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Jim Benson

Customer Care

The Four Yokes of the Change Agent

Lean and agile fail because we teach lean and agile

Published: Monday, February 10, 2020 - 12:03

‘It’s the shoes!” Spike Lee yelled into the camera on the Air Jordan ads.

But it was never the shoes. Michael, Magic, and LeBron would have outplayed their leagues in golf cleats.

It was never the shoes.

But it was us, the salespeople. In our case, the intelligencia that “trains” people to be lean, agile, or whatever.

In companies all over the world, we are convincing people that success lies in the shoes. In huddles or iterations or A3s or DMAIC or story points. All these tools are not even hard tools, like hammers; they are conceptual tools, like voting. We don’t seem to get this.

When someone who has experience looks at these tools, we don’t see the tools; we see the results we’ve enjoyed in the past. We are strangely blind to the failures of deploying them or the near misses (which our brains will inevitably turn into wins). So, when we describe these tools in classes, we describe them with a high degree of certainty that whoever touches them will be successful.

Our classes are so convincing that we, strangely, even convince ourselves.

Even though we always struggle with clients to get them to “just do it.”

We gave them the shoes; why aren’t they LeBron? I mean, clearly, LeBron wears shoes.

Very few people have patience for learning, for context, for practice, for skill building. All of these things require experience. No basketball player is great because of his shoes; no change agent is great because of her Scrum certification.

However, we rarely teach that complexity, politics, and change anxiety exist. We simply talk about how things will work. We tell them beautiful stories of success, and having fully exposed them to the process festival, we send them on their way.

They then return to their offices, dancing on clouds, utterly unprepared for the hostility that awaits them.

Sort of like if Michael himself gave a 12-year-old LeBron a set of Air Jordans and he confidently took off down the court and ran full speed into the Incredible Hulk who, while LeBron was laying on the ground in pain, would growl, “I got no shoes.”

The change agents we created are destined to fail because we teach them tools-as-success-paths and not life skills for change agents. Consequently, change agents are never prepared for these four inevitabilities:

1. Indifference. Other people at the office, oddly enough, are already busy and they didn’t go to your process festival. They are not still high on stories. They have no history with what you are doing. They do have expectations, fears, and other interests. They are honestly indifferent and have no desire for lean or agile or chocolate cake today. No matter how much someone tells them how awesome it is. This is much like if I told you I knew of a really great band from the 1980s in Omaha, and you had to listen to them right now. Your change is not a priority.

2. Status quo bias. This isn’t bias like it’s a bad thing; it’s bias like it’s a familiar thing. We know how what we do works and doesn’t work; it’s already in place. Your new thing is unknown, feels like more work, and is a clear interruption of my work in progress. Your change is just that, change. People don’t like change because change comes with new risks, and I’m OK with my current risks, thank you very much.

3. Flavor of the monthism (other shoes). Our change agents aren’t the only change agents, our classes aren’t the only classes. For most companies, there is always something floating around to think about or do. Whatever you have learned is easily pooh-poohed as a fad because while your Nike seminar was great, two people went to the Adidas seminar last week, and 14 people went to last year’s Keds old-school revival. We’ve all seen it before. Next month it’ll be some other shoes from some other place.

4. You do it for me. The change agents come back from the seminar and build the system they were shown. They put up visual boards, invite everyone to huddles, start writing features down in weird vague stories, and invent more meetings. Other people go along with it because they know the boss said to, but no one updates the tools, they are coerced into participation in meetings, and approach the change like it was foisted on them by someone else. Because it was. The change therefore has no meaning for them, and they will revert back to familiar ways of working several times a day until the new system is an annoying formality, and work is being done as or worse than it was before.

All four of the items in this incomplete list can, and usually do, operate simultaneously, creating an endless source of arguments for the change agent to respond to. In the end, the change agent becomes a defender of a failing tool implementation and not an actual agent of change.

Neither lean nor agile is inviolate or even remotely complete. They are entry points into continuous improvement, collaborative management, organizational design, and systems thinking. We need, as a profession of self-professed experts, to look at the change agents we are creating and give them real tools for success.

This starts with allowing any change agent to begin his change with converting the tools we teach into his context, acknowledging that there are many tools out there, and giving him even a few coping skills for the moment he leaves the reified air of your ivory-hotel training room and reenters the workplace.

If you are a change agent: Congratulations, you are now part of the real oldest profession. Since we could first grasp a stick, we have been changing the world to suit our needs. You are also part of the most frustrating profession. Every change that is made must come with a rationale. That rationale must be explained to those affected by it. They will be skeptical.

No change ever impacts just one person, so you will likely be creating many rationales for your change—crafted to the individual, her role, or her rank. This effort and stress has always been discounted by trainers, coaches, and process hawkers, for they believe their training to be perfection.

Always remember the W. Edwards Deming quote: “There is no instant pudding.” You don’t get a box of lean or agile. You get a field, some seeds, a cup of water, and a frying pan. Your instructors will sell it like a boxed dessert, but it never, ever, is.

Your secret ingredient is not lean or agile; it’s finding ways to use those classes to build a collaborative system that everyone agrees on.

First published Dec. 4, 2019, on Medium.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.