Speaking Truth to Power 2.0 — Taking A Stand as an Agile Practitioner

TL; DR: Speaking Truth to Power

Do you need an emergency fund as a change agent—whether you are acting as Scrum Master, Product Owner, or agile coach—because conflict is inevitable, but change is not? Speaking truth to power probably comes at a price.

In my experience, speaking truth to power, pointing at the emperor’s new clothes and the reality in the trenches, is necessary a trait for every change agent — including Scrum Masters and agile coaches — in organizations that lack strong leadership.

Learn more, how this form of professional honesty can backfire when the incumbents, privileged by the existing system, strike back.

Speaking Truth to Power — Taking A Stand as an Agile Practitioner When the System Strikes Back— Age-of-Product.com

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Speaking Truth to Power — The Tipping Point of Change

Typically, speaking truth to power as a means of change emerges from individuals or small groups of like-minded individuals within an organization.

According to a recent study directed at the path of acceptance of new social norms, the tipping point for social change in an organization is around 25%. It shows that a committed minority can have a lasting effect once it manages to attract others who are willing to join the cause.

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In the ‘agile field,’ this effect is often referred to as bottom-up initiatives. For example, teams start using Scrum without being instructed in doing so. We also know from experience that the window of opportunity for this kind of agile grassroots initiative is limited. Sooner or later, the proponents of this change will come into conflict with existing organizational structures that no longer can be overcome by sheer will-power or ignoring or bending established practices for the benefit of the team or cause. The Scrum Guide refers to them as impediments outside of a team’s control; they are one of the reasons for the role of the Scrum Master.

In these situations, the impediments need to be addressed, and typically this requires the support of the leadership. However, what if the management is not interested in supporting the initiative? What if the status quo is lucrative and comfortable at the same time? Lip-service is cheap, and walking the ‘agile talk’ may put the incumbents out of well-paying jobs.

Speaking Truth to Power — Agile Leadership — Age-of-Product.com

I do believe that it is the duty of a Scrum Master or agile coach to address these impediments nevertheless, to point at organizational debt and individuals that harbor personal agendas, to force the issue of sustainable change. That is what servant leadership is about: you lead, meaning you step forward into the conflict, you put yourself in harm’s way while others are waiting to see what will happen to you.

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Framing the Situation — Conflict Is Inevitable

In my experience, speaking truth to power is required in organizations that lack strong leadership. By strong, I mean leadership that understands that predictive planning and reductionist management techniques are ill-suited to support an organization’s strive for sustainable competitive advantage in the complex markets of the 21st century.

Usually, everyone supports the goal of gaining a sustainable competitive advantage, including the incumbents. Where opinions start diverging is the answer to the question of what to do with the spoils of achieving this level of change.

It is helpful to take some of the following issues into account for the analysis:

  • Incumbents often harbor personal agendas, for example, planning the next career step utilizing other people’s money. If you are a member of the nomenklatura what is your incentive to trade a well-paid job for an insecure future? (Remember Larman’s law: “Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo [of the] middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.”
  • What will happen to the career equity the incumbents invested in over the years if ‘agile’ becomes a reality? (Read more on the Zappos case: a) The Zappos Exodus Continues After a Radical Management Experiment, and b) Zappos CEO Responds To Reports Of Employee Departures After Radical Management Experiment.)
  • Incumbents were trained to be a manager who can provide answers to all questions subordinates may have. It is always also about status and opportunities.
  • With regard to Dan Pink’s motivational factors, the incumbents tend to be well-served :
    1. They are already considerably autonomous by comparison to their subordinates.
    2. They can strive for mastery, spending other people’s money on their ideas.
    3. They also have a purpose, at least an individual one: advancing their career. And it feels good if people come to you and ask for your support or require you to make a decision.
  • Functional silos provide incentives for the pursuit of local optimization efforts, driven by personal agendas — bonus, career, pet projects — and not by the overarching goal to become an agile organization. (That is the big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome.)
  • Agile can’t be pushed; it needs to be pulled. Intrinsic motivation is hence also required at the management level.

