoption, we start to see how the two approaches together have more power.


As we implement new ways to work (DOing agile) we can concurrently initiate the required cognitive coaching interventions that help clients reframe what work means and how interactions with others fundamentally changes with a move to agile. This is a change in how work is viewed and requires an internal shift of perspective (cognitive change).

CBT aims to enable clients to determine what is real and what is not for an individual; an agile coach does a similar thing with teams when de-mystifying and simplifying agile so as to reduce fear of change and anxiety. The coach helps to surface thoughts, attitudes and false beliefs held by individuals and teams through practices such as one-on-one coaching, retros and social contract workshops.

A more accessible model (than CBT) for agile coaches is Unlearning.

By changing a person's behaviour (DOing agile), you're enable clients to see their work from an alternative perspective, this in turn impacts their mindset (cognitive view). I like this model and recommend you have a look at the book and its approach, or of course you can also read my book where I show you how to include this approach in the context of agile coaching ;-)

The Holy grail of agile adoption; Internalisation

Consider what happens when agile is not only adopted, but is internalised within the members of an organisation. Is this what happens when we talk of "BEing" agile?


What has to happen for a person to BE agile; in other words when agile becomes part of their self identity. To answer this let's go back to our iceberg again...


Now of course I'm not suggesting agile coaches are psychologists, psychoanalysts or anything close to these specialist roles. What I am suggesting is that we recognise these deeper elements relating to how people change over time as they attempt to internalise agile as a way to work.


So how does a coach support this type of deeper examination of the self? A nice way to look at this is the Johari window model which labels these deep below the waterline elements as the "unknown".


An agile coach who is aiming to work with these aspects of the change process supports clients to "discover" via personal introspection and feedback for others in a psychologically safe environment. This then allows "glimpes" of what is not known about the self that may be blocking the internalisation of agile as a way of BEing.


Final words...


I've covered a lot here, if you are interested I'd invite you to read my book which expands on these ideas and more over its 64,000 words. If an agile coach can work responsively it provides the versatility to serve the client's needs; this can involve simple behavioural coaching (DOing agile) all the way down to deeper examinations of the self and identity (BEing agile). To be able to work across all levels of depth is what separates the truly masterful agile coaches from the process implementers.


p.s. I'm currently open to work opportunities/collaboration and have a new website that allows anyone wanting to work with me to understand the things I can help with; check it out here niallmcshane.com





© 2020 by NIALL MCSHANE.