When They Say No, Reduce The Ask by Half


In an earlier lesson (1 or 2 back from this one) I told how to keep reducing the ask by 1/2 until they say yes.  I was indirect there. So, let me me explicit here..

In general, teaching in a formal classroom is overrated. You are set up as the authority, and doing most of the talking. Most good learning comes from direct experience.

Most good classes have loads of experiential learning.

So: Why not go all the way, and just stop teaching? Why not just put them on an experience? This is an extremely fast way for you to create results fast. But wait: first they have to be willing.

Once they are, and they try whatever it is you are suggesting, the skip the 1st 20 steps…and go directly to learning… and integration. Voila.

This technique works with any Agile coaching audience: teams, executives, stakeholders.

When you use it, you are leveraging the following powerful concepts:

  • Invitation
  • Opt-in participation
  • Experimentation
  • Direct experiential learning

Invitation is extremely powerful. When you invite a team or a group to try something, they must first all agree as a group to say “yes” to the experiment. Or “no”. Or “maybe.”

This process in itself tends to tip them into a group-learning, agile orientation.

Even if they say “no” they are saying that together. That’s membership. That’s control. That’s progress.

And you got to watch them make that decision. That information about how the group is currently making decisions is very useful for you as the coach who is helping them out.

Here are the steps:

  • Describe an experiment that is to be inspected later, an experiment that is completely temporary in nature, with “low” or “no” long-term commitment. For example, with executive team, ask the team to try doing a daily standup meeting.
  • Define the exact time-duration of the experiment. Be specific. So for example you might suggest “I wonder if you all might be willing to try doing a daily standup meeting, as an experiment to be inspected, for ONE MONTH or FOUR WEEKS. Do you think you might be willing to do that?”
  • Watch. Observe.
  • If they say “no” reduce the ask by about half. Ask again, and define the exact duration of the proposed experiment as TWO WEEKS instead of ONE MONTH.
  • If they say no AGAIN, repeat that last step until they say ‘yes’ or just refuse to do any experiments at all. (they usually will agree to try something.)


This is a very simple way to help them learn stuff really, really fast.


  • By the time we are done talking about, we could have done 2,3,4 experiments. They learn this is actually true, and learn to stop arguing….and just TRY THINGS…and inspect the experience
  • By inviting them, you get to continuously gauge their level of willingness to try new stuff
  • They are choosing and therefore “in charge of” what happens next
  • They are trying something that has no big commitment attached
  • They are getting direct experience (no lectures from you)
  • Big surprises often ensue (via direct experience) leading to “a convincing learning experience” without any “logical arguing” or convincing required.
  • You are not arguing “for or against” anything. Instead you are testing their willingness to try this or that, to learn something.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Example 1: You are coaching a team and facilitating some estimating using planning poker. Invite them to time-box each item to 4 minutes. If they say no, ask them to do the 4-minute time-box for the next 6 items. If they opt-out ask them to do 3 items this way. If they say no ask them to do JUST ONE ITEM this way, and then inspect the results.
  • Example 2: You