The Quiet Resistance in Agile Transformations
Something else is missing - a quiet resistance
Change is hard. That is an understatement. Transforming to an agile mindset, environment, and way of working is always challenging. Could agile transformations be challenged with something more basic and fundamental, something more core to human behavior? I pose these questions, because I believe there may be a quiet resistance that is pushing against agile transformations.
Most agile practitioners and coaches will likely agree that there are basic challenges that need to be overcome when approaching agile adoption, ie. transparency, communication, culture, organizational structure, budgeting, and agile education/training. Even when these items are addressed, many companies still feel as if they are “mechanically” agile. For those companies, you don’t feel agility in the air, the vibe is off, or the passion is missing.
Culture in new companies
While working with companies trying to embrace the agile mindset, I sense a hidden force (a quiet resistance) counteracting some of my work. To use a physics reference, there may be a “dark energy” there, which is hard to observe or measure. The existence of this “dark energy”, or an energy we can’t see, is a real possibility. Is there something in the psyche of individuals in an organization that is working in opposition to this transparent and seemingly social environment we fondly define as “agile”? My hypothesis is that there is this hidden force working in opposition to agile. Just to be clear, “dark energy” does not imply a negative connotation, it is simply hidden and hard to detect.
When you observe the most successful companies using agile practice like Scrum, you often find a very social and open environment. Somehow they worked through their past difficulties and have gotten to this Zen-like state of agility. Perhaps, some of these companies never had a dark past to overcome, so they were starting from scratch; Spotify is a good example. For companies with no history or baggage, the culture tends to be one that supports agile and that mindset. Therefore I might also assume, there is a higher likelihood that anyone joining companies like that would be attracted to that lifestyle, environment and mindset. The people hiring new staff will also look for like-minded people to join their teams, in order to preserve the culture.
Who are our idols?
The success of agile depends so much on social interaction and collaboration. Some of us aren’t wired for that in a natural/native way. In fact, some of us have a natural aversion to this behavior. This natural aversion conflicts with the seemingly overt need of social-based behavior in companies moving toward complete agility. Open floor plans, team activities, stand-up meetings, free and open communication are not unique to agile, but are commonly found in “agile” environments.
There is a reality of varying personality types (introverts and extroverts) inside and outside of our self-organizing teams. Perhaps we can have a more thoughtful approach to creating and cultivating a truly agile environment and culture if we are aware of the diversity in personalities amongst us. By raising awareness and touching upon statistics, traits, and the environment our teams operate in, I want to challenge you to think about how we might approach our worlds differently with team building, culture and our organizations.
Many programmers are by nature introverts. Slightly over 50% of American and European men and women are introverts. When we focus on software engineers, the percentage of those considered to be introverts jumps up to 58%1.
Those in leadership tend to be slightly more extroverted on average, and they are usually the ones asking for agile changes in their organization. Perhaps they can relate better to the open environments and the benefits of close collaboration and face-to-face communication more so than the people in their teams.
Western and Eastern culture vary dramatically in the balance of introversion and extroversion. Here in the United States, many software teams are comprised of Western and Eastern team mates. Their innate perspectives on the culture ideals will be different.
Western society typically places more value on extrovert-like behaviors… think movie stars or action heroes. Our society tends to idolize rock stars, pop singers, rappers and athletes who take huge risks or put themselves out there with enormous personalities. Our culture places a lot of value on the individuals with the highest degree of social finesse and those who can navigate any conversation or situation. In short, our culture idolizes glamour, fame and open communication.
If we, as a society, idolize those who exhibit extreme extrovert-like behavior, it makes sense that this would permeate our work culture as well. Agile isn't necessarily promoting extreme extrovert behavior, but it isn't pushing it down either. Our open floor plans and the emphasis on face-to-face communication provides a warm environment for extroversion to flourish. When the majority of team members on a software development team are introverts and our leadership is mostly made of extroverts, what natural conflicts exist? How do we address this quiet resistance that no one is speaking about?
It now seems obvious to me that the dynamic of introverts/extroverts may be affecting agile adoption. Even though it seems obvious now, in all of my years of agile coaching, this topic never came up. Having this new-found knowledge isn't going to change the world, but maybe it can slightly affect the mindset of those in leadership positions. There may be subtle and relatively small changes that can be made to better accommodate the diversity of personality types in our teams. If this is done, it might make a happier and healthier work environment. When people are happy and healthy, they feel good. When they feel good, they tend to build better products. This is a win-win for business and people.
Thoughts on some improvements
Leadership is part being a visionary and part being a motivator. I wouldn't expect any leader to change their approach in a wholesale manner after reading this, but perhaps I've shone some light on a rarely talked about topic. How can you motivate your teams with a clear vision, if you don't have a deeper, more empathetic understanding of the diversity in personalities within your teams?
I'm not sure there is a prescribed way of fully addressing varied personality types in your organization. Having awareness of this fact may help you draw your own conclusions on what can be done to improve your environment and culture. If you're in a leadership role, try walking the floor and visiting the teams. Try looking at their world as potential introverts and extroverts and see if that changes your perspective.
Introducing quiet spaces
A lot of my coaching is done in New York City. For years, there has been a push for more open floor plans. Open floor plans do create an "open" and bright environment. It also allows everyone to see everyone else. They can be productive and sometimes even fun. There are some downsides of course, they can be loud and distracting.
Open floor plans can be very hard for people who thrive in a more quiet environment. There are a few places I've coached where leadership wisely put in private spaces that are very quiet. Some of the spaces looked more like sleeping quarters on an overnight train. People can disappear into these areas, sometimes known as "focus rooms", to do work and get some down time.
Headphones create a pseudo private space
For a small investment, a company can offer its employees noise-cancelling headphones for those who may need them. Putting on noise-cancelling headphones allows one to disappear in silence and focus if needed. It also may become a norm that if someone is wearing them, that could mean they are trying to focus.
Mood lighting for the office
Office lighting is often overlooked. I think most people know that lighting effects mood, so why wouldn't we utilize this concept to a place we spend 8 hours a day? Creating better lighting experiences may positively impact productivity, mood and overall happiness in the office. Check out this interesting article from Inc. magazine titled "Bad Mood in the Workplace? Try Changing the Lights".
Questions for our community
Thinking about personality types within the culture of your organization is just one dimension of agile transformations. Acknowledging this reality, may all make us think a little differently about where the challenges are really coming from with agile adoption. The mechanics of agile, or the machine and its parts, may be in place, so why do some people still feel disconnected and not engaged?
What happens if a team is too heavily staffed with introverts and not extroverts, or the other way around? Is there a perfect mix?
What can we do as servant leaders to help recognize and acknowledge the differences in personality types in our teams, and tune and adjust accordingly?
The ability to “build teams around motivated individuals” makes a lot of sense, but what if the reasons for motivation are inherently different because of where we lie on the introversion/extroversion scale?
I would love your thoughts on this post. If you have some answers for my questions above, post them here, send me a message or share them!
1 Reference "1998 MBTI Manual" - http://introvertzone.com/ratio-of-introverts