How leaders can win over agile working sceptics

Agile transformations offer many potential benefits, but not everyone is guaranteed to enjoy the shift. It takes strong and empathetic leadership to bring hesitant team members on board
Agile Business Leader

There are several advantages to adopting agility as a business, from closer collaboration and greater transparency to clearer goals and more empowering management methods. But, no matter how positive the outcomes may be, some people are likely to find the process of getting there mightily uncomfortable. 

As Pam Ashby, an agile marketing specialist and certified coach, warns: “If you get it wrong, teams can become disorientated and resist the change.”

The solution? Strong, empathetic leadership. “Enabling the shift towards continuous improvement takes great leadership – and it’s not easy,” she says. “Leaders must create an environment where competent colleagues are trusted to take control of their work. Teams need to feel safe.” 

It’s something that the top team at Moonpig realised early in the firm’s agile transition, according to Peter Donlon, its chief product and technology officer.

“Resistance to change is always hard to overcome, but you can make it easier if the leadership is fully bought into the agile way and leads by example,” he says. “This was absolutely the case for us as a technology business. And being a high-growth company has also given us the chance to hire people with the right skills and attitudes to complement that agility.”

Yet not everyone, even when they’re being shown the way, will be an enthusiastic follower. Bringing the whole company around to the idea requires leaders to engage at the grass-roots level. That’s the view of Eleanor Gibson, an agile coach and the founder of Tilt, an agile consultancy focused on not-for-profit enterprises. 

She explains: “We start by asking people what’s hindering them from doing their best work. Once we know that, we can show them how agile working could alleviate that pain.”

One technique is to invite a ‘constructive rant’, giving people the freedom to vent for a few minutes about everything that’s preventing them from realising their ambitions. Leaders must then guide their team to flip that around to what they want instead. 

“That gives you brilliant information to explain how agile ways of working can help you to advance,” Gibson says. 

Bringing the doubters on board

But the constructive rant won’t always be enough. Indeed, no matter how positively you talk about agility, there will usually be a few tough nuts to crack. 

“If you have someone in the team who’s really resistant to change, helping them to notice what’s not working is a really powerful method,” Gibson suggests. “In enabling them to see that what they’re doing is ineffective, it diverts them from thinking that a change will be scary and uncomfortable.”

Leaders will naturally be concerned about the amount of time and energy they may have to expend in winning the hardcore sceptics over. Could that derail the overall process?

“Don’t start with them,” she advises. “You’re sure to fail if you focus on converting the most difficult people first. Instead, start with the folks who are showing the most interest or those who know that things really need to change.”

Donlon reports that Moonpig applied this tactic to great effect. Fortunately, the firm “already had some great examples of where agile ways of working had delivered results for us. Seeing a real demonstration of how a team could react quickly to a change in the market and deliver fast results inspired others in the business to want to do the same thing.”

Morale boost

This kind of motivation is particularly important in the third sector, where the enthusiasm of employees to advance a worthy cause is one of the most valuable resources a charity can draw on. It’s one of the reasons why Gareth Ellis-Thomas, director of transformation and technology at Prostate Cancer UK, worked with both an external agile coach and an in-house specialist to improve collaboration in his team. 

“We wanted to find a way to respond to customer needs more quickly,” he explains. “Our annual business planning cycle meant that people would have great ideas at the start of the year, but conditions could change considerably in 12 months. There was lots of collaboration among people across the country, but sometimes its formal nature held them back. I wanted to give them some tools and processes that would aid teamwork.”

Although the project has been a success, with staff reporting that they are more customer-focused, efficient with their time and responsive to changes in the market as a result of their agile transformation. Despite this, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. 

“There was quite a lot of scepticism about it,” Ellis-Thomas recalls. “People always ask whether a new buzzword or piece of technology being introduced is just another fad we’re going through.”

To show any doubters a convincing example of agile working in action, he started with a small experiment that didn’t involve technology. Ellis-Thomas ensured that “some of the ceremonies and rituals” of agile working – including stand-up meetings – started taking place in an area of the charity’s office where other employees could look over and see for themselves what these processes looked like. That generated interest among them and helped to build enthusiasm for the coming changes. 

Gibson points out that, even among the most willing participants, certain aspects of agile working might not sit comfortably. Leaders must therefore recognise the elements that are likely to chime best with their teams and adapt their approach accordingly. 

“Stand-ups are about establishing transparency and shared accountability. If you want to achieve these in a way that doesn’t involve those 15-minute sessions, then absolutely go for it,” she says. “That’s what taking an agile approach to agile transformation is all about. As long as there are clear measures of success, how you do it is up to you.’”

Busting agile jargon

The terminology that’s widely used by agile practitioners can be offputting to some people, sometimes hindering transformations just as much as the practicalities of implementing the new approach.

Eleanor Gibson points out that the terms that specialists use for some processes “get in the way of shared understanding”. But she stresses that there’s no rule stipulating that teams adopting agile principles must use all the associated jargon.

“The important thing is to describe a given process so that everyone knows what it’s about, not to name it once and for all. For instance, we often don’t use the term ‘sprints’; we say ‘a two-week cycle of work’ or even ‘chunks’,” Gibson says. “Don’t be afraid to use colloquialisms.”

Peter Donlon agrees: “The more self-explanatory a term is, the more likely we are to use it. For example, we refer to a cross-disciplined group of people as a ‘squad’. When you start talking about ‘chapters’, ‘tribes’ and ‘guilds’, adoption becomes much harder, as you’re putting up a much higher barrier to understanding.”

Gibson also warns that people can hide behind jargon, talking the talk rather than actually doing the work that’s required. With this in mind, she suggests that business leaders try to avoid mentioning technical terms too much, especially at the start of a transition.

“Ideally, you want to talk about agile as little as you can before getting people learning through doing,” Gibson says. “Give the minimum information and just get people started.”