Building Support for Agile Processes

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My seventy-two-year-old company made a decision to make enormous business process changes intended to keep the company competitive in future markets, but these changes have now caused large amounts of complexity and are affecting group cohesion and overall morale. In trying to accommodate this more “agile” process, disengagement has become the norm as each area continues to operate within their isolated silos. Coercion and bullying have sadly achieved more than peaceful collaboration. Having already dealt with intensified levels of stress, a growing population of baby boomers are moving more quickly toward the door.

How can upper management, who has created an unfortunate perfect storm, now effectively promote change? What can be done at this point to make a successful transition from the old to the new?

Curious Twenty-Something

A Dear Curious,

These days it’s hard to find an organization that isn’t in the throes of reinvention, and the ones that aren’t are probably dead or dying. These gut-wrenching changes can tear an organization apart. So, how do you help your workforce embrace changes that are profound and rapid? I think every organization needs the answer to this question.

We at VitalSmarts spend a lot of our time working with organizations to craft answers that work for them. I’ll suggest a few approaches we take.

Focus on your Cultural Operating System. Test this metaphor: Organizations are like smartphones in that they have apps and an operating system. A smartphone’s apps include maps, e-mail, music, calendars, games, etc. These apps run on top of the phone’s basic operating system or OS. The OS controls how apps access and use the phone’s basic hardware, making it vital to the success of any and every app. However, as phone users, our attention is mostly on the apps. They are the programs we use every day. We tend to take the OS for granted.

The same is true in organizations. We tend to focus on organizational apps—specific strategies, structures, processes, initiatives, and systems—without attending to our organization’s operating system. This operating system, what we call a Cultural Operating System (COS), includes the underlying norms, behaviors, and unwritten rules that determine the success of every organizational app—apps like the agile business processes you refer to in your question.

The symptoms you describe as poor group cohesion, discouragement, coercion, and bullying often occur when an organization tries to graft a new app onto a Cultural Operating System that isn’t ready for it.

Launch a listening campaign. Leaders need to hear first-hand from a broad swath of employees. This is not the time for a survey or a consultant’s report. Leaders themselves need to lead interviews, focus groups, and “town hall meetings” to learn about the obstacles people are facing.

It is especially important for senior leaders to involve two groups: formal and informal leaders. Formal leaders are the managers and supervisors across the organization—everyone who manages people. Informal leaders are the opinion leaders within every group. These people may not have any formal role as leaders, but are respected and looked to for guidance. Leaders need to spend a disproportionate amount of time with these formal and informal leaders, because they are the key to the rest of the organization.

The goal of these listening sessions is to discover failure modes, crucial moments, and vital behaviors. Failure modes are the forms failures take—the common patterns that recur. Crucial moments are the times, places, and circumstances when these failures are especially likely. Vital behaviors are the actions that either prevent the failures from happening or turn failure into success in a crucial moment.

Look for the purpose behind each strategy. Organizations that are the best at importing new business processes focus on the purpose behind each new process rather than on the process itself. They treat the processes as heuristics that need to be tailored to fit their needs, not as formulas that need to be duplicated without variation.

Less successful organizations get caught up in the forms, policies, procedures, and tools involved in new processes—and implement them even when they don’t fit or don’t accomplish their intended purpose. It sounds as if your organization is suffering from this problem.

During their listening campaign, leaders should identify crucial moments when people are implementing processes in ways that don’t achieve the intended results. For example, agile processes put a big emphasis on involving stakeholders. However, this involvement can take many forms—and one size doesn’t fit all. Having stakeholders attend design meetings is one way to get involvement, but this approach only works if the stakeholders have the right skill sets and the interest to attend. If they don’t, then teams need to find other ways to involve them. The mistake is to either abandon involvement or stick with involvement that doesn’t work. These mistakes create the kinds of frustration you describe.

I hope these ideas give you new ways to examine the challenges your organization is facing. Readers, please add your ideas to the few I’ve suggested here.



Kerrying On

Things are Going to Be Okay

It’s my first day at Fairhaven Junior High School and I learn that every single student in my homeroom (not counting me) had been registered at the elite, private, and very expensive grade school across town when they were still embryos. Then, starting at age five, for the next six years of their lives, they attended that private, elite, and very expensive school where they were showered with tutors, special programs, and brilliant classroom instruction.

I, in contrast, had attended a grade school located in the seedier part of town where the primary educational goal was to avoid serious felonies, and our pinnacle educational experience consisted of weaving potholders.

