On Death and Dying and Agile Transformation

death and dying

I was recently involved with a large scale Agile transformation and noticed what I thought was an interesting correlation, jotted down a note to blog about it and then promptly did nothing for a very long time. Usually these blinding flashes of light quickly lose their luster and find themselves relegated to the bottom of the blog backlog, never seeing the light of day, but this particular one reignited my attention as I sat down to write my newest blog.

ideaMy earth-shattering insight was that any organizational transformation, which obviously includes an Agile transformation, involves the very same stages that were first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. For those who were sleeping through Psych 101, Kübler-Ross proposed that there are a series of stages that are experienced by survivors when faced with the death of a close friend or relative. These stages could be experienced linearly but also in no particular order, but that everyone would go through the five stages she recognized through her work with terminally ill patients.

The five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Though the model was originally created to explain the stages of grief following the death of a loved one, it was later expanded to encompass the grief stages associated with any major loss like the loss of a job or income or divorce / end of a relationship. It is my opinion that these stages can also be applied to the loss of a treasured idea. In fact, I think these stages are better explained by the death (loss) of a cherished idea since love, attachment, etc. are all associated with mental constructs (ideas). Our world is merely the sum of our mental perception so the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or loss of a relationship are nothing more than the loss of an idea.

Once we understand that the grief stages are in response to the loss of an idea, it is not a great leap to apply this to any company transformation. It is well known that there are some who will readily embrace change, but there are a great number that see any change as a threat. What is the nature of the threat? I think that either consciously, or more often subconsciously, the threat is to an idea that one has grown to “love” and that there is a very real fear that if this idea were replaced that its death would cause grief. In my experience with a great number of agile transformations I do tend to see the five stages that Kübler-Ross outlined.

sadnessThere is certainly a large share of denial when I have tried to help companies become more agile. There is never a shortage of people who will defend the status quo and insist that the current way of creating software (nearly always waterfall) is already successful and that there is no need to bring agile. The minds of the people in denial are closed to any external threat to their enshrined beliefs.

I also see a great deal of anger during transformations. People have loved their ideas for so long that they are like a member of the family. How dare you agile folks try to kill off my favorite processes? I will do everything in my power to try to stop you, railing at the purveyors of such dangerous ideas.

I see my share of bargaining too. If we cannot outright defeat the new ways, we can at least try to keep as many of the old ways intact. Maybe we don’t have to kill off all the waterfall phases. Maybe we can keep the phases, but just do them in shorter time frames. Maybe we can just do this “agile” thing for development and leave the rest of the sacred cows not slaughtered. I don’t have to give up my old way of thinking or deal with the death of my ideas, is there not room for both?

As new ideas begin to take hold, I have also seen my share of depression. People have viewed the world in one way for so long that once their ideas are shown to be outdated or not optimal, they begin to look forlorn and some even begin to despair. With waterfall gone, how am I to complete a software development project?

handshakeAnd finally, if the company has the intestinal fortitude to stick it out through the first four stages, you will finally get to acceptance. No with your new idea having taken hold, it probably won’t be long before you will have to go through it all again with another new idea. I think the more that we realize that changes our ideas result in the death of old ideas and that the death of old ideas will result in some recognizable stages the more we will be able to quickly move through those stages and adopt new ideas more readily.

Postscript: Interestingly enough, when I had just finished the above blog, I did some research to see if I had written on this subject before because it had seemed eerily familiar. I could find no blog that I had published on the subject, but I may have written about it before and not published. What my research did find was that I am not alone in my link between the Kübler-Ross model and Agile. I have found other references to this on Mindstorm, and Agile Helpline. While I do not recall reading these blogs prior to my current blog and it is possible that we have all come to the same insight independently, I reference these here just in case I did read them at some point and perhaps forgot. Regardless, the fact there are others who have written about the very same topic leads me to believe in the concept’s applicability.

Post Postscript: This blog represents my 100th blog post under the agile-doctor.com website. While this is mostly symbolic and my 100th blog post will not guarantee me syndication (like a sitcom), it is still a moment to celebrate. Many thanks to everyone who has given support over the years! Stay agile my friends!