The Fear of Agile Transformation

“The snake which cannot shed its’ skin has to die.  As well as the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently, I was attending a Deep-Dive study group that was hosted by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd of the Agile Coaching Institute.  During our discussions, I began to think about all of the agile transformation efforts I had participated on and what, in my opinion, seemed to be one of the deterrents to a successful agile transformation.

What I determined was that a good percentage of people that resisted the change to agile came from a very strong command-and-control background—individuals that were managers, at all levels, who were accustomed to being in charge and commanding people to do things, sometimes down to the task level.  Not all of these people were project managers, some were senior technical leads who had reached a supervisory position and were no longer actually performing the day-to-day work.

As I spent 20+ years of my early adulthood in the United States Marine Corps and the United States   Army, I understand the command-and-control mindset. Having spent the past twenty years in the civilian workforce, I can honestly say that I have found the military command-and-control mindset to be far less domineering than the civilian one. For those of you who may be interested in this topic, I will discuss it in greater detail in a separate article.

Based on my participation in software development teams since 1992 and my personal transformation to agile in 2005, I believe that fear is one of the major contributing factors behind the resistance to an agile transformation.

Fear is an emotion that has been studied for decades.  While the fear of change, also known as Metathesiophobia, probably plays a major role in some agile transformation reluctance; I believe we can’t just narrow it down to one type or classification of fear alone.

People are afraid of losing control, afraid of failure, afraid of no longer being needed etc. All of these fears, and so many more, contribute to individual and group resistance to agile transformation. Fear is a difficult emotion to deal with. Some individuals may not even be able to recognize their fears. Those that do, may not want to admit that they are they are, in fact, afraid. In either case, these fears will be projected outward onto an antagonist (you as the agile coach/consultant). This is not a conscious decision. The subconscious mind knows that if the fear is to be destroyed, it needs a safe container—you, as the antagonist, are that container.

Our world is pretty much fashioned on the idea of individual significance and success at all costs. All too often, this success comes at the expense of others. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I was taught that winning was the only thing that mattered and that second place was not good enough. This winner take all mentality is evident everywhere in society. Sports teams are celebrated for their achievements, but the Most Valuable Player is given the most attention and the highest reward. In the film industry, the cast of a great film is applauded, yet only a few ever attain the most cherished and highly coveted Academy Award.

While success and individual achievement have always been highly valued in the business world, in today’s market place it seems to have become the warrior’s battle cry. It should, therefore, come as no surprise when those who have fought their way up the ladder of success, and have become the “best”, recoil in disbelief and fear when presented with the agile concept of team over individual.

As we know, a successful agile transformation requires teams to work in a highly collaborative and trusting environment.  Teams must possess transparency; management needs to trust the teams and the teams need to trust management.

Agile Transformations occur on several different planes:

  • Individual
  • Team
  • Group/Organization
  • Geographically
  • Globally

On all of these planes, there are individual and collective fears that should be considered during the initial transformation process.  As agile coaches, we must first recognize and confront our own fears before we can help others begin their transformation process. Once we have done this for ourselves then we will be equipped to help individuals and teams.

As the agile coach, we should be prepared to help the individual/team to admit and identify their fear at each level/plane.  We can do this by talking to them, individually and as a group. You do not have to have a background in psychology or sociology. All you need to be able to do is to listen to the conversation and discern what is reality based and what is fear based. Then you, as the agile coach, can begin to help to turn the fear into something actionable.  However, the coach should not tell the individual/team how to conquer their fears; you should only help them to prepare for the journey.

Consider the agile transformation as a quest. In order to complete this quest, the individual/team must go through a dark forest.  The agile coach is not allowed to make a path through the forest, but should only point to the forest and allow the individual/team to make their own path.

The forest contains the experiences.  However, like any quest, the individuals/teams must be prepared.  This preparation starts with having the right tools and equipment and deciding what will help them along their journey.  This is where, you, as the coach will do the most work. By providing training, guidance, role-playing, and exercises, you will prepare them for their quest.

Once the individual/team understands the concepts, then the quest through the forest begins.  At this point the agile coach does not walk into the forest with the individual/team, but merely stands at the edge, observing and waiting for them to come back with their experiences.  As each individual/team expresses these experiences, they, in turn, become coaches and help others prepare for their journey into the forest.

You may not be able to change a team, group, or an entire organizational mindset.  However, if you can affect one individual, then you can change the world.  Remember, a stream starts with only one small drop of rain. Over time, that drop of rain combines with many other drops of rain; and before you know it, they all merge as one, rocks are hewn into sturdy shores, and rivers are born.


  1. notivago on March 9, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Reblogged this on while( coffee ) { code; } and commented:
    Excellent article, fear of change and lack of willingness to try out new things and risking failure is the single greatest enemy of agile adoption and success in most endeavours.

    • Steve Crago on March 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you for your comments and for sharing my article.

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