Speaking Truth to Power — When the System Strikes Back
Challenging the status quo could make you a hero or an outcast.
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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?
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 — 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.
In the "Agile field," this effect is often referred to as bottom-up initiatives. For example, teams start using Scrum without being instructed 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.
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.
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 a 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 in the answer to the question 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?
- What will happen to the career equity the incumbents invested in over 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 managers 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:
- They are already considerably autonomous by comparison to their subordinates.
- They can strive for mastery, spending other people’s money on their ideas.
- 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.
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:
- 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.”)
- Then there are the refuseniks: Taylorists who believe in predictive planning and reductionist management.
- 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.
- 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 resource 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 dare to speak 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 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 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 with us in the comments.
Agile Transition – A Hands-on Guide from the Trenches
The free Agile Transition – A Hands-on Guide from the Trenches e-book is a 249-page collection of articles I have been writing since October 2015. They detail the necessary steps to transition an existing product delivery organization of over 40 people strong to Agile practices.
Published at DZone with permission of Stefan Wolpers, DZone MVB. See the original article here.
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