20. June 2022 By Florian Petermann, Andreas Honert and Stefan Hilmer
Approaches for avoiding agile regression
The main thing needed to make an agile transition successful – in addition to using and implementing a methodological framework – is a cultural change. Having a correspondingly agile mindset that uses personal responsibility to promote innovation and speed (among other things) is the only way we’ll be able to react to changing customer needs and market situations with the flexibility we need. An agile mindset is not something that can be taught or prescribed by and large; it needs to be given the space to develop at every level. This not only requires time, but also that everyone involved is motivated and open and shows perseverance.
Agile teams and managers run the risk of falling back into old – supposedly proven – behavioural patterns while traversing the long road of agile transition. We call such a relapse ‘agile regression’. Since agile regression develops gradually, the indicators mentioned in our blog post ‘The agile regression trap’ are very difficult to recognise in everyday life or can only be recognised at a late stage.
To make this easier, in our current blog post, we’ll describe not only the indicators but also the typical situations that often arise in the context of an agile transition, as well as direct, point-by-point approaches to mitigating agile regression. In addition, we’ll also recommend neutral transition support, which helps to ensure the lasting success of the agile transition with a ‘view from the outside’.
Typical situations and point-by-point approaches for mitigating agile regression
Recognising and responding to stress
The introduction of agile approaches is often accompanied by promises that software development process will be faster, cheaper and better (for example, customer-oriented or of higher technical quality). Expectations such as these can cause stress for both agile teams and managers alike.
In order to prevent stress from arising in the first place – as a result of and during change – care must be taken from the very beginning to ensure that an agile mindset is able to develop. In particular, modern cross-functional team structures, new roles and, above all, new responsibilities require team members to have a rethink. This is because the ‘silos’ and horizontally demarcated responsibilities often familiar from traditional project management approaches can impart a feeling of ‘false security’.
Every team member therefore needs the time to settle into their new roles and find themselves as a team. The main thing that agile teams should be given is the opportunity to apply and try out different agile methods and practices within the methodological framework. This gives the teams the ability to then determine which of these modern methods and practices help them to develop excellent solutions quickly and flexibly in their individual team situation.
An agile mindset must develop among agile teams, and the same is true for managers because they also have to figure out how to manoeuvre in an agile setting with changed responsibilities and new processes. This means that managers should also be given the time they need to make their own experiences. For example, they have to learn how to communicate with agile teams or how to introduce requirements in the form of feedback – as one would during a review.
Managers are also confronted with stakeholder expectations on top of this. So they should also be able to apply and try out new methods and practices for managing agile teams, as this is the only way to prevent a relapse into old patterns of behaviour.
It isn’t always possible to avoid exposing agile teams or managers to stressful situations during an agile transition. The first and most important step is to establish how the agile teams and leaders deal with such situations. In the best case scenario, an agile mindset has already developed to such an extent that the agile teams and managers react flexibly to stressful situations. However, there’s also the risk that a stressful situation can lead to a relapse into old, learned patterns of behaviour.
Scrum masters or agile coaches in particular play an important role here. This is because they’re able to operate within the framework of retrospectives to recognise whether there has been a relapse into old behavioural patterns. They do so by using statements in reviews or also engaging in direct exchange with those involved. For example, sequential processes (‘mini waterfalls’) are established by the team members during retrospectives or the managers request extensive (controlling) reports in a review from the product owner.
Transparency must now be established with all stakeholders regarding the fact that introducing additional traditional methods and practices is not an appropriate response to stressful situations. This is because agile approaches unfold their full strength in these kinds of situations in particular, as they provide the necessary framework for being able to react quickly and flexibly to changing circumstances.
Avoiding a lack of transparency through a sustainable culture of error
If agile teams don’t work transparently, there’s a risk that shadow structures from the traditional approach will re-establish themselves. It’s particularly important here to establish a sustainable culture of error. Those who are afraid of making mistakes or even of being scorned for making mistakes will never disclose their work. For them, the focus is always on avoiding and, if necessary, covering up mistakes. This applies to both employees and managers. Conversely, if management doesn’t work transparently, then it’s difficult for the teams to act independently and take responsibility.
Mistakes are seen as something negative in the traditional environment. It’s often important for every employee to avoid mistakes in this context because, in the past, those who made mistakes were punished for them. Breaking free of this mindset is one of the great challenges of an agile transition.
A culture of error cannot be achieved by decree, and it can’t be learned either. It has to be experienced. This means that management must exemplify this culture of error and that there must be no restrictions whatsoever when errors occur. This is a huge step, and managers often regress into old patterns of thinking at this point.
