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

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 talks a lot about self-organization and business agility and then during Sprint planning you observe this guy suppressing team initiatives, micromanaging and in an aggressive manner avoiding their questions about the business value of Sprint backlog items. 

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 talks a lot about self-organization and business agility and then during Sprint planning you observe this guy suppressing team initiatives, micromanaging and in an aggressive manner avoiding their questions about the business value of Sprint backlog items. It looks like Alex believes that he is Agile but behaves just the opposite — a high command-and-control behavior. So what should you do?

Ok, let’s talk and explain to him what he’s doing wrong. Some people will start their next meeting with Alex proposing some improvements. “Alex, you should be more transparent on the business value of backlog items, let the team decide on “how” and focus on “why” and “what” as well as 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 do 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 the team’s self-organization.“ Someone could try to be not so direct and use a “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 a set of preferred answers in mind, it’s easy to see where he is aiming at. Alex will notice that (consciously or not), and you have the same results: anger and denial.

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I have met couple of such people (as many of us probably did) and spent some time thinking what can be done in such a situation. 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 how science deals with changes like this — psychology. One possible idea of how to deal with these types 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 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 through his own wishes, his own reactions or biases, into the therapeutic situations…. Any advice, suggestion, pressure to follow one course of action rather than another - these are out of place in therapy.”

By applying this strategies along with some constraints a counselor allows a client to express his feelings and intents openly. And by doing this a client shows 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 a client — just reflects on his feelings. This is a critical element —because bringing attention to a feeling that a 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 does all of this have 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 out 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.

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Sergey Makarkin
Chief Program Manager

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