How to Use Team Resistance to Reach the Agile Mindset

How to Use Team Resistance to Reach the Agile Mindset

Agile relies to a great extent on the team and how team members interact with one another to achieve the expected goals. There is no simple formula or “golden rule” for building a high-performing agile team, but a combination of activities and tools can help achieve this goal. Even in the face of resistance, an agile mindset can be cultivated.

Building an Agile Team is Different

One of the most challenging activities for any leader is to build a high-performing team with members that work together in harmony. In “Developmental Stages of Small Groups” and “Stages of Small Group Development Revisited,” Bruce Tuckman finds that teams go through five phases of development:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing
  5. Adjourning

To reach the “performing” phase, a lot of effort is needed by the leader to make the team members understand each other’s work habits and create a synergy among them.

When working with an agile team, we can recognize that there is more effort needed by the agile coach or Scrum Master. In addition to helping the team evolve through the common development phases, team members should be trained to change their mindset to think and act in an agile way.

When a team achieves an agile mindset, it can work independently with minimum coaching or guidance.

This last step is as difficult as--if not more difficult--than the other team development phases.

Also, this last step is usually the phase where the team develops most of its resistance, because of the tendency to focus on solving technical riddles rather than delivering business value.

There are several tools that a coach or a leader can use to overcome this resistance, and help the team acquire the proper agile mindset.

Team Resistance

When a development team is in a performing phase, the developers gain more confidence in themselves and feel that they need less coaching or guidance—or sometimes none at all. This excess confidence might lead in many cases to an increased resistance to the coach’s advice to develop an agile mindset.

So what should an agile coach do when a team decides to make a move that the coach believes is anti-agile?

Before proposing solutions, the agile coach should keep in mind that this situation has both positive and negative aspects ...

Positive aspects:

  • You have a good team that can agree on a single decision
  • The team is in the performing phase, because they are confident and trust one another
  • They are demonstrating dedication; from their perspective, it is better for the project to do it their way 

Negative aspects:

  • The agile mindset is not yet there

How to Use Team Resistance for Coaching

Of course, the first action should be to show the team the drawbacks of such a decision and how it would affect the deliverability or the consistent pace of the team, which eventually would have an impact on the product.

But what do you do if they insist, and the product owner is supporting the decision, hoping to gain the development team’s trust?

Here are some tips that might help, but should be executed carefully to avoid backfiring:

  1. Agree with their decision even though you believe it is wrong
  2. If there are consequences to their decision, let them experience them until the end of the experiment, whether it takes one sprint or more (but I prefer to limit it to one sprint to be able to repair the damages as soon as possible)
  3. At the end of the experiment, hold a special retrospective to reflect back on the results of the experiment and the pain (if any) they went through
  4. During the retrospective, make it clear that there is no blaming (Rule No. 1), only learning; without a proper retrospective that focuses on learning rather than blaming, they might lose their confidence, so you must be careful when using this technique
  5. Since it was a decision that was driven by lack of agile experience, they should be willing to listen and learn more; this is your golden opportunity to enrich their minds with agile concepts, and make them understand the reasons behind them

Hopefully after an incident where something goes the wrong way, the team will start to see things differently. At this point, you begin to cultivate a well-developed team that embraces the agile mindset as a compass for future decisions.

Resistance Can Be Your Friend

It is always challenging to coach agile teams, and a coach should possess many skills and have many tools to help him or her get the best out of the team. Although team resistance to agile concepts might seem like a bad sign or a challenge, it could be a golden opportunity to coach the team to change its mindset when other techniques might fail.

What do you think about the techniques here? Have you tried something similar or different? Let me know in the comments below.


Islam Kotb Ismail (PMP, CSM, CSPO) is a senior agile project manager and Scrum Master at Wirecard Technologies GmbH in Munich, Germany.

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