Finding Resilience as an Agile Antibody

Learning to lead ourselves through the challenges of transforming the enterprise

Oli Rowlands
Dec 17, 2017 · 13 min read

I believe it was Michael Sahota who first suggested the analogy that Agile change agents can be antibodies to the enterprise. This polarisation of perspective is ever present in large organisations looking to reinvent how they do work, from the armies of Scrum Masters, engineers and Agile Coaches it emerges in frustration, conflict and churn. The ideology rarely aligns with the activity in a duration of time shorter than our ability to become disappointed and disillusioned.

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More often than not this disappointment becomes contagious and leads to a downturn in morale, our bias towards negativity is far more easy to propagate and perpetuate than a concerted effort to re-frame the challenges of the current moment and see a transformational path into the future.

“Criticism has its place, but as a total preoccupation it is sterile. In a time of crisis, like the leadership crisis we are now in, if too many potential builders are taken in by a complete absorption with dissecting the wrong and by a zeal for instant perfection, then the movement so many of us want to see will be set back. The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little. (1).

Robert Greenleaf

As self-identifying agents of change when we hear the voice inside us that says they are not ready for this, they are too set in their ways, what we are really meaning is that we are neither ready nor prepared for them. We are unable to tap into an existing narrative to find the means to move mental models closer to where we believe they should be, assuming we are right and they are wrong. We are applying a builders mindset to an artistic problem, a simple or complicated expectation into a complex domain.

Their culture is wrong and ours is right is most likely the motto of every tribe that has ever existed be they football supporters, software engineering teams or nations on the cusp of war; for reasons of evolution empathy has its boundaries. We are tribal and need to find ways to transcend what are now irrational traits to more rational and effective ones for the problems in hand.

In 1776 the British General Sir Henry Clinton observed the same challenges in the battle against upstart Americans, recognising the need for collective emotional intelligence towards their culture.

“Culture was itself a slippery term, often being used as something that envelops individuals and shapes their actions without them being able to do much about it.”

“The importance of an exaggerated view of culture was that it could lead to the assumption that alien attitudes and uncooperative behaviour reflected the persistence of an ancient way of life, untouched by modern influences, asserting itself whatever the conditions.”

“Explaining problematic behaviour as a consequence of people being set in their ways was not only condescending but also let off the hook those in the intervening forces.” (2).

Lawrence Freedman

This condescending view of culture was a quick route to resign to the challenge and fall behind the expectation that whomever we interact with should have the willingness and open mindedness to understand and align with our world view. Where as in truth what Clinton found was, over time something entirely different.

“opponents in a prolonged conflict would interact and pick up ideas, weapons and tactics from each other” (2).

Lawrence Freedman

The importance and relevance to transformation here is becoming part of that narrative and not orthogonal to it because the current status quo doesn’t align to our own view of good. Cultures do move on and progress will happen, we can choose to be bystanders to that movement or influencers, contributors and leaders.

Because of limitations in language arguments or disagreements are often two people playing tennis on parallel courts. They play the same game, the same rules but their thoughts, beliefs and understanding of terms rarely translate into a common perception of context, the balls keep hitting the back fence. The constraints that exist with translating thoughts and feelings to language equally apply to cultures and to succeed in transformation we have to be able to find that common ground.

“Whenever you meet someone, ask yourself first this immediate question: ‘What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?’ Because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain and their constituents, about fame and obscurity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way, and I shall remember that he has no choice but to act as he does.” (3)

Marcus Aurelius

When working in an organisation but not for that organisation conflict is inevitable at some point, the propensity is higher than when working from within the same tribe. We can reduce this conflict by coming to a common understanding of good and avoiding taking the victims stance. Our unhappiness is increased exponentially when we think the world owes us and events should unfold how we want them to. Rarely is the universe so accommodating and as we navigate the challenges and inevitable disappointments of work it pays to consider that everyone is generally just trying to do the right thing, by them.

“each one in his heart has the kings point of view, and is willing to use licence, but unwilling to suffer from it” (4).


Although we may have a vision and practical experience of where the enterprise we are looking to transform needs to get to, we can be sure that for those within the organisation their norms, their world view will be very different from ours. They will most likely be regimented to the existing practices and processes, expecting them to sympathetically adopt our world view is expecting everyone of us to be Christopher Columbus able to journey across oceans into an abyss of uncertainty. We don’t learn by leaps of trust we learn through analogy and experience. Our brain operates first as a comparison machine to past experiences, new knowledge emerges through synthesis of thought, experience and dialectic.

