What’s your incentive to be “Agile”?

What’s your incentive to be “Agile”?

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I once worked as a coach at a large financial firm that had been “going Agile” for quite awhile. They were one of the worlds largest firms, so the teams and the projects were often distributed.

They had invested in a relationship with a Ukrainian firm to outsource a significant part of their software. This had been going on for a while, so there was integration between internal and outsourced agile team members.

I was pulled in to help the outsourced teams with their understanding of agile practices. You see, even though they “said” they were agile, their behaviors were really suspect and more indicated cowboy and self-centered development.

We (the firm) made the assumption that the lack of agile practice alignment was a training issues, so I scheduled an Agile 101 with the outsource team member. I had about a 2-hour Scrum 101 in my toolbox and I scheduled time to deliver it to them.

I remember the class as if it was yesterday. I’ve given this class literally hundreds of times, so I dove in quickly. It was about the 1.5-hour mark when I stopped and asked if there were any questions. I was at the point where I was strongly emphasizing the mindset of agile teams: collaboration, pairing, teamwork, team-based planning and execution, etc.

One of the attendees raised their virtual hand and asked me a very clarifying question. His question was:

Well, Bob. This emphasis on teamwork and collaboration is great. We understand it and would really like to “act” that way. However, it doesn’t make sense for us.

Why I asked.

We’re not incented to be a team he said. Our contract, both external with your firm and internal amongst our team members, incents individual accomplishments. It’s not in any of our best interest to behave, act, or deliver as a team.

Sure, we “act” like a team, but only when it’s comfortable for us. My bonus is totally structured for me and I honestly only care about me. If I’m meeting my goals and the team is behind schedule or struggling, I honestly don’t care.

I thought about what he said for a few seconds. Then I thanked him for his honesty and forthrightness. I told him, in fact all of the attendees, that I appreciated it. And I truly mean that. Then I closed the class. I said that, given this new information, I really didn’t think we had to go through the “pretention” of completing it.

I said that their incentives (goals, bonuses, and focus) were incongruent with agile practices and I didn’t want to waste any more of their time with something that wouldn’t stand a chance of survival given their incentives. So I politely said goodbye and hung up.

This conversation happened around mid-2012 and clearly it’s stuck with me to this day.

It serves as a nice reminder for me. It reminds me that you can’t MAKE anyone adopt agility. That people need to be personally incented in some fashion and that, as in this case, you also need to remove any “negative incentives”.

And the incentives need to be personally driven. I can’t get inside anyone’s head and figure out what drives them. That’s something they need to do for themselves. Sure there are some common agile-based incentives, for example:

Incentive List

  • Possibly produce better software;
  • Possibly produce more valuable software;
  • Possibly engage your customer/clients more often in the delivery workflow;
  • Possibly create better synergy between your work and personal life (balance + integration);
  • Possibly learn quite a few new (and successful) approaches to building software;
  • Possibly increase your knowledge of the “craft” of software development;
  • Possibly become a mentor or leader within the context of your teams;
  • Possibly deliver better, faster, and more targeted applications to your customers;
  • And possibly and more quickly – learn, change, pivot, and adjust as required in your business domain.

And these can be quite compelling, but they need to come “from inside” each individual.

I think the part that leaders play in incenting teams is establishing a future state. Focusing on the WHY behind the move to agility and encouraging everyone to start moving in that direction.

Often the change is part of some strategic initiative. So the option to resist really isn’t there. As professionals, we want to change as part of our roles within the company. But often change is hard and scary, so we need someone to help guide us along the change path.

To me, that is a significant part of the leaders role in agile transformations; to be aware of how change occurs or the phases of change and the part they can play in it.

In the Virginia Satir change model, individuals move from the old status quo, then to resistance, through chaos, then integration and finally to their new status quo. It takes patience and time for individuals, teams, and the organization to make this transition.

The benefits of the change are realized at the end, so shortening the time from old status quo to new status quo can be a major success (or failure) factor of any change. It’s useful for leaders to be aware of this model and to use it in their coaching thinking and conversations with their teams and across the organization.

Power of the 1:1

A useful tool for guiding your teams though change is the notion of having regular one-on-one meetings with your individual team members.

This is a frequent practice for leaders in more traditional environments. But I often find that they stop scheduling them during agile transformations. Often the reason is confusion over how to interact with “self-directed teams”. And the managers/leaders sort of opt out in an effort to give team members more “space”.

While the intent is admirable, the effect can be very bad. I think any solid agile transformation needs leaders guiding their team members through the change. And there’s no more effective way of doing this than:

  • Leveraging the transparency of the agile methods and engaging in all of the ceremonies that your team members attend. For example, in Scrum this would mean attending: Backlog Refinement, Daily Scrum, Sprint Planning, and the Sprint Demo/Review. All of these ceremonies are great ways for you to observe how your team members are handling the transition and where they might need your help.
  • Then, based on observation and/or direct feedback, coach each individual through the transition in 1:1 meetings. Some of the actions you might take include: coaching, mentoring, setting up a mentor, training, and goal/action planning. A big part of this is having the crucial conversations that explain the WHY behind the transformation and the NEED for the individual to become a part of the change.
  • And there’s a feedback loop here for your coaching, as the transparency of the agile teams and ceremonies gives you a “lens” into (1) the effectiveness of your coaching and (2) the change glide path as everyone negotiates the change. You can make adjustments to your coaching strategies and conversations as appropriate.

And a key focus in your 1:1 sessions is to establish a clear incentive for each individual. The more you explain the WHY and the more it’s SHARED, the better.

Getting back to the title, I wrote this article to incent all of us to revisit our personal and organization incentives for initiating an agile transformation.

You’ve got to be able to answer the question as to WHY.

You also have to look for barriers or negative incentives, as in my example, to overcome.

And it’s often helpful to have a “change model” in the back of your mind so that you understand that change isn’t an overnight proposition.

And finally, to any leaders who are reading this, I hope I’ve inspired and incented you to seize your role in the transformation process. I want you to behave like a Sherpa for your teams and your organization.

In the end, you need to internalize the why, communicate the why, and guide everyone towards a shared agile future state. How awesome is that?

Stay agile my friends,


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