If your organization is like most, you’re spending more and more each year on agile training — ScrumMaster certifications; SAFe courses; LeSS assessments; or one of a dozen other flavors of coaching, coursework and exams designed to help your software developers learn to be agile, flexible and speedy. Sadly, you may be wasting your money.

If agile training were enough to generate results, why the dismal record of agile adoption in companies of all sizes in all industries? For example, the most recent “State of Agile” report found that of over 1,000 diverse respondents from all parts of the world, only 11% could say they were highly competent in agile methodology. Over and over in our experience as consultants, we see teams focused on agile compliance, holding prescribed team “ceremonies” like sprint review sessions and using standard agile process tools like burndown charts. But the same teams display terrible agile performance, with products and systems that don’t respond to customer needs.

In one team, we saw the world’s most beautiful tracking system in place, with perfect kanban cards on the wall detailing new features to be designed and charts everywhere showing steady progress. However, no one was seeing any results in the rest of the business — and when we investigated, we found that the team had completely ignored its internal and external customers, failing to give them access to any of the shiny new software. Its rituals were perfect, but it hadn’t achieved business results — and most of the team members involved, including the chief technology officer (CTO), were fired soon after this problem became evident.

The answer isn’t to “agile harder,” to swap out one set of rituals for another or to try to certify team members out of the situation. Instead, the solution is to build the cultural foundation that enables the organization to use agile practices as they were intended. At its heart, agile is about the human skills of collaboration and communication. To reap the benefits of agile, we need to learn to build trust, eliminate sources of fear, align on “why” and make effective commitments with real accountability. And everyone — engineers, internal users and executives — can start this cultural transformation by learning to improve his or her conversations.

It turns out that there’s 45 years of social science research backing the idea that having better conversations will lead to improved performance and that doing so is a skill that can — indeed, must — be learned. Chris Argyris, professor of organizational behavior at Yale and Harvard, studied over 10,000 people from all backgrounds and found consistent patterns of defensive, unproductive behavior that could, with deliberate practice in the art of difficult conversations, be unlearned. It was exactly these rigid, defensive patterns that early agile practitioners aimed to undo, valuing “individuals and interactions” and “collaboration” over rigid practices. One of the originators of the term “agile” even considered “conversational software development” when developing the name!

Training team members in these skills — even introverts who would rather talk to a computer than a human — may sound difficult, but, in our experience, it is is achievable. By recording their conversations, reflecting on how they can improve them, revising them accordingly and role-playing to reinforce the new methods (“the four Rs”), participants can begin, in a few hours, to move from rigid defensiveness to a transparent, curious, flexible mindset. When we shift the focus from ceremonies and rituals to conversations and relationships, we consistently see that within weeks, information technology (IT) teams make huge gains in productivity and responsiveness as they remove the barriers that made their prior attempts unproductive.

Is agile training not working for you? Instead of spending more time and energy chasing compliance, why not try fixing the real problems: lack of trust, unmitigated fear, and misalignment of IT and business? All we have to lose is our defensiveness.

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