When a Manager is not Agile (but thinks he is)

Sergey Makarkin
Apr 16, 2018 · 8 min read

Imagine you are an external Agile consultant invited to improve Scrum in a team. A product owner is a head of this department. Let’s call him Alex. Alex says a lot about self-organization and business agility and then during Sprint planning you observe this guy suppressing team’s initiatives, micromanaging, and in an aggressive manner avoiding team’s questions about business value of Sprint backlog items. It looks like Alex believes that he is Agile but enacts opposite — highly command-and-control behavior. So what should you do?

Ok, let’s talk and explain him what he’s doing wrong. Some people will start next meeting with Alex proposing some improvements. “Alex, you should be more transparent on business value of backlog items, let the team decide on “how” and focus on “why” and “what” and providing clear business objectives for each element in backlog.” They will expect Alex to open his eyes and change his behavior, or at least give it a try for a short time. But Alex gets angry, and claims that you are incompetent — he already had several agile consultants in his department, and all of them recommend the same things — the things that does not work. “All those advices could work if I had a more mature team”, Alex says — “but my team is not mature nor motivated to develop themselves. And I was hoping that you will be the one who will finally suggest something that will improve team’s self-organization.“ Someone could try to be not so direct and use “more coaching approach”. Try to ask Alex some questions that will lead him to realizing that he should change. But as soon as an inquirer has preferred answer in mind, it’s easy to get where he is arу aiming at. Alex will notice that (consciously or not), and you have the same results: anger and denial.

I have met couple of such Alexes (as many of us probably did) and spent some time thinking what can be done here. I came to the conclusion that the process-driven approach “do this, and it will make you change” will not work in situations like this — when a person at the top does not see himself as the one who needs to change. Even if you could set up some agile process, for example Scrum, you will get exactly what you can see in the example above: Alex is constantly sabotaging Scrum by micromanagement and lack of openness and trust. By the end of the day it’s all about changing a mindset, rather than just process adjustments. I have already stated in my previous post that we could (and even should) look at a science deals with such kind of changes — psychology. One possible idea of how to deal with such kind of clients I got from Carl Rogers. In “Counseling and Psychotherapy: Newer Concepts in Practice” he describes a new counseling approach. This approach has certain characteristics that are critical to a successful counseling. Rogers writes: “First is a warmth and responsiveness on the part of the counselor which makes rapport possible, and which gradually develops into a deeper emotional relationship… It expresses itself in a genuine interest in the client and an acceptance of him as a person…. He does not pretend to be superhuman and above the possibility of such involvement… The second quality of the counseling relationship is its permissiveness in regard to expression of feeling. By the counselor’s acceptance of his statements, by the complete lack of any moralistic or judgmental attitude, by the understanding attitude which pervades the counseling interview, the client comes to recognize that all feelings and attitudes may be expressed. No attitude is too aggressive, no feeling too guilty or shameful, to bring into the relationship. Hatred for a father, feelings of conflict over sexual urges, remorse over past acts, dislike of coming for help, antagonism and resentment toward the therapist, all may be expressed…. [Another] characteristic of the counseling relationship is its freedom from any type of pressure or coercion. The skillful counselor refrains from intruding his own wishes, his own reactions or biases, into the therapeutic situations…. Advice, suggestion, pressure to follow one course of action rather than another these are out of place in therapy.” By applying this traits among with some constraints a counselor allows client to express his feeling and intents openly, and by doing this a client opens his true feelings and attitudes to himself, thus being able to become aware of them. Having this awareness a client can decide what he or she is going to do about it. There is one more aspect of this approach that is crucial for success. First, a counselor does not force this awareness. He does not push client — just reflects on his feelings. This is a critical element — because bringing attention to a feeling that client is not ready to accept leads to defensive denial of that feeling and weakens (of even completely destroys) the rapport, thus inhibiting further improvements.

“OK” — you might think, “what all this has to do with Agile? We are not here to deal with clients family relationships or sexual urges!” I completely agree. But before disposing that approach (and this post) I would like to point on one additional fact. Many agileists that I’ve met have a strongly negative attitude towards command-and-control management style. We can’t hide contempt when someone says “resources”, “assigning tasks”, “status reports” and other “traditional management stuff”. Now let’s get back to the story that I described at the beginning of this article and try to connect the dots.