Given this plethora of rational reasons, it is not surprising that the incumbents of a legacy organization are often not willing to strike their colors without a conflict.

Factions of the Conflict

There are often four factions with the organization:

  1. There are the agilists who want to contribute to turning the organization into an agile, learning organization. (Peter Senge: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is learning faster than the competition.”)
  2. Then there are the refuseniks: Taylorists who believe in predictive planning and reductionist management.
  3. The majority of members will wait and see; once the tipping point is crossed and it is clear that ‘agile’ is not a fad but here to stay, they will adapt and join to best of their ability.
  4. A fascinating faction is the machine-room agilists:
    • As pragmatic Taylorists, they see the advantages of agile principles in motivating the workforce and improve productivity—at least for a limited period until the reality has consumed the benefit of the doubt provided by the workers.
    • A 20-30% improvement is considered sufficient to advance their next career step. (Their interests outweigh the interests of the organization.)
    • Their approach leads to cargo cult agile as essential elements of agile frameworks are either eliminated or ignored, for example, the Product Owner In Scrum.
    • Misusing agile principles is not uncommon, for example, defining scope and dates of delivery, yet insisting that the teams accept accountability for it.
    • “Real change” to become an agile organization is not intended, though, as It would threaten their position.

The trick for a successful speaking-truth-to-power campaign is to identify the agilists among the senior leadership team and ask for their support to convince the machine-room agilists to change their approach. In this triage situation, avoid wasting resources on the refuseniks.

When the System Strikes Back

If you feel the need to voice your opinion, to point at the obvious that the incumbents nevertheless reject, if you embrace the idea of speaking truth to power, also brace yourself for impact. It may well be that there are not agilists among the senior leadership team in your organization and that everyone you are facing is either a refusenik or a machine-room agilists.

In this case:

  • The system will likely label you as a trouble-maker. (Not necessarily in public as that would often defy “company value,” but certainly internally.)
  • Speaking truth to power may be a career-limiting step no matter your qualification or level of engagement for the organization. (Investing the career equity that you have gained over your tenure is a hard thing to do if you love your jobs, believe in the purpose of the organization or if you enjoy working with your colleagues.)
  • The system may also get you fired. (Although that is not necessarily the norm in a tech-driven organization.)
  • It is more likely that the incumbents will ignore you in the future, for example, exclude you from information and access to communication, denying resource to you, or step up administrative measures to make your life more formal and thus more difficult. (You will be side-lined in different manners.)
  • Prepare to become a lonelier person. Rocking the boat may result in that your peers distance themselves from you thus avoiding guilt by association.
  • Grinding you down over time by giving hope only to smash that at a particular moment. (The encouragement your superiors give you to start working on the critical presentation on the benefits of becoming a learning organization that will be canceled only minutes before it is scheduled to begin.)

If you follow the route of becoming a trouble-maker, pick your battles wisely — a dead servant leader is a useless servant leader. Also, make sure to secure at least some emotional support from people near you. A bonus indeed is to follow Corinna Baldauf’s example and create an emergency fund for the moment it becomes clear that you do not have a future in your organization. Just be prepared.

Speaking Truth to Power — Conclusion

Maybe, I am a hopeless romantic, but I do believe that you need to stand up and fight for a cause you believe in. Sometimes, this is a career-limiting step, or it might even get you fired. Sometimes, you will need to quit instead of submitting to a system that is just wrong.

What is your experience? Please share it with us in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power 2.0 — Taking A Stand as an Agile Practitioner”

  1. Although the topic adressed here for sure is relevant for the introduction of agile practices, my experience tells me that this is true for almost every change that is supposed to happen within an organisation.
    Most change initiatives fail because of the hidden or open opposition of the middle management, because of the fact that these are the individuals who most often have to loose the most through the change.

