Agile is powerful! Agile is light! Agile is health!

Well… maybe.

Why Agile Needs Trust to be Present

Agile (a set a values and principles) needs a few elements to be successful — a group of individuals, a goal to achieve, and openness to learn. However, without trust all of the previous elements and many others will be destroyed.

Think back to a friendship that failed. Why did it fail? It most likely had something to do with the lack of trust by you or the other person.

Trust is needed for open and honest conversations. Without honest conversations, relationships will break down and it will result in mistrust, fear, and an unhealthy work environment. Agile needs honest conversations.

Trust is needed to support experimentation. Without experimentation, learning will slow to the point of zero value gained. Agile needs experimentation.

Trust is needed for individuals to grow. Without growth, people will not able to advance their abilities to take on the ever-changing landscape of the world. Agile needs growth.

Why Mistrust, Fear, and Suspicion Cause Agile to Fail

Remember that friendship that failed? Well, the lack of trust is a prime element of why projects and products using agile fail. Also, fear, and suspicious all play their parts in the failure of an agile adoption (or transformation).

Situations of How Mistrust, Fear and Suspicion Hurt a Team’s Adoption of Agile

  • A team is new to an agile way of thinking and working — this common. They have an experienced Agile Coach and Scrum Master (since they are following Scrum). However, the management above some (or all) of the team mistrusts this new way of working, they mistrust agile. Fundamentally, those managers mistrust and fear change. This ultimately leads them to backbite against other people, complain about the team’s progress, and undermine to entire project.
  • A team has been assigned a Scrum Master to support their adoption of Scrum as their agile framework. This Scrum Master tries to hold true to the values of agile as he/she supports the team. One of the team members is used to being in control of the work and the people. Now this Scrum Master is promoting empowerment and self-organization. Fear and suspicion of the Scrum Master’s motives leads this team member to quietly destroy the Scrum Master’s influence as well as get that person to be taken off the program.
  • As the department of Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters gain notoriety and influence through their good works and highly visible engagements, other departments become jealous and fearful of their growth. One of these department heads begins a campaign to subvert and undermine the agile department. This causes great pain in the entire group of departments.

Each of the above situation demonstrate how trust is needed. Without trust, an environment of backbiting can persist. Without trust, an individual could be removed from the team without giving them a fair chance. Without trust, an environment of lies and attacks may become a reality.

My Story of Mistrust, Fear and Suspicion as an Agile Coach

Over past 11+ years, I have been fortunate to experience firsthand attempts by several companies to adopt agile practices and thinking. Some have been successful in outcome and learning. Others have been challenged in contributing much value. Still others fell apart before they even got started. Here is a story to illustrate the negative power of mistrust, fear and suspicion on an agile adoption.

During a short engagement, I performed as an agile coach and leadership mentor for a large company. Over many months, I discovered the depths of mistrust among the management group, within the Scrum Masters, the Agile Coaches, and the team members. Mistrust, fear and suspicion was pervasive in this group that I was assigned to work with. I worked with members of the management team and it became clear to me that their unhealthy behaviours were a direct result of the culture of their own senior management. This agile adoption was scary to them as it was a threat to their way of working. Agile promotes openness and self-organization. Their model of working promoted information hoarding and hierarchical command behaviours. And this approach for the way that they worked included mistrust among their peers, fear of losing control and power, and suspicion of new people that may change the way that things functioned.

What happened?

Individuals adopted the current model of behaviour which only exacerbated the level of mistrust and suspicion. Mistrust built more mistrust. Fear caused uncertainty which promoted more command behaviours. Some people actually moved out of the department to work with more trusting management.

Some Closing Thoughts about Mistrust and Agile

Agile needs trust to be effective. It is even states this as a principle from the Agile Manifesto:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

This statement above suggests that be effective at using agile, we need to trust a group of motivated people to get the job done well.

What do you think? Have you experienced how mistrust can damage or even destroy an agile way of working?

I hope that each of you continue to bring light and love to those around as I continue to strive in doing this each day through my interactions and learning with many people across all walks of life. Let’s build trust with those around us.

Categories: agile

Paul J. Heidema

CEO at SparkActa Inc. -- Paul J. Heidema consults, coaches and guides senior management and staff to look for possibilities to improve their results and improve their organization. He leads large-scale organizational transformations to achieve lasting results in: building a culture that supports trust and growth, leadership coaching to mentor others, organizational effectiveness in processes, and systems thinking.


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