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Are you rocking the boat or flowing in between rocks?

May 23, 2015


One of the challenge working as a Professional Scrum Trainer is reading what is in people's mind when they are silent. In a classroom setup, silence can mean many things and it depends on the local culture. In some culture, silence can be a form of respect to the person who is talking. Silence can mean "I agree with what you said". Silence can also mean the person may not be fluent in the language delivered by the trainer. Or it can also mean, "I really don't want to be here!". Generally I prefer people to be having discussion and be loud in the class.

So I was conducting this class where the majority of the participants came from one company. Now this company is a huge multinational company who is trying to implement Scrum at large scale across multiple continents. Software development is not the main activity but only a supporting activity in this company. This company does not make money from software, in fact the software that is developed by the software developers is only used as a tool to test the microprocessors that is built by the other departments.

There was one person whom I noticed does not seem to feel comfortable being in the class. Let's call this guy Eric. I was interested with him and observed him from morning of the first day. He is very silent and does not seems to be engaged in every discussion we had in the class. You can see from his body gesture that he felt like a prisoner in the classroom. I kept observing him, curious why he does not seems to be interested. Could it be because I didn't create enough spark to excite him? Without wanting to blame myself, I thought maybe because he is not fluent in English so that is why he is not joining the discussion. So I just let him be throughout the first day.

At the end of the first day, I ask everyone: "Is there anything that we should do differently tomorrow?".  I am expecting to get a feedback from Eric. Everybody including Eric does not give any feedback about the class. So I thought that everything must be alright.

When I went back to the hotel, I kept thinking about Eric. Then I thought, how foolish could I be? If Eric is not comfortable talking, he won't be comfortable expressing his needs in front of the whole class. So I thought the strategy needs to be changed tomorrow. Rather than asking the whole class, I am going to talk to Eric during lunch time to affirm what I have observed in the class.

On the second day, I approached Eric during lunch time. I asked him that I want to talk to him privately. Eric seems surprised. Maybe he thought that he is in trouble or something. I started conversation with him.


JP: I noticed that you seems to be uncomfortable. Could it be because something that I said in the classroom?
Eric: (silence).
JP: (not knowing how to translate his silence) Are you getting what you need in this class?
Eric: (raised eyebrow).
JP: Do you really want to be here in this training?
Eric: (started talking). Honestly no.
JP: What makes you feel that you should not be here?
Eric: I was forced by the other Agile coaches in that room to come to this training.
JP: That is interesting, do you know why they want you to be here?
Eric: I am not really sure. They are really pushing this Scrum thing. They want everybody in the company to use Scrum. It is the company direction. I head the department where my team members are reluctant to use Scrum. Maybe they are trying to convince me by sending me here so I can convince all of my team members. The company also already invested lots of money in this large scale agile framework so they want to move really fast in the transition.
JP: I see. Do you think Scrum is relevant for your context?
Eric: I think Scrum is good but many aspects are not relevant for what we are doing.
JP: I can understand why you feel you shouldn't be here.
Eric: Thank you. I wish those Agile coaches would at least listen to us first rather than forcing their way.


From Eric I've learnt that there are two major approaches to introduce change to our organisation. The first is what I call rocking the boat and the second is flowing in between rocks like water in the river.



1. Rocking the boat

As Scrum is increasingly becoming popular and becoming the new de-facto method for software development, more and more company want to use it and transition to Scrum as fast as possible. The trend these days is no longer Scrum but large scale Scrum. Everyone seems to be offering a large scale options. However many companies do not have the patience to transition and just want to install Scrum and hope everything will be improved the following day. Perhaps it's because many Agile practitioners and trainers are using the tagline "speed and time to market" during marketing process so many leaders do not have the patience to wait anymore these days.

Leaders who introduce change by rocking the boat will find resistance along the way. The success of change really depends on the scale and the heterogeneity of the organisation. Small organisation where the people are relatively homogeneous may find it easier to flip the boat and find it faster to see the effect of change. The level of resistance for large scale heterogeneous organisation is much higher than small homogeneous organisation. If the level of resistance is high, getting to the point that is expected will take a relatively longer time.

Even though rocking the boat may seems easier to do because you just tell everybody to change according to the text book using your authority, but to get the expected result actually takes longer because there is resistance that is impeding change to happen sooner. Leaders who choose to rock the boat will only get compliance from their people. Leaders who introduce change by rocking the boat is what I call the ambitious leaders.



2. Flowing in between rocks



“People don't resist change. They resist being changed.”
― Peter M. Senge

So how can we introduce change in an organisation without creating high level of resistance? I've learnt that we need another way of introducing change like Scrum without rocking the boat. We need to understand that people resist being changed. If you are a leader in a multinational company, you need to understand that your people come from many different cultures and backgrounds. A single approach for a heterogeneous organisation does not cut it. You need to connect with people and embrace them at personal level and see what they think is the best way to approach the change. Get them engaged throughout the change process. You must move in small steps and ensure that resistance is being well managed. Ensure people who are going to be impacted by change that you are going to be there with them during the pain caused by change.

Scrum is a framework that should help people work, it should not be used like prescription medicine, it should be used according to the context in the organisation. Not only Scrum but also large scale Agile/Scrum framework or even any other Agile practices. Copying how others in a case study do Scrum or scaling Scrum will not work for your context.

Flowing in between rocks is much harder than rocking the boat. It takes more time hence it takes patience, it is an art in itself. From my personal experience, when we are connected with people and get their engagement it actually becomes easier as we have invested time to manage the resistance upfront. Leaders who want more than compliance should flow like water in between rocks. Leaders who introduce change by flowing in between rocks is what I call the humble leaders as they invest their time, they have the patience to connect with their people at personal level, they value their people, they have the empathy how change is going to be painful for their people.


Most people introduce change like Scrum by rocking the boat. But the more I meet people from many different cultures and backgrounds, the more I realised that it can't always be that way. We can introduce change like Scrum without creating disruption. As a leader, when you introduce change, whether that is Scrum, large scale scrum or even Agile practices to your team or your organisation, do you prefer rocking the boat or flowing in between rocks?


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