    A variant of this is also having the top management involved in the plot, by first hiring a professional change agent, and then fostering his failure, thus prooving to the outside: “We have tried to change things, but even professionals could not accomplish this …”
    If this seems illogic, please remember that the “best interest” of an employed manager with a five year contract is not necessary the same than the best interest of a flourishing enterprise.

  2. This article is very applicable to me right now. I’m a lowly developer trying to navigate, understand, and survive in my current organization. On numerous occasions there have been conflicts between the Scrum Values and the actions of the organization (primarily around implying certainty where it did not exist). In these situations, it seems that I’ve needed to choose to either speak truth to power or be complicit in some situation which violates either Scrum Values or my own values. Overall I’m surviving, but I do need to learn how to better ‘pick my battles’ sometimes. It can be very risky to speak truth to power, but I can tell you that doing so is very liberating. Sometimes what you’re saying is what everyone else is silently thinking.
    Thank you for writing this!

  3. Hi Stefan!

    Thank you for the reply, and happy 2019 to you!

    Ah, yes, I see your point. I have not read these lines before in that way, that these lines can be interpreted as these are external impediments to the team, outside of the teams ability to resolve on its own and therefore a good candidate for the Scrum Master to help out with.

    Appreciate that you got back to me on this, very educational 🙂

    Best Regards,

  4. Hi Jan!

    First of all: Happy 2019!

    I was referring mainly to three issues of the Scrum Master role in the Scrum Guide (2017 edition, pages 7 and 8):

    • The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t.
    • The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.
    • The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including leading the organization in its Scrum adoption.

    One the examples of an impediment outside of a Scrum team’s zone of influence would be, for example, a bonus/reward system that pitches team members against each other, thus impeding commitment and buy-in of individual team members.

  5. Hi Stefan!

    Thank you for the post, very interesting read! I have read a lot of your posts in the past, it is very good material and it is very appreciated that you share your knowledge!

    One quick question about the post, you wrote:
    “The Scrum Guide refers to them as impediments outside of a team’s control; they are one of the reasons for the role of the Scrum Master.”

    Where in the Scrum guide it is mentioning a difference of impediments that are outside of a team’s control and of impediments that are within the team’s control?

    Thanks in advance!
    Best Regards,

  6. “Put your theories to practice and you’ll wind up dead”:)

    I’m looking forward to a next note – how to be a good SM and not end up with a schizophrenia.

  7. I totally agree with you, Drew!

    I just wanted to point at that there will be a time when you need to take a stand if you intend to preserve your credibility. Just be prepared for the response.

  8. Excellent points Stefan. A few quick thoughts. Speaking truth to power doesn’t mean publicly slapping power in the face with a gantlet to issue a challenge of their authority. You may need to take the time to find the communications path that your adversary will accept input from. As a change agent conflict is inevitable, but be compassionate in your communications and understand what you are truly hired to do (usually to make someone else look good). Remember that agile processes, frameworks, and platforms are iterative and incremental rather than everything-at-once, so acknowledge the good that is in place and offer targeted solutions to specific pain points one iteration at a time and help your nemesis get wins for those solutions.

  9. Stefan, Fantastic read, I have a friend that may most likely be choked out of her organization based on the article. It’s a good Eyeopener, as an agilist you have to try and be diplomatic to get things done.

    What is a Taylorists?

  10. I am in that exact situation, missing out on agile values, forcing scrum down peoples mouths and game playing and politics. I was thinking this exactly! Do I speak up, you’re not being agile doing stand ups and be a trouble maker or quit or stay quiet.

  11. I am glad to learn that the article helped you. I was wondering: have you considered signing up for the Slack group? It is a great community if you have questions or if you look for support.

  12. Thank you so much for this article Stefan. You have basically summed up exactly what happened to me in my last organisation. The situation left me very confused and upset, but this has helped me to understand. I’ll definitely be sharing this wider.

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