Fearful Change

One of the primary duties of a Scrum Master is to be a change agent. In fact, one may argue that this is a vital responsibility for the majority of Agile related roles. After all, continuous improvement is one of the key precepts of Agile and it is impossible to improve without changing. In spite of this fact, when I and a group of other Scrum Masters were initially hired, we were continuously encouraged to implement change incrementally without changing too much at once or too often. Granted, we all knew that no one would care about what we knew until they knew that we cared (to use the cliché), and that we would need to build up credibility before we could truly start implementing change; but why should we hold off on suggesting change once both of those had been achieved? If the current system is not working or is working poorly, shouldn’t the cost of delay encourage everyone to change sooner and faster rather than later and slower? Additionally, the return on investment of incremental change is significantly less than that of radical change when the change is positive. When the change is negative, radical change allows for faster failure than incremental change, and that saves money in the long run. The answer to this dilemma as conveyed to us by our leadership was that people are afraid of change and thus respond poorly to it and that people become exhausted with change that happens too often. Although partially true, the true root cause of both of these issues can be summed up in a single word for each: uncertainty and expectations.

The proposition that people fear change seems obvious. After all, one needs only to discuss an upcoming large-scale change and witness the outward manifestations of a gut being tied into a veritable knot to understand just how much people fear change. However, the simple truth of the matter is that people do not truly fear change at all (after all, change is continually happening all around us). What humans are really afraid of is uncertainty. Uncertainty is naturally inherent in change and it is that part of change rather than change itself that causes butterflies or sleepless nights. Remove even just the perception of uncertainty and stand amazed at how quickly people embrace the change. Present those who will be affected by the change with transparency, confidence, and knowledge of the future outcomes and they will not fear those outcomes even if they know that the results of the change will not be pleasant for them.

The second suggested hurdle to change was the exhaustion that comes from too much change being implemented too quickly. The belief is that individuals can endure change once, twice, even multiple times; but that they eventually become disillusioned and begin to loathe change even as one cannot stand cake after eating too much sweet. When looked at logically however, this very suggestion seems baseless since, as stated previously, we are constantly surrounded and affected by change. Without this change the world and society would stagnate. How is it then that too much change can be inflicted upon an individual? Once again, the proposed difficulty is but a red herring drawing attention away from the true cause. After all, it is not the quantity of change, not the rate of change, and not even some combination of these that wears down the mental fortitude of those subjected to its swirling tides. It is rather the lack of expectation of change that batters people into hating that which is necessary for improvement. Just as a light punch unexpected hurts more than a heavy punch anticipated, so also unexpected change strikes deep past the mental defenses. It is the common anticipation that after a change has happened, there will be a long period of stability in order to assess the change and determine new directions. When that expectation is transgressed, people are unprepared and meet the change quite poorly. It is similar to a man who wants to unpack his tent and take off his shoes at every stop of the trip, thoroughly expecting to be able to sleep and rest, even though 9 out of the 10 stops are simply short breaks. As the reader can expect, that man will be exponentially more frustrated and exhausted at the end of the day than his companions. Because of his misplaced expectations, he doubtless would have enjoyed the trip much less than the others. It should be clear then, that if the expectations are properly set and those affected by the change are encouraged to “keep their shoes on,” as it were, then change after change can be quickly implemented without frustration or exhaustion.

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