Personal Empowerment and Transparency: Two Cultural Aspects for an Agile Transformation

“Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing! You see things, not as they are, but as you are.” – Eric Butterworth

The impact of organizational culture on a successful agile transformation cannot be understated. That said; I believe we must not lose sight of the fact that an organization is composed of many different individuals. As the whole can never be greater than the sum total of its various parts, I believe it is necessary to evaluate not only the organizational culture but the individual employee’s personal culture as well.

Individual culture begins to form immediately upon our birth; people with certain cultural aspects raise us, we live in a particular neighborhood/community, within a city/village/town, and in a particular state and country. All of these factors help to form cultural norms. The way in which we react to certain situations speaks volumes as to the influence of our cultural surroundings. As we age, our cultural surroundings will expand. This expansion and growth forces us to adapt to different cultural norms.

Every stage of life comes with its own cultural transformation. The earliest stages of educational progression lead to the cultural transformation that takes place when we finish our educations and join the work force. Then we may marry and have children. Job changes may be necessary and relocation is always an option. Each of these scenarios comes with its own cultural changes; and whether we realize it or not, we will be transformed—for the better or the worse, that choice is always up to us.

Most adults will eventually settle into a job and adapt to the culture of the organization. They will adjust some of their own cultural traits to succeed, and many will become comfortable with the status quo. Now here is where the sticky widget comes in—yes, my friends that would be you and me. We are the fly in the proverbial ointment—at least in the minds of Mr. and Ms. Comfortable.

Consider this:
Mr. and Ms. Comfortable are enjoying their day at work. Sure, things may not be perfect; but they always know what to expect. Then, we, the oft-times despised agile coaches, show up out of nowhere and have the nerve to tell them that their organization is going to start implementing agile and things will be changing. At this point, the hackles come out. Why do we need to change anything, they wonder—many times aloud. Sure, things may not be perfect; but they are predictable.

Now, Mr. and Ms. Comfortable are concerned. They have worked hard to get to where they are. They love their company. True, they were complaining about it just last week; but that was last week. When change is afoot, everyone wants to dance with the one that brung ‘em.

With each passing day, the chatter around the water cooler is getting more heated. Some people are worried about losing their jobs. “What is all this agile crap about anyway?” one asks. “I’m not sure I like this servant-leadership thing,” another one replies. “Self-managing teams,” one of them huffs out the words, “will never work, not here, no way.”

But standing off to the side is a group of bright-eyed forward thinkers. They are excited about trying something new. They have been waiting for this change for years and are embracing it with open arms. They listen to the water cooler chatter and shake their heads. “We can make this work,” one says excitedly. “This will definitely make coding more efficient,” says another.

And so the journey begins . . . .

The first step of our journey begins with the realization that there is a difference between “doing agile” and “being agile”. Doing agile involves the act of “adopting” certain agile processes and frameworks; being agile includes a behavioral/cultural transformation. I believe you must adopt and transform simultaneously. Mike Cottmeyer talked about this back in 2011 in his article, “Untangling Adoption and Transformation”.

The second step of the journey piggybacks on the first. If an agile transformation is to be successful, there must be cultural changes not only on the organizational level but on the personal level as well. Behaviors must be modified. At this point, it is important to remember that everyone involved is in the process of “becoming agile.” Our job, as coaches, is to assist in this process.

In this article, I will discuss two behaviors, which I feel are essential to a successful agile transformation:

Becoming Empowered
Becoming Transparent

Becoming Empowered
In my opinion, confidence is a key element in personal empowerment. My job as a coach is to help my client gain the confidence necessary to feel personally empowered. Confidence is bolstered through improvement. Think about a child learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Through continued practice, the child will improve. This improvement then gives the child the confidence he/she needs to master the task.

In “Lean Primer,” Craig Larman and Bas Vodde call this type of improvement kaizen. Kaizen is a mindset that “suggests ‘my work is to do my work and to improve my work’ and ‘continuously improve for its own sake.’” (16)

This type of empowerment provides the individual group members the opportunity to choose and practice the techniques that they are going to learn. Once the basics are mastered, they do not have to conform to centralized standards. They are free to experiment in order to find a better way of doing things.

In her book, Coaching Agile Teams, Lyssa Adkins states,

One good model for mastering anything (if that’s possible) comes from martial arts. A martial arts student progresses through three stages of proficiency called Shu Ha Ri. Shu: Follow the rule. Ha: Break the rule. Ri: Be the rule. These stages also describe agile teams as they first practice and then get good at agile.(60)

Early in my career working in the corporate world, my first PM taught me a very simple phrase that has always stuck with me; he said, “Crago, it’s always better to ask for forgiveness, than it is to ask for permission.” This simple advice was all part of empowering me to go beyond expectations and do things that were “on the edge” and not always supported by management.

