Why Are We Stuck? Not always a people problem.

April 24, 2016 — Posted by Al Shalloway

An unquestioned attitude about change in the Agile community is "that it is always a people problem."  To be candid, I do not believe this.  I think there are three kinds of problems:

  1. System problem
  2. Knowledge problem
  3. People problem

By “system problem” I mean the problem lies in the system the people find themselves in.  True, the system may be bad or difficult to change because of a people problem, but it is worth making a distinction between the two.  This is one of the bigger differences between Lean and Agile.  In Agile you hear a lot about how we respect people.  But I would ask, what does that really mean?  Say you trust them and then put them in a system that fosters distrust?  That’s not really respect.  Agile tends to focus on people in an attempt to get better systems.  Lean tends to focus on systems to provide a better environment within which people can work. I would suggest this is more respectful of people.

A “knowledge” problem is when what’s stopping is a lack of knowledge. I recollect a time about 9-10 years ago I was asked by a client how to implement Agile in an environment where cross-functional teams were not possible.  They were ready to do what I asked them, but unfortunately, I didn’t know Kanban at the time and didn’t know how Scrum would work in their situation.  I don’t know I’d call this a people problem because they would have adopted any recommended solution that made sense – I just didn’t have one handy.  Nowadays I would have had no problem suggesting they use Kanban and I am confident that had I done that back then they would have adopted it straight away.

Sometimes a knowledge problem is a “people problem” because people are too focused on what they learned.  In other words, solutions are readily available, but no one is looking for them (see Framework Tunnel Vision).

Even when it is a “people problem”, if we take that as an answer, we may stop investigating and somewhat assume that our people are the problem.  But questions are more useful when we use them to drive other questions.  In other words, "ok, it's a people problem, but what kind of people problem?"  It turns out, when you reflect on this, it becomes clear there are many different kinds of people problems.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list:

  • People don't want to change either out of fear or complacency
  • People are stuck in their mindset
  • People identify with what they are doing and don't want to change identify
  • The culture people are in makes it unsafe to try something new
  • Some people are thinking in a cargo-cult manner without truly thinking of other ways to solve the problem

When one realizes that there are different types of blockages then we can look for different types of solutions.  Let's go through each of these:

People don't want to change.   A common myth is that people resist change.  More accurate would be that people resist being changed. An excerpt from The Fifth Discipline: This leads to the mistaken belief that fundamental change requires a threat to survival, a "burning platform" in the words of some.  This crisis theory of change is remarkably widespread.  Yet, it is also a dangerous oversimplification.  Often in workshops or presentations, I will ask, "How many of you believe people and organizations only change, fundamentally, when there is a crisis?" Reliably, 75 to 90 percent of the hands go up.  Then I ask people to consider a life where everything is exactly the way they would like - there are absolutely no problems of any sort in work, personally, professionally, in their relationships, or their community.  Then I ask, "What is the first thing you would seek if you had a life of absolutely no problems?" The answer, overwhelmingly, is "change - to create something new." So human beings are more complex that we often assume.  We both fear and see change.  Or, as one seasoned organization change consultant once put it, "People don't resist change.  They resist being changed."

By keeping this in mind, one can ask what is causing the resistance when it is present.  Because resistance is not an absolute behavior.

People are stuck in their mindset. People often identify our value with our thoughts.  This makes changing the perspective we take on the world difficult.  Many solutions require a different mindset.   If a person's mindset has them stuck, changing that will be of paramount importance.

People identify with what they are doing and don't want to change identify. Many people will actually feel personally attacked if you challenge their ideas.  This is one reason why asking questions can be useful.  Effective coaches often ask questions that will lead to a person challenging their own thinking.  This is less intrusive and can actually make people feel better about themselves because they are demonstrating that they can learn.

The culture people are in makes it unsafe to try something new.  When this is the case one must rethink how to make suggestions as people will not be arguing with new options as much as the danger of new options.

This is an extreme case of being stuck in one's mindset.  In this case, the mindset is typically some unchallenged belief set that purportedly explains what is being used.  In the Agile community one often hears "that's not what is in the Scrum Guide" or "eco-systems are orthogonal to the Kanban Method."  People have stopped thinking and are acting as if some other person who is not present has a solution that fits their situation.   This can be particularly challenging when it occurs.  Sometimes making it clear that there is no one size fits all solutions can lead to question whether the stated belief has merit.

People don't know alternative solutions to their problem at hand and so are stuck with trying to solve it the way they always have.  In this case, we'd accept change if we only knew a solution were available.  This is one of the dangers of people being trained in only one approach - each of which tends to focus on a few things while ignoring many others (see Framework Tunnel Vision).

By asking "why are we stuck" and going deeper than "it's a people problem" we can often get insights into how to attempt to facilitate change.

Al Shalloway, CEO Net Objectives

 

 

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.



        

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