Fear, Slack and Agile Transformation

leadership headstone

This past week I got the chance to finally check out the Silicon Valley Agile Trends and Leadership meetup at Yahoo in Sunnyvale. I really enjoyed the presentation that was given by Dan Kimble on The Leadership Crisis of the Digital Age.

Dan did a great job of framing the problems endemic in today’s high tech world – working too many hours, allowing too many interruptions, superfluous meetings, incessant checking of emails, the inability to unplug, etc. It was interesting to see that nearly everyone in the audience not only recognized the behavior, but agreed that it was irrational.

Fear ImageAfter presenting the group with the problem, Dan allowed discussion as to the possible root causes for such irrational behavior. There were a number of comments that seemed to dance around the true cause like one gentleman who offered that the problem was “culture”. Since this was my maiden voyage, my goal was to keep a low profile, but to those who know me, this is not always possible when the topic is Agile or software development (though on most other subjects I am likely to remain silent). I was compelled to speak up. The real root cause – FEAR.

Most interesting to me was that once that comment was made, it seemed to me that light bulbs starting going off. Fear. Ah yes. I check my emails at all hours so that my boss and co-workers can see how hard I work, how committed I am to the cause. I stay late so that people can see me and will know that I am not replaceable. If I have anything that looks like slack time, I may get sent back home (in some cases home can be very far away). We all seemed to know it, but it was almost like, even in that room of agile aficionados, we were afraid to give it a name.

Fear is a very good motivator. Like sugar it is great for short-term gain, but one cannot live on junk food alone. The problem is that our so-called leaders these days rely almost exclusively on this motivational junk food. The facts are that working over 40 hours is not productive, that not having down time leads to stress and burn out, that a culture of fear leads to employee disengagement and turnover, but facts be damned with our new breed of leaders.

The fear is so bad that all slack has been driven out of day. We do not have the time to think. We do not have the time to plan. We do not have the time to learn. We do not have the time to create long-term strategy. We do not take the time to train. We do not have time to form personal bonds with our co-workers. We do not have the time to build healthy relationships with our clients, let alone our own families. We do not have time to change. We do not have time to transform.

SlackIt is the lack of slack that is the single biggest factor that will derail your agile transformation (or any other significant workplace initiative), even though everyone will benefit from a proper adoption of agile. We are so busy implementing on the newest bright shiny object that we cannot take the time necessary to allow for a proper agile implementation.

So, if there are any “leaders” out there looking to make significant changes in your organization, like an agile transformation, please pay attention. If you want change, you must first remove fear. In its place, install some slack. Give back some time. Allow people to learn. Allow people to reflect. Allow people to change. Allow people to fail gracefully. You want to lead? Give them a reason to follow, something that aligns with their own intrinsic motivation. Stop using motivational junk food. Stop using fear.