Alex believes that he is a nice guy, a modern manager and agileist. He probably thinks that it’s the right way of doing things, so given that he considers himself “a good manager” he suppresses command-and-control part of his personality. But one cannot just suppress part of the psyche — it will inevitably manifest itself one way or another in one’s actions. So Alex lives in a constant stress and self-deception, enacting his true set of beliefs while suppressing those beliefs. That leads him to frustration due to cognitive dissonance so he rationalizes his actions by externalizing and flipping his true attitude (thus “I am a command-and-control obsessed person” becomes “They are unable to self-organize, so I have to micromanage”). If you try to push him to acceptance of his command-and-control part, such a push creates a risk for his self-identification as a “good guy”, thus creating frustration. He is not ready to accept that part of his, so his sub-conscious part externalizing this frustration by masking it as anger towards coach. Bang! And given the described attitude toward command-and-control management one sometimes doesn’t need to say anything — this contempt is vividly displayed on his face during each interaction. The situation that I described here is probably the worst case for any consultant: “I invited you to change them” (meaning “I am not the one who needs to change. Change the team”). Most of agileists I have spoken about such kind of situation agree that chances of success here are close to zero. You cannot force a person to change. But what if we are using a wrong tactics, pushing too far and too fast? The undirected approach to counseling described by Rogers “is characterized by a preponderance of client activity, the client doing most of the talking about his problems. The counselor’s primary techniques are those which help the client more clearly to recognize and understand his feelings, attitudes, and reaction patterns, and which encourage the client to talk about them. One half of the counselor items fall into these categories. The counselor may further achieve this aim by restating or clarifying the subject content of the client’s conversation. Not infrequently he gives the client opportunity to express his feelings on specified topics. Less frequently he asks specific questions of an information-getting sort. Occasionally he gives information or explanations related to the client’s situation. Although not the type of technique which could be used frequently, there is considerable redefinition of the interviewing situation as being primarily the client’s situation, to use for his own.” By doing this patiently enough, without pushing client too fast, counselor helps a client to recognize and accept client’s feelings, attitudes and beliefs at a client’s pace. And as soon as client accepts new facts about himself, he can start do deal with them. In order to do this a counselor must be patient, humble, and have enough compassion and self-awareness to not become judgmental about client’s beliefs. This can be hard to learn, but it is a skill, so in can be learned.

This approach has one side effect that we must be aware of. Because counceling can only be successful when it is undirective and based on total acceptance of the client, you can be confronted with a difficult choice after client’s gain insight on his beliefs and convictions. In the above example there are at least two options. A client can decide to change himself so that he will facilitate, rather than inhibit agile mindset and practices within his team. Or he can decide to accept the fact that he wants more control, and throws away the whole idea of becoming agile. This will probably have some positive effect on his organization as churn rate will probably drop as soon as manager’s declared values and actions will match (though some of current employees will leave the team). So in this scenario you can feel as if you facilitated “anti-agile transformation” of an organization. In my opinion both outcomes are rather positive. Even though the second scenario does not make that organization agile, it, at least stops feeding a myth that Scrum is just a set of rituals that do no difference. I see it as a positive change anyway. How to implement this approach of non-directed client-centered counselling to agile consultancy? As my friend Roland Flemm says, first you need to get educated properly. But assuming you have knowledge and skills needed, what’s next? That’s an open question for me. I see that there are several constraints for this. First, this should not become a psychological treatment. This can be achieved by being constantly aware (at least by the counselor) of the fact that there is a limited set of topics that can be discussed during such conversations. Luckily enough this method does not require digging deep into psychological experiences that created this beliefs — just accepting them seems to be enough for successful counseling. Second constraint is the actual way of doing such kind of counselling. It should not be performed as an attempt to delve into the mind of a person. A possible way of achieving this is by paying attention and being truly curious about client’s feelings and beliefs. Third — you will need to have enough time for genuine conversations, so that you could build trust and help a client to reflect on his deep beliefs about how work should be done and how to manage people. You can probably agree on that upfront (while keeping in mind second constraint), so that client will be ready to spend time talking with you. Last but not least is setting clients expectations so that he will not expect (or insist on) you to give advice and guide him on what to do. A client will have to decide what to do by himself, while you may help him create a plan of how to do it.

Maybe you have used such approach running agile transformations? Please share your experience.