This is why the culture of error within a company or organisation must also be formalised in writing at the beginning of an agile transition – a simple sentence that explains the error culture in a nutshell is often sufficient. An example of this would be: ‘we don’t make mistakes; we learn’. Other formulations are possible as well, such as: ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission’. Everyone needs to be able to refer to these sentences or ones like them. Only then will the basis for transparent work be created.
The autonomy of the teams must not be interfered with. Team members and managers must learn to endure failure. Any interference in the team’s autonomy will result in a relapse into old patterns of behaviour. All team members should be confident in the autonomy of their team, and it should also be formalised in writing so that anyone can refer to it at any time. This is how managers are brought back onto an agile path when they need to be.
Creating awareness to avoid agile regression in the long term
In order to avoid agile regression, it’s important to make those involved aware of the fact that there’s a risk of it and that it must be prevented. So we’ll keep an eye on the indicators mentioned in our previous blog post ‘The agile regression trap’. Even when the beginning of agile transition is successful, the first unharboured doubts may come to light at some point. Everyone involved in the transition should have an open ear for these doubts and inform the team of them immediately. Even when trust in management is obviously decreasing, everyone’s alarm bells should be ringing. There’s an urgent need for action if the transition is openly called into question. In every case, the whole team should be involved in order to develop an appropriate solution together with everyone concerned.
Every initial event qualifies as the right place and time to create this awareness early on. From the first kick-off to the first retrospectives, everyone involved should be informed of the risk of an agile transition, the indicators should be pointed out and common options for action should be clarified.
Those involved in an agile transition should generally be agilely trained. The topic of agile regression should be part of any training course or workshop. Here, too, indicators and possible courses of action are then communicated in order to create the necessary level of awareness.
The attempt of regressive withdrawal to familiar levels of organisation can be found in views influenced by systems theory (for example, Ciompi). A system automatically strives to obtain a different state of equilibrium when faced with changing conditions that may be extreme and stressful for individuals. This new state of equilibrium then exhibits characteristics reminiscent of other earlier, supposedly better levels of organisation (as described in Psychodynamic models in psychiatry by Stavros Mentzos).
In an agile transition, we usually want to develop a group, product team or entire organisation in a way that’s positive and also modernise it using the agile setting and prepare it for future market requirements.
And yet it can be justified that a team or an entire organisation doesn’t want to take this step. It’s possible that when the planning the agile transition, too little attention was paid to whether the envisaged development meshes with every area of the company as well as its organisation. Management and consultancy firms agree that an agile transition is excellent for the future of the organisation. So then with this conviction, the good agile solution is then simply rolled out in all areas of the organisation.
Sometimes, the fact that the agile setting doesn’t always fit gets overlooked. And most notably, two key principles of a transition get forgotten in the midst of all the positive dynamics of change:
- those affected should become participants and
- there should be room for different speeds of change.
If both of these principles aren’t woven into the transition process in the appropriate way, legitimate indications, doubts and criticism may be brushed aside. Freely following the motto ‘what’s good for some must be good for all’, management then increases the pressure on the areas that aren’t keeping pace. And it’s precisely in a phase such as this that areas of the organisation want to fall back into old patterns – first quietly and gradually and then with an increasing degree of clarity.
Agile coaches should be sounding the alarm bells at this point at the latest. Examining the origin of the regression can be both wise and helpful. And they may find that the agile setting doesn’t fit the field at present or in general.
So then it’s good for the development of the overall transition if exactly that is made possible – change at different speeds. This frees up time to turn those affected into participants who can then check whether and how the agile setting could fit in their area.
Utilising neutral transition support to ensure the lasting success of an agile transition
We recommend utilising transition support in order to be able react to signs of agile regression early and appropriately. A neutral person – ideally an agile coach – should concentrate on counteracting agile regression, warding off emerging regression and ensuring that the results of the transition are maintained.
In order to maintain an appropriate degree of neutrality, transition support should be administered by persons who are not part of the agile transition team. This ensures that the transition support is objective and that their view is not clouded by the everyday routines the transition involves.
The transition support team attends the traditional events as well as the designed environment’s initial ceremonies. In the process, it monitors the indicators mentioned and convenes separate retrospectives if needed. It’s also the main point of contact for everyone involved, especially for those who notice signs of agile regression.
Just as in life in general, people in organisations, as well as entire organisations themselves, can fall back into seemingly tried and tested traditional techniques and reject agile models. In essence, this risk can be reduced by implementing transparent communication. And enhancing the benefits of an agile mindset can also avert regression in stressful situations. What’s more, having a neutral person provide transition support can help to ensure the lasting success of an agile transition. The goal is to keep the costs and the level of associated pain low whenever regression occurs. But we’ll present that in the next post.
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