Today, some organizations that are “doing agile” have not yet grasped the concept of empowering teams and individuals. They impose strict governance on how the teams must operate in an “agile environment.” What they do not realize is that the imposed governance model may also be stifling the ability of the individual team members and, thereby, the teams themselves to learn and to grow. This will inhibit the team’s ability to become truly high performing and self-organizing.

Individuals and teams that are truly empowered are the innovators; they will stretch the boundaries and create truly incredible solutions that will astound and amaze their customers. True, there will be times when they fail; but with failure, come growth and understanding. Personally, I would rather work with someone who has tried and failed than someone who has never broken out of the box and dared to do something truly incredible.

Now on a more personal level:
The truth of the matter is that no one can give you your power. As a coach, all I can hope to do is help you to know that it is within you. The decisive factor: you have to be brave enough to claim it. I would encourage you to take the initiative and claim your power. Only then can you use it to maximize your life and your job.

I would also encourage you to practice being “empowered.” You can do this by permitting yourself to be powerful. Try stretching your boundaries. Go out and do something that you may have been afraid to do before. Most of all, strive to reach new heights. Remember, practice makes perfect.

Becoming Transparent
Transparency in the work place is an interesting concept that I have talked about for many years. For me, transparency focuses on what you say and what you do; I particularly like Ken Rubin’s remark about transparency. In his book, Essential Scrum, Ken states, “I have always felt that teams should communicate in a way that aligns with the spirit of the principles of least astonishment.” (206)

In other words, people should be able to communicate with each other on a day-to-day basis, about what they are doing, without any surprises. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. I have personally observed many Scrum Teams during their Daily Stand-Up meetings, and I have seen this principle of least astonishment blown out of the water more than once.

A case in point: For five days straight, one team I was observing reported that they had no blockers/impediments at all. Then, all of a sudden, the day before the Sprint Review, a team member mentioned a problem that he had been dealing with for the past 2 weeks—a problem that was going to cause him to not complete a User Story on time.

Obviously, the team member mentioned above was not being “transparent” with the Scrum Master and his fellow teammates. This is where an understanding of organizational and individual culture is so important. In the best of situations, transparency can be frightening. When faced with a situation such as this, it is imperative to assess the organizational culture—is the individual afraid of losing his/her job because of a lack of technical expertise—as well as the personal culture—does the individual come from a culture that forbids him/her to admit that he/she cannot do something?

In the end, it is imperative that the individual team members understand the consequences of a lack of transparency. Getting them to the place where they feel secure enough to be totally honest with each other and the Scrum Master will take time. Each team member’s own personal culture as well as the culture of the organization will affect his/her ability to feel secure enough to be transparent. Remember, security depends on trust and trust has to be earned.

Truth and honesty are also important aspects of transparency, and not just on a team level but on a personal level as well. A team member will find it difficult to be truthful with his/her team if he/she cannot be truthful with him/herself. In the end, transparency really is an inside job. One must learn to be transparent with him/her self before he/she can be transparent with another.

As you can see, transparency is not as easy as it seems. Not everyone has the moral courage and integrity to stand up and speak his/her truth, especially at work. At some organizations, disagreeing with the boss is discouraged. Employees may fear that if they speak up they will lose their jobs. In this time of such economic uncertainty, this is a very real fear. In cases such as these, transparency is understandably sacrificed for security.

That said; transparency is a major factor in a successful agile transformation. If an individual is unable to—or is prevented from—being transparent, obvious issues will eventually surface. These issues will block the individual and his/her team from being able to reach that level of “being agile.”

I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating: empowerment and transparency begin at the personal level. The individual must first be empowered personally before he/she can be empowered at work; the same is true with transparency.

As coaches, we must always look within before we can reach out and help our clients. We cannot hope to give to others what we ourselves do not possess. If we are not empowered, we can never hope to empower others. If we are not transparent, we cannot encourage others to be so.

Before we can hope to take this journey with our clients, we must have first taken the journey ourselves. We must understand the impact our own personal culture has had on us before we can honestly assess the personal cultures of our clients. This personal journey is not always easy, but it is always worth it.

Here is a forewarning, do not begin this journey if you do not want to be transformed. Transformation is guaranteed—for both you and your clients. And isn’t that what “being agile” is all about.

Be Safe and Be Agile

1 Comment

  1. Steve Crago on October 26, 2014 at 8:03 pm

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