Years later, I learned that I had been thrown in with a bunch of brainiacs who (as part of an ongoing research project) were scheduled to stick together throughout their entire junior high school experience. My inclusion in this group had been due to a clerical error.

Consequently, on the first day of the 7th grade when Mr. Lewis, our new English teacher, barked, “Diagram this sentence!,” I knew I was in trouble. He pointed at a bunch of words he had written on the blackboard as a means of divining how much my brainiac classmates already knew.

“Is that a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective?” Tom McMurray inquired.

“Do you want us to follow the standard protocol or the Helsinki Variation?” Dorothy Newton asked.

“So that’s what a sentence looks like,” I quietly muttered.

So went my entire pre-college education. Every single day of school, I was reminded of how ill prepared and utterly stupid I was by classmates who, by their fourth birthdays, had been granted memberships to Mensa.

Years of constant humiliation passed until one day, I went off to college. I was finally thrown in with a more normal crowd where, with practice, I was able to come up with the occasional right answer. And then, just when I arrived at the point where I figured I wasn’t a total moron, I was admitted to a really challenging graduate school. Once again, I found myself surrounded by people who had been registered for private schools while they were embryos. Not the Fairhaven people, but the big-city version of those people; embryos with an attitude.

“How might you use the over-justification hypothesis to explain this phenomenon?” a fellow grad student asked me on day one.

“Is that the standard version or the Helsinki Variation?” another student chimed in.

Oh boy; four more years of humiliation.

Perhaps you shared a similar educational upbringing. For years, you’re the perennial student—always lectured, tutored, mentored, and (to make matters worse) one-upped by the smarty-pants at the head of the class. At least, that’s how it was for me.

I thought it would never end.

That is, until one day (totally by accident) I learned what it felt like to have people admire me, rather than snicker at my every comment.

In my case, my glimpse into a world filled with respect rather than disdain came in late 1979 just about the time my academic self-confidence was hitting its nadir.

Noting the low morale amongst grad students in general, our grad-school social coordinator decided to sponsor small-group parties. These gatherings were to be held at faculty members’ homes scattered throughout the city of Palo Alto. The party you were to attend was based on (and I’m not making this up) the first letter of your surname. My wife Louise and I were to attend the P-party. According to our invitation, we were supposed to wear costumes that represented P-things.

“What P-things?” I kept wondering until it finally struck me. My wife would go to the P-party as a patient and I’d be her personal physician. She would have psoriasis and pneumonia—the perfect P-problems.

When the day of the grand event finally arrived, I borrowed gear from the medical student who lived in the apartment next door. Under his instruction, I put on latex gloves, carried a stethoscope, and donned a complete set of scrubs—including pants, boots, jacket, and hat. I looked as if I had just stepped out of an OR.

This particular party took place long before the advent of GPS equipment or mobile phones. So later that evening, when Louise and I became totally lost on our way to the party, I pulled up to a restaurant and ran into the entry. I figured I could use the pay phone to call our hosts and ask for directions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have change for the phone and there was a long line at the cash register. This wasn’t going well.

Then it hit me. I didn’t have to wait in any stinkin’ line! Just look at me. I was a physician for crying out loud. Never mind the fact that I didn’t know how to put on a Band-Aid. At that moment I was somebody—and I had on rubber gloves to prove it!

“I need change for the pay phone!” I blurted to the restaurant patrons politely standing in line.

Everyone turned and stared at me.

“And I need it NOW!”

Moses held nothing over me. The sea of customers parted as I hustled my way to the counter where the hostess frantically fished out a dime from the cash drawer.

Okay, maybe I hadn’t thought this through. Now, a mere ten feet from the counter, I was on the pay phone asking the P-party host for directions and I had to make the call sound like a medical emergency. After all, I had just crashed the line.

“Don’t worry, I’ll have the heart there in a few minutes,” I blurted as I hung up the phone.

The ruse worked. Nobody questioned me. Never mind the fact that I was wearing gloves miles away from what apparently was going to be a home-style heart transplant. These minor inconsistencies were overshadowed by the fact that I was a physician—delivering a heart. And did I mention I was wearing scrubs?

I’ll never forget the looks of admiration afforded me by the restaurant patrons I had just hoodwinked. Had my scrubs come with a cape, I swear I would have leaped into the air and flown from the restaurant—so pumped was I from the unadulterated admiration beaming my way.

As it was, I turned on my heel, smiled broadly, and shouted:

“Thanks folks, you’ve just helped save a life!”

With these parting words, I exited the room with a confident flair I’ve never been able to duplicate since. I think one of my eyeteeth actually sparkled.

