Slaying Hydra: The Story of A Business Agility Coaching Partnership

Part I of III

Summer 2014. The IT group of “Big Data Marketing” was in the full throws of an Agile transformation spearheaded by the new CTO. I was brought in as a Scrum Coach. My initial objective was to launch a couple of Scrum teams and serve as their Scrum Master. Around the same time, the firm’s head of PMO had been re-assigned as the Agile Practices Lead (APL) and he and I began working together on supporting the new Scrum Master community of practice, populated by his new reports. Our work gradually evolved into much more than what either of us could have imagined at the time. This 3-part series is my first attempt at putting down the story of that partnership.

In addition to serving as the initial Scrum Master for some of the teams, I was also trying to help existing team members transition into the Scrum Master role. I wanted to develop internal capacity so that I could focus on supporting a growing program of multiple teams. As the number of Scrum Masters and teams I was supporting increased, so too did the need for collaboration with the APL.

At the time, senior IT leadership was focussed on getting those doing the work of creating value (the teams) to fundamentally change the way they were working. That is, into self-organizing teams with Scrum Masters as “servant-leaders”. This included the reassignment of project managers as Scrum Masters and business analysts as Product Owners and staff into cross-siloed teams.

Chaos and confusion ensued. It was a deliberate strategy of senior leadership: Disrupt the culture of complacency. Force people to transform by throwing them into chaos. Throw everyone into the deep end and the right people will learn to swim.

A great deal of pressure was placed on the Scrum Masters to measure and improve team performance (based on pseudo-metrics such as story point velocity). They were essentially told to create a new identity for themselves and this was painful. Similarly, the APL was on the hook to support all these people in their new roles – to be a “servant-leader of the servant-leaders”. This concept of servant-leadership was front and centre in the conversation: “What is it, and how do we make it work here?” My role was to help create a shared understanding of the desired new culture.

I discovered months later that the day after I started the engagement, around 50 people had been fired. This had nothing to do with me, but naturally people thought that it did. Even years later, this day was commonly referred to by the survivors as “Bloody Monday”. Because of the timing of the mass-exit, unprecedented in the company’s 25-year history, staff understandably regarded me as the consultant who advised the cull. It’s not exaggerating to say that it instilled terror, was emotionally coupled with the transformation as a whole and implicated me as an individual. I thought of myself as one contributing help, but I was regarded as one contributing to harm. I saw myself as a Hippocrates but I was known as a Procrustes. I only learned about this months later, after I had finally managed to cultivate a bond of trust with some folks. A consequence of this fear was that I found myself in many one-on-one sessions with new Scrum Masters who were struggling to adapt and afraid of being the next victim to lose their jobs. Rather than providing Scrum Master therapy, I should have been helping the company to improve its delivery capabilities.

The theme of this first stage was the deep, broad and painful disruption of people’s lives caused by this deep Satir J-curve transformation model deployed by senior management. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time is that emotionally, people experience change the same way they experience pain. The human brain literally responds the same. Not only were these human beings experiencing deep, chaotic change, they were also experiencing deep pain. And I was complicit in this.

The other contract coaches and I attempted to bring the crisis to the attention of senior management. We believed that it was a leadership problem, they believed that it was a staff complacency problem. The standoff lead to the coaches losing access to the leaders we were trying to help. This was a deep crisis for the group of coaches and the staff. The staff were beginning to see us as their advocates and we failed. For many Agile coaches, their part in the story ends here. In fact, some of the coaches on our team soon decided to move on to other opportunities. Others were not asked to extend their services beyond their initial contract term. Fortunately for me, the story didn’t end here. I will share more about this in Parts II & III of this series.

A teaser: These days, I advise and coach senior management to take responsibility to deliver services to customers, to understand what makes their services fit for the purposes of their customers and to design and evolve service delivery systems the fitness criteria of which are transparent to all those involved in the work. Then, allow people to truly self-organize around how the work gets done. In other words, manage the work not the people.

To be continued…


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