Attempting to establish a Scrum team (actually any new team) within an existing organization used to a more traditional style of working is a challenge. The challenge actually IS the organization itself. For various reasons the organizational antibodies will come out and block or outright attack the new team wherever possible. This is natural, humans don’t like change.
In case you are in this situation and trying to establish a new team within an established organization, there are still a few strings you can pull to increase the chances of success.
This is what I want to address today. I want to try and understand what the issue is and why the organization isn’t inclined to help the new team. Finally, I will give five pieces of practical advice on how to deal with this situation.
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Why does no one help?
In an ideal world, setting up a Scrum team within an established organization is done with a clear goal and minimal dependencies to others. These prerequisites mean the team can work independently and doesn’t rely on the rest of the organization for help. Unfortunately, this is the real world where dependencies likely remain. The team will probably have to work with others in order to achieve its goals.
The problem is that the other departments you will need to rely on are often unwilling to help. If they don’t outright refuse the support, they will often prioritize other tasks before helping out.
Why is this the case? Three reasons that are closely related stand out to me:
- Human resistance to change
- Political dynamics
Human resistance to change
Humans are creatures of habit that don’t like change. More often than not, fear of the unknown causes this resistance. In the case of a new Scrum team, the different way of working pulls people out of their comfort zone. They need to adapt and may feel threatened by this, fearing further changes to come. They might ultimately fear for their job security.
Additionally, large organizations frequently implement all kinds of change initiatives to “improve” their effectiveness or efficiency. Chances are many of the longer tenured employees have gone through several initiatives that were all praised as the silver bullet but then just fizzled out. This leads to change fatigue and thus a resistance to change.
Politics also play a role. There are always people that are hoping for that next promotion and want to stand out. They may feel that this new team is taking the spotlight away from them. To them, the new team may be a competitor along the corporate ladder. Thus, these parts of the organization have an interest in seeing the agile experiment fail.
Also, if someone from leadership is sponsoring this experiment, it means they are likely unhappy with how things are going. Nobody wants to be seen as part of the problem. Thus, the established organization may hope that the Scrum team doesn’t do it any better. Again, they have an interest in seeing the team fail.
This is, in my experience, mostly a problem of the so-called middle management. The top level leaders generally have an understanding of the issues. Most – certainly not all – intellectually understand the need for a new approach when things are not going well. On the working level, most people are open to different ways of working and are in my experience more curious than hostile – as long as the above mentioned change fatigue hasn’t set in yet.
In between the working level and upper management are the people that often stonewall new approaches trying to protect themselves and their career.
Ask anyone in an organization responsible for a team, department, or larger entity how it’s going. Chances are you will hear some version of: “We have too many things on our plate, not enough people to complete them, and not enough time to do so.”
They have goals they are trying to meet and are struggling to do so as is.
In this context, the rest of the organization sees the introduction of a new Scrum team as a distraction. The organization is incentivized to meet its own goals first. This is hard enough by itself. The requests from this new team are an additional burden. This is worsened if the organization is forced to provide team members in order to staff the new team.
They don’t have an incentive to help.
5 Ways to deal with an unhelpful organization
Based on the reasons above, I would argue that it’s perfectly natural to expect an existing organization to be unhelpful towards a new Scrum team. That doesn’t make the situation any better for the team, though. I do believe there are 5 things you can do.
- Make personal connections and help the organization
- Explain why (often, very often!)
- Focus on your circle of influence and demonstrate progress
- Ignore those that you cannot convince
- Use management support
Make personal connections and help the organization
Understanding the above, that the organization doesn’t necessarily hate you, is the first step. It’s not personal. Each team has their own issues to resolve and challenging goals to achieve. Everyone is struggling.
It seems so obvious writing it down: try to understand if and how you can help the organization. This will make it more likely that they will help you.
You need to identify those that you will be interfacing the most and try to make a personal connection. Be honest in explaining the situation, empathetic in understanding their issues, and authentic in offering help where it is possible. Try to truly understand their pain and see where you can help.
(It shouldn’t be necessary to mention this, but I have witnessed it a few times: Don’t look down on the organization. People in charge of implementing the new way of working sometimes act overconfident, since management chose them to lead this initiative. Arrogance will not help your case in getting support.)
Explain why (often, very often!)
Humans fear and resist change because it forces them to move into the unknown. Making the unknown more known by explaining why this new team exists and what exactly it is doing creates understanding and a higher inclination to help.
You cannot do this enough. It doesn’t matter if it is in one-to-one conversations, department meetings, or in large town halls. Authentically stating what is going on and why this is happening as often as possible will greatly help your case.
The important thing is not to try and sell the new approach as a silver bullet that will solve every problem. The organization has heard that plenty of times before. Rather, plainly state the situation, what the underlying principles are and what you are trying to achieve.
You will notice that some are really interested in the new approach for one reason or another. Offer to teach them more in detail. These are the people that will help you most later on.
Focus on your circle of influence and demonstrate progress
I am a big fan of the circle of influence introduced by Steven Covey. The circle symbolizes the things we can actually influence. It’s generally good advice and also true in the situation at hand to worry only about things in that circle of influence. Focus on what you can control.
This means, you need to identify what you can build without (or very little) help from others. Do that and then demonstrate it. A good sprint review where you can show a new working feature, gather feedback, and explain the next planned steps can be a game changer. This builds trust. You can then use this trust to convince the organization (little by little) and negotiate a better set-up.
“Do good things and talk about them” was one of the first pieces of advice I received when I started working. It is so true and applies here as well.
Ignore those that you cannot convince
When explaining why the Scrum team exists and what it is doing, you will identify people that are genuinely interested in the new approach (see above). You will also identify those that are extremely skeptical or outright hostile.
Put some effort into trying to convince them to help. You will be able to persuade some. The others are lost causes. Don’t waste your time and energy on those. If you are dependent on those parts of the organization, try to at least negotiate some manner of working together. Ignore them as much as possible otherwise, the effort is wasted.
If you cannot even come to a working agreement, there is one last resort to take.
Use management support
You can pull one last joker in case nothing else helps. Someone in the company wants you to set-up a Scrum team within the established organization. This is a significant investment of resources. This means there is someone, usually with significant power, that made this decision. By default, you often have a powerful ally. You can use this person to “encourage” better collaboration.
This will not make you any friends. It may permanently damage the relationship with parts of the organization. For this reason it should truly only be a last resort.
I try to avoid it as much as possible. Often, it’s better to endure the short term pain of establishing a mode of working with those stonewalling than to force them (although it would be much easier and quicker to call on management support). In the long run, though, you will often be served better this way.
Sometimes though, there is no other way and you need to break this emergency glass.
It’s not personal
I have been in the above mentioned situation of trying to implement agile experiments within an established organization, as a Scrum Master and as Project Lead. It can be tough and extremely frustrating. I often felt like I was wading upstream in a river against a powerful current pulling a boat.
In this circumstance it is so important to remember that it’s not personal. People don’t hate you. Once you think about it, though, they are just not inclined to help for understandable reasons.
Still, it can be hard to keep going. Realize that there are people that appreciate what you are doing. Sometimes, it can help greatly to seek them out, have a coffee together, and talk about the situation.
A little bit of venting can sometimes go a long way… 🙂
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