Everyone should have such a moment. Everyone should be given a glimpse into what it feels like to be totally and utterly admired—if for no other reason than to carry them through the dog days of schooling and apprenticeship.

Of course, the heady feeling I enjoyed that day was unearned and short-lived, but I did get a big laugh later that evening when I told my P-party grad-school friends what happened. We were each caught halfway between being a trainee and being a “somebody”—or at least a graduate—and were chomping at the bit. We wanted our turn at the front of the class. We wanted the looks of admiration.

And while I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone don surgery garb and crash lines to get a feel for absolute adoration, I can say that if you stick to your books, classes, and work assignments, the day will come when you will be the knowing one. You’re not likely to be the all-knowing one (that’s reserved for those Mensa folks), but some day you’ll be an expert of sorts and it will be well worth the effort.

I’ll never forget the day I finally stood in front of a class as an assistant professor. Thirty eager students were all looking at me. That’s right, me, the kid who couldn’t conjugate a sentence. Then I spoke and they listened. Some even took notes. And, of course, some asked questions.

“Is that explanation based on social cognitive theory?” a student from the back row inquired.

“Are you referring to the standard version or the Helsinki Variation?” I responded.

Things were going to be okay.

Crucial Conversations QA

Having Integrity in a Family Business

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My husband works with his father in their family business, and it has come to light that his dad is doing some illegal bookkeeping, including tax evasion. He says that they would’ve gone out of business had they done things “the right way,” but this has resulted in my husband owing nearly $25,000 of back income taxes.

How do we (or my husband) have a conversation with his dad to get him to understand that going down this path is hurting himself, our family, and their business?

Dealing with an Evasive Dad

A Dear Dealing,

Yuck. What a horrible thing to learn. What an emotionally difficult situation to address. And I’ve got to guess it is even more stressful for you, since you have less direct influence over something that has such an enormous influence on your family circumstances.

Perhaps one way I can be of help is to give an outside perspective on the priority of the various issues wrapped up in your situation.

1. Your integrity and financial security.

2. Your husband’s business choices.

3. Your father-in-law’s integrity.

Notice that the third issue on the list is your responsibility to influence your father-in-law’s behavior. It’s not the first because it’s the issue over which you have the least control.

The first thing you need to do is have a conversation with yourself. You need to get clear about what you will do—no matter what your father-in-law does—to safeguard your financial security and to defend your integrity. For example, if he chooses not to change, will you remain connected to his business? If his actions are hurting society’s interests, what do you feel obligated to do? If he is behaving in ways that hurt employees or suppliers, do you have any obligations?

I am not suggesting answers to these questions, just that you ask yourself the questions. However, if you do not clarify what your own boundaries are, you will feel manipulated and controlled by your father-in-law’s decisions. You have no control over him. What you do control is yourself. So get clear on how you will respond, irrespective of his choices.

Second, have a conversation with your husband about how he will respond, or preferably, how you will jointly respond. Of course, he has more contact, relationship, and influence here than you do since he is both coworker and son. But your husband’s choices affect you as well, so you have a right and responsibility to weigh in on how he’ll deal with the three questions I posed above. Your husband, for example, should come into any conversation with your father-in-law having already decided what he will do if your father-in-law chooses to ignore your concerns. Will he invoke a buy-sell agreement? Will he exit the enterprise? Will he take it to the board (if there is one)? His goal is not to make decisions about how to force his father to change, but to make decisions to protect his own integrity and financial security.

Third, your husband is now ready to talk. He has detached himself emotionally from the need to control or compel his Dad to change his ways—which would probably backfire anyway. I understand that some of the options might not be fun, but he needs to avoid pretending that all the power sits with his father. It doesn’t. He only appears powerful when your husband remains in denial about reality. Reality might be that he has to choose between staying in business with a tax cheat and resigning. Resigning might seem like a terrifying option, but it is reality. The sooner he accepts this and gets himself comfortable with it, the sooner he’ll be able to have an adult conversation with his father.

From this more responsible posture, he can approach his father and explain the problem. Then he can share his thoughts about the situation and his plan for the future. For example: “Dad, I love you. I love working with you and I want to keep working with you, but I will not do so unless one thing changes. I need you to know that unless we fundamentally change the way we manage our books, I will not stay here. Can we talk about this?”

I suspect this will be one of the most difficult, painful, and emotional conversations you and your husband will ever have. Crucial conversations aren’t easy, but they are the pivot points for influence in our lives. I wish you both the best as you contemplate how to defend your integrity, protect your financial security, and influence your father-in-law in a healthy way.