“For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” (5).


Understanding how to get someone to align to our own thought processes is our responsibility and not a failing of the other person to recognise the veracity of our thinking. It is incumbent upon us as the antibody to recognise the existent kings messages in the environments we enter and apply practical methods to synthesise new learning using familiar narratives as a starting point for knowledge to emerge from. Where we choose the condescending route trust will be illusive and the intuitive defence mechanisms will keep the tribes polarised at extremes of each other.

Being able to take such an holistic view is an ethical and political trait that although rational may seem irrational, it requires us to offer trust when our perceptions may tell us we are being offered none in return. We need to see beyond our own tribes and not expect others to see beyond theirs; the truth is that we all suffer the same fears and dysfunctions, the trust we resent not being offered is equally resented of us not being offered to others. So long as values don’t clash and there can be an amnesty on historic conflict time will eventually bring tribes together especially if they co-habit the same space.

Hierocles a second century Philosopher had a method for speeding up that process and came up with the concentric circles below, suggesting a meditative exercise of bringing those in the outer rings closer towards our self. In some cases I suspect you could create an additional ring around the outside for the earliest of relationships in enterprise transformation.

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Understanding that in conflicts of culture there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of grey that come from best intentions may help us take steps towards being resilient and effective change agents but it’s only a small set of the overall challenge.

As well as realising the necessity to be empathic in our approach to knowledge creation in order to find true resilience amongst conflicting tribes and cultures we also need to learn to frame our challenges and goals in a more helpful and realistic way. Generally speaking we suffer and become unhappy when our hopes and aspirations fall far from our day to day experiences.

“Radical strategists might be at special risk of narrative delusion, because of the gap between aspirations and means” (2).

Lawerence Freedman

It is a necessity for leaders in transformational roles to project a vision ahead of their current day to day experiences and this in itself can lead to unhappiness and further conflict. Not to mention transformation is in itself simply hard, its stressful and creates anxiety, rumination and catastrophising. In order for us to thrive in these situations we have to learn more about ourselves, it is unlikely to come naturally.

“He who knows how to suffer suffers less” (6).

Paul Dubois

There are a few time tested ways of increasing our own resilience to events that fall outside of our locus of control. First by cultivating a sense of non-judgemental self-awareness. A recognition of the separation that can exist between our body and mind, by growing awareness to emotional reactions and in some ways watching them unfold before our inner most eye we are able to take steps towards a more transcendent self.

“The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh — gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgements, calling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’” (3)

Marcus Aurelius

Listening and becoming familiar with our own momentary reactions, recording them and reviewing them nightly allows us to educate our subconscious and tutor it away from unhelpful behaviours. We can become less reactive with a concerted effort to know ourselves. These efforts are not to control they are to understand, to be able to gain perspective between the efforts of our organism, the body and the rationality available to us through our minds. The latter providing the resilience the former the torment.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (7).

Viktor Frankl

Autonomy and intrinsic motivation are bed fellows and expected delicacies in the modern Agile environment, long gone are the days where instructional management is the accepted norm and order of the day. We look to create purpose and provide an opportunity for mastery to emerge. But, too often autonomy is surrendered and asked for when the question never needs asking. Self-sufficiency is synonymous with resilience, one cannot exist without the other and being able to re-frame our decision making processes as well as our perception of events are enablers to achieving this posture.

“there is evidence from neuroscience that when we change our opinion about a situation our emotions also change. Neuroscientists call this ‘cognitive re-appraisal’, and they trace its discovery back to ancient Greek philosophy” (8)

Jules Evans

A simple yet entirely effective first step in re-framing our perceptions to a more efficacious place is the recognition of what is and isn’t inside of our control.

Of things that exist, some are in our power and some are not in our power. Those that are in our power are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and in a word, those things that are our own doing. Those that are not under our control are the body, property or possessions, reputation, positions of authority, and in a word, such things that are not our own doing. (5)


Here Epictetus reduces down those things inside and outside of our control to an almost binary state. Rationally thinking only our volition remains in our control, a small moment of space and time that exists between perception and action. In this gap we have the opportunity to exert ourselves however we choose, it is the locus of our free-will. Our impulse to act is entirely within our control, regardless of prejudice, history, context or sub-context. Upon the realisation that this space is where we truly exist we find our inner citadel.

“In one respect man is something with the closest affinity to us … But in so far as some are obstacles to my proper work, man joins the category of things indifferent to me … These can impede some activity, yes, but they form no impediments to my impulse or my disposition” (3)

Marcus Aurelius

No matter the behaviour of anyone we interact with, no matter how much they choose to impede our action we still maintain freedom of choice. Knowing that in any given moment directing our volition is our only opportunity to assert ourselves on the world gives way to the opportunity for ruthless prioritisation and an understanding of true autonomy, one outside of anyone else’s control to grant. We allow ourselves to focus on creating events, moral actions that are both in our control and represent the right course of action given the information available to hand at that time.

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By accepting this dichotomy of control we free our subconscious from worrying about the background static, all the things that we can’t influence. Cicero’s metaphor of an archer that trains studiously, notches his arrow, takes aim with all his skill and releases onto the target explains this mindset. Once the arrow is released the archer cannot effect the outcome, for example a gust of wind may blow if off target, but the archer can be assured that she has in any moment given her best. By staying aware of what we control and keeping in reserve that in the complex domain the future cannot be predicted we maintain a consistency of effectiveness and focus on the now rather than the could, should and would like to be.

“It is critical for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not to worry about things they cannot effect”

The US Army leadership manual

In the heat of battle the US Army can recognise the need to only focus on events we can effect and in the challenges of life true sufferers have found the strength to invest emotion into the events that only we can control, to avoid investing our time into stopping waves crashing on the beach.

There is a story in the book, Philosophy of Life about a young girl called Anna. Anna had lead the hardest of lives, abused and molested as a child by her father, the person that should have been her keeper, her guardian and her hero. Anna carried guilt and torment for years, but eventually through years of counselling she was able to accept the events that happened to a young girl by a monster were outside of her control, she began to understand that she was no more able to control those events as she was the waves crashing on the beach. She was, over time able to find solace through seeing the world for what it is and recognising the pain of her present was because of events in the past and that those events were “like the waves” outside of her control.

Whilst the struggles of an agile transformation can in no way compare to those of a heartbroken child recognising our own true locus of control and where to apply ourselves in each moment can help us ride the waves crashing in front of us.

“what you achieved goes way beyond the win-loss column or what’s gonna be written on the front page of the sports section tomorrow. You’ve achieved something that some people spend their whole lives trying to find. What you achieved is that ever-elusive victory within” (9)

Coach Carter

The problem with modern morality is that it spends too much time judging and criticising the behaviour of others; Phronetic leadership recognises the dichotomy of control in front of each of us. The outcomes are outside of our control, the effort to achieve those outcomes is not and it is within that effort that we find our citadel of resilience.

Phronetic leadership promotes inward morality, judging ourselves by our own efforts and the intent of that effort in the service of others in accord with our values. It is this execution of servant leadership in that small space between perception and action that defines our very existence. Not our beliefs, our thoughts and not our hopes to get others aligned to those thoughts. It is what we do as we push forward and impact the world and those in it one moment at a time.

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Bruce Wayne (in disguise)

Derived from the greek philosophical practice of phronesis, living by and applying values in the undertaking of our activities Snowden has done some interesting sense making work to understand to what extent people within an organisation provide this level of considered and resilient leadership. Of the three points of the triangle below we can see a minority simply relied on intuitive responses to scenarios, although i’m not sure how many of us hairless apes would own up to running purely on emotion, mostly all of us, mostly all of the time. The biggest majority however did identify as being rational albeit without a clear means of finding efficacy of decision making. Finally and seemingly in second place a significant proportion provided phronetic leadership where decisions were exacted against a set of principles or values.

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If we can find the space that exists between perception and action, recognise the effect that our interpretation of events have on us and through rational deduction reframe our prejudices, biases and reinforced behaviours. Then as we move from thought to action keeping in mind that the outcome of activity is entirely up to fate, releasing the bow string whilst putting every inch of effort into our aim we will ultimately increase our resilience and willpower and at the same time offer ethical leadership and be able to lead others to a new transformational vision.

Through these efforts we will perhaps overcome the smooth mediocrity of our time and be able to take the step from reclusive and prejudicial tribes to holistic transcendent leadership undeterred by the crashing of waves.

  1. Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership
  2. Lawrence Freedman, Strategy, A History
  3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  4. Seneca, On Anger
  5. Epictetus, Discourses
  6. Paul Dubois, Self Control & How to Secure it.
  7. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  8. Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life
  9. Coach Carter (its a film)

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