This is a transcript of episode 187 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We consider the dynamics—or perhaps statics!—of an organisation that is stuck running the same agile processes or following an unchanging strategy, even though it isn’t providing any improvement, and consider why an organisation might get stuck in this way.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile! Hi Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. This is part two of a three-part series inspired by a set of tweets of yours.

Squirrel: I’m still confused about how these are all connected, you’ve explained it once, but I’m not sure I got it.

Jeffrey: Well maybe our listeners will disagree, but they fit together in my head! In this tweet you said ‘If your whole organisation keeps turning the same cranks, holding the same meaningless standups and retros without anything changing, ask what goal this ‘skilled incompetence’ is serving and what norms it reinforces.’ The part that caught my eye was this common state, ‘the whole organisation keeps turning the same cranks.’ That had me thinking of how people get very comfortable with routine, with their way of working, and it’s uncomfortable to change. Last time we talked about introducing ‘elephant carpaccio’ in daily delivery and the resistance people have before they start doing it—to doing something different. Maybe we can talk about that because this idea, the value of change, really struck me as something that we’ve alluded to many times. The idea that we’re changing because we think we’ll get better results, that we’re willing to take on the discomfort to get there. That was the connexion I had in mind.

How Change Helps

Listen to this section at 02:01

Squirrel: Got it. I’m starting to warm to this one, but I can certainly cite an example. I have a client who will remain nameless; they’ll probably recognise themselves, but nobody else should. This client was having tremendous difficulty delivering. I was coming in to make a quite sharp turn and change what they were doing. As with many of my clients who find themselves in these situations, I suggested several radical changes. I frequently see companies that need this kind of rapid shift, and a couple of the folks at this particular client asked me, ‘So Squirrel, you do this a lot. What normally happens? How will this change us? What exactly will happen?’ I gave them a kind of shocking answer, ‘I don’t know.’ I was asking them to make a very substantial change, to really shift their routine and to move away from some practises they believed were Agile, into something different. I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure that it will be different and much more interesting than what’s happening today. If you stick with what you’ve been doing, you’re going to get the same results, and you didn’t hire me to get the same results every sprint for the rest of time. You hired me so that you could do something very different and get really different results. I’m predicting that some of those results will be less good than today, but they’ll definitely be different. And as a result of it being different, we’ll learn a lot of things about what’s good and bad, and we’ll know not to do this part of it, and we’ll know that part of it is helpful. I’ve selected a set of things we can do that my experience tells me will let us do that learning as fast as possible.’ That is in fact what’s happened in the subsequent period since they asked me that question. It’s not making a change for change’s sake. Don’t go out and pick your favourite book off the shelf and implement whatever it says just to make a change. It certainly would be helpful to shake up the machine and to try something different, but something different that you think has a good shot of significantly improving things. Don’t worry if some parts of your experiment have negative results, if some things you try end up being worse: that’s still a successful experiment.

Jeffrey: It’s really interesting to hear that your description of that. I happened to be in a conversation with someone earlier today about this idea of improvement being uncomfortable. Maybe this is a chance to clarify that there’s two different types of improvement or learning that we are talking about. This goes back to Chris Argyris and the concept of double-loop learning. Single-loop learning you can think of as doing the same things with the same mindset and the same strategies, but you improve. You get better through repetition, but you’re not challenging any of your existing assumptions. You’re not changing your mindset. More radical improvements can come through this idea of double-loop learning where you are reflecting not just on your execution, but on the mindset, models, theories, and values you have behind your execution. That’s where more radical improvement can come from. But it’s also less comfortable to do these sort of radical changes. When we ask people to try to do something different it can be really helpful if we have a good rationale for why we’re doing it, but inherently people in my experience very often don’t find themselves on teams that are pushing to constantly be better. The person I was talking to, we made the analogy of someone who is going to the gym every week and bench pressing 80 pounds. They did that this workout and they did it yesterday’s workout and the workout before that, and they plan it for tomorrow’s workout. Their plan is to keep lifting the same weight every single time. But of course, why don’t we move to 85 pounds? What about 90 pounds?

Squirrel: What about getting on the treadmill?

Tasks Vs Development

Listen to this section at 06:50

Jeffrey: How can we improve what we’re doing? But all those things will be less comfortable. In the context of a gym people might already have the goal to continue getting stronger. That’s seen as an end in itself. Very often in the workplace people aren’t thinking about improvement. They’re thinking, ‘I just have to lift this iron. I just have to get this 80 pounds lifted and get these sets done and then I’m going to go home.’ The goal isn’t about improvement. It’s just getting it done. Those are some very different mindsets.

Squirrel: I was coaching someone this morning describing a relatively junior team that she’d just inherited and how they were focussed on outcomes. They’re actually not in development at all. They’re essentially a form of customer service, and their mission was ‘how many emails can we respond to?’ It had no connexion to selling more of the product, or improving the satisfaction score of customers, or helping customers to be more successful. It was ‘how many emails have we answered?’ That’s a perfect example of getting trapped and just turning the same cranks.

Jeffrey: Exactly. I am reminded of my first job in the industry, which was actually in technical support. If our goal was ‘get through as many phone calls in our shift as possible,’ that’s not as good as ‘how do we reduce the number of phone calls? How do we make sure that people aren’t experiencing these problems?’ It was very important for us that our experiences got fed back into the product, in the documentation, and also that the kind of answers we were giving would create reusable documentation so that if we did have a phone call, it could reduce a what was a half hour call to a five minute call. This idea of ‘how do we improve the overall system?’

Squirrel: To return to the tweet, if you’re seeing this behaviour, it’s very helpful to think about what it serves. There’s some norm, some culture, some reward which is coming in for doing the 80 pounds, for answering the emails, for running your sprint and getting a certain number of story points done. There’s something in the organisation that’s causing it to remain in this inertial state. If in fact you want to get better and move to a different model and build your strength in whatever situation you’re in, then you need something that really wrenches the organisation out of that stasis. If you can understand what’s keeping it there, that gives you a leg up on working out what to throw at it to shift it.

Jeffrey: In systems thinking terms you’re asking, ‘what are the dynamics at play? What are the reinforcements in this system, the forces and actions that make this the emergent behaviour and that keep us here?’

Squirrel: It’s almost not the dynamics, it’s the ‘statics’ because nothing’s moving. What’s holding back the dynamics?

Jeffrey: Yeah. So that’s really great. So if you’re a leader—not necessarily a manager, but rather someone who is going to help shift and lead the organisation to somewhere else—and you would like to move your group, your organisation at whatever level into a different mindset, into one of these different states, we’re going to recommend a conversation, as you might expect. I think that’s our discussion for next time: how you can identify the norms that are there and actually look to violate them, to change and to challenge them as a way of shifting and moving towards an improvement mindset.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.