Simon Bennett presents on why the Responsibility Process® is key to Agile success

by Brendon Livingstone on 15/03/2018 02:30
Simon Bennett presents on why the Responsibility Process is key to Agile success

Agile adoptions and transformations are very common in New Zealand organisations right now, but many find it hard to achieve the buy-in and culture change required to make Agile stick.

We were excited to host an IT executive event at Equinox IT on Tuesday evening where Simon Bennett presented on 'Why the Responsibility Process® is the key to succeeding with Agile'.

Simon is the Managing Principal of LASTing Benefits a boutique consultancy operating in both Australasia and Europe. While Simon was in New Zealand working with Equinox IT to deliver Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner training, his expertise is far broader than Scrum, also covering Lean, systems thinking, complexity science, and organisational change.

Simon's talk was hilariously presented and resonated with the audience by calling out and addressing the often-unstated realities when it comes to Agile adoption and transformation.

In this blog post I summarise my interpretation of some of the points Simon made...

Why Agile transformation doesn't work

Simon has been working with Agile since well before it was called Agile and over the years has given a lot of thought to why the approach sometimes sticks and works and often times doesn't stick and fails. Simon has found that Agile normally will not work in these circumstances:

Too much focus on the mechanics of Agile

The first and most fundamental Agile Value is “Individual and Interactions over Processes and Tools”. It reminds us that Agile is fundamentally about people who do the work and its people who are called on to respond to change.

Over the years, many organisations have struggled to adopt Agile successfully because they prioritise getting the mechanics (process, practices, frameworks) right instead of working more directly with the people.

Waterfall in Agile clothing

People are very resourceful at finding ways of continuing to do waterfall. We see this manifest in ways such as "command and control Agile".

Agile is not a culture that can be adopted

It is popular to talk about Agile as a culture and that organisations need to adopt an 'Agile culture'. However, Simon argued that culture is not adopted. Culture changes through invasion and colonialism, in other words by external force. It is unlikely to help your Agile transformation if you need to violently apply an Agile culture.

The Agile Manifesto doesn't help

The Agile Manifesto signed in 2001 was a 'call to arms'. The many individuals and teams practicing new and smart ways of developing software could rally behind a shared name and set of values. It is descriptive and not directive and it becomes an excuse generator for people who do not want to take responsibility. For example, 'Individuals and interactions over processes and tools' becomes the excuse of 'no rules' and 'Working software over comprehensive documentation' becomes the excuse of 'no documentation', even though this is not the intent of those values. The Agile Manifesto doesn't help organisations trying to adopt or transform to Agile.

Bottom-up 'grass roots' Agile lacks management buy-in

Many teams adopt Agile by copying others and 'just doing it'. This is a slow and organic approach to Agile adoption that creates local optimisation. Leaders who are looking at what is optimal across their organisation are inclined to stamp out or limit this initiative that started without their permission.

Top-down Agile creates reactance

As per Simon's presentation image of the cat below, reactance occurs when choices are reduced and the person (or animal) responds by strengthening their conviction to do the opposite of what is desired.

"Let's roll out Agile", "we need to run an Agile transformation", "employ a scaling framework", "send in the Agile coaches", "make teams self-organise". Management mandated Agile adoption will cause reactance and an anti-Agile backlash.

Simon Bennett demonstrating reactance in this image of a cat

'Outside in' doesn't work, so try 'inside out'

Organisations don't adopt Agile, people do.

Agile adoption and transformation doesn't work when it is invasion, colonialism, bottom-up, top-down. These are all 'outside in' approaches - people trying to control people.

The alternative is 'inside out'. People changing themselves. Agile occurs when people take responsibility.

The Responsibility Process®

The Responsibility Process is a mental ladder that we all go through when faced with a situation. How we handle the situation is determined by what level we step off the ladder. 

Simon Bennett discussing the Responsibility Process

Low functioning people will deny they have an issue when facing a situation. As you step up the ladder people blame others, justify their actions, feel shame (blame themselves), and feel obligated to do something (but don't really want to). Because shame and obligation is often painful to the individual, they respond by looking to escape the pain by disengaging or checking out (quitting).

The constructive way to behave is above the line, to recognise that you have the power to solve the situation and to take responsibility and solve it.

Clearly, the Responsibility Process is applicable to all aspects of life, not just Agile.

The Responsibility Process and Agile

The engine of waterfall is denial, blame and justification. That is what all of the documentation and sign-off is for.

In Agile the team is self-organising and everybody is mutually accountable. The ScrumMaster is servant leader. The Product Owner is responsible for the organisation's return on investment and for prioritising the development team's work. Making an Agile project work requires each of these people taking individual responsibility. An agile project cannot be successful with a Product Owner who is disengaged from the process, or blaming the project team, or involved only because they feel obligated. So, Agile projects won't work if key team members are denying issues, blaming others or themselves, justifying their actions, doing stuff out of obligation or disengaging. 

Responsibility only works when it is self-applied from the inside out. As people start to act with responsibility it can be contagious to other people around them.

In Agile, we need to work towards responsible individuals having responsible interactions.

Many thanks to Simon for spending time with us in New Zealand delivering Scrum training and for his excellent and mind-expanding presentation.

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