Advisor

Stop Talking Yourself Out of Agility with “Not Yet” Stories

Posted November 25, 2021 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence
Stop Talking Yourself Out of Agility with “Not Yet” Stories

Speed, productivity, quality, and engagement — the benefits of Agile — are vital to your business. Business leaders across industries strive to cultivate these essential qualities on a day-to-day basis. The sheer volume of podcasts, books, seminars, and articles centering on these elements indicate an impressive collective interest in becoming Agile. However, many leaders are slow to start the Agile journey — at least right now.

On several occasions, I have observed executives talk themselves out of agility. I firmly believe that the negative stories we tell ourselves adversely delay adopting Agile and postpone the benefits. We may justify our stance by saying the timing is not right, or it’s too complex, or there is an additional cost. Yet time, complexity, and cost are the exact reasons to get started right away. In this Advisor, we consider one specific type of detrimental story we tell ourselves that prevents us from succeeding with Agile — the “not yet” story. If you are among those telling yourself “not yet,” then you are pumping the brakes on Agile when it’s far better to step on the accelerator and go! 

You imagine that the main characters in these stories are your customers, regulators, distributors, or even your own workforce. And the plot hinges on a perceived strategic imperative, compliance, risk, or delay of a long-promised capability. However, that’s not the true story. It’s time for a reality check. The real story is that change is hard. And any change — personal or organizational — requires vision, resolve, and grit to make it happen. Let’s look squarely at these stories and consider an alternate plotline!

The “One More Last Time” Story

Have you ever said, “Maybe it’s better to put off the shift to Agile until we finish Project X. We’ve promised X for years. It’s far too important to delay by changing how we work.” You might tell yourself “this is the last time” for waterfall delivery. However, the draw of muscle memory and “how we’ve always done things” is strong. There will always be the temptation for “one more last time.” 

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Slow, phase-gated delivery isn’t good enough for future priority work. Equally, it’s not good enough for today’s most crucial work. The “one more last time” story above takes your eye off what really matters — enabling your business for speed. Agile is purpose-built for speed, learning, innovation.

So, let’s consider an alternative plotline to the “one more last time” story: shift your top-priority work to Agile right now. Get started on your Agile journey by identifying and dedicating cross-functional teams to this top priority. The switch to Agile will likely incur some “slow down to speed up” time; however, this investment will quickly be paid back with improved time-to-market, predictability, and transparency. 

The “Human Interest” Story 

The pace of change is intense — and is only getting faster. Most people do not perceive change as a positive thing. Moreover, the global pandemic, staff turnover, and return-to-work concerns are piling on the stress for leaders and contributors alike. This sets the stage for another “not yet” story; the one that goes something like, “Taking on Agile right now is too much for our people. They will resist it. Let’s go Agile after things calm down.” Yes, it’s true that people are saturated and burnout is common. But the reality check here is that Agile offers an antidote. 

The atomic unit of Agile is teams — high-performing, cross-functional, empowered teams. Thus, job one for Agile leaders is building and protecting persistent Agile teams. These teams are constructed to deliver value fast, which is great for your business. It is also great for your people. These teams are the safest, strongest, most resilient structure for the members of your workforce. Teams make organizations adaptable and help people do the same. Adaptability is the human quality that takes the suffering out of change. 

Empathy and inclusion are emerging as top leadership behaviors. Leading with empathy, the alternate plotline to the human interest “not yet” story is this: the sooner you get your workforce into Agile teams organized around value, the better. For your people to make this pivot, you must, too. With your peers, embrace Agile principles to guide the work of transforming your organization. Build a strong cross-functional “team one” of leaders to navigate this change. (Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business) Together, provide a clear vision of the future and inspire people to come along. Make change possible by creating time for learning, responding to change and limiting work-in-progress. 

The “Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too” Story

This third “not yet” story is more subtle. It occurs in organizations that are “doing” Agile practices but have yet to embrace Agile values and principles. Teams may be employing some (or all) Agile ceremonies; however, execution is mechanical and performative instead of inspired and adaptive. This particular “not yet” story usually surfaces as a “yes-and” story: “Yes, this is an Agile initiative, and the stakes are very high. In addition to the iteration plan, please make me a project plan.” There are two reality checks for this story. First, you can’t have both. The Agile Manifesto puts forth the value of “responding to change over following a plan.” The moment a plan is published, it becomes fixed. This brings us to the second reality check. Decades of field experience indicate that the plan is never right. Once a plan is published, managing, providing status, and controlling change consumes time, and worse dilutes focus on outcomes.

The alternate plotline for this “not yet” story is simple, but not easy. As a leader, you need to lean into Agile. Agile is both a mindset and a set of practices. For the practices to flourish, you must embrace the mindset. What you say and, even more importantly, what you do matters profoundly. In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath liken leading change to taking an elephant on a journey. You must “direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.” As a change leader, you must capture the head, heart, and feet of your workforce. When you violate the core principles of Agile, you may be thinking “not yet” to yourself, but you are squarely saying “no!” to your workforce. Instead, signal commitment to Agile with an alternative plotline. When faced with a tough situation (because this is where it matters most), pull up the 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto and find the one that applies … then do it! This will be hard, but the outcome will amaze you. You will fuel inspired agility!

Conclusion

You cannot afford to postpone agility. Are the stories you tell yourself limiting you from leading your company to greater agility? If yes, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you can pick a different path. Instead of negative stories (it’s too hard, too difficult, too costly), tell yourself — and your team — positive stories about what speed, productivity, quality, and engagement will gain for your business. These are the reasons to get started right away. Also, you don’t have to do this by yourself. Enlist your workforce to write the story with you. Together you will break down constraints, multiply skills and knowledge, and align your organization to compete and win. 

©2021 Cheryl Crupi. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Cheryl Crupi
Cheryl Crupi is the founder and principle of Crupi & Co., LLC, and an internationally recognized speaker, author and executive coach specializing in Lean-Agile change leadership. Cheryl is passionate about achieving the benefits of Agility, starting with the building blocks of team Agility, to the full span of enterprise business Agility. In over a decade as an enterprise Agile change champion in Fortune 500 companies, she has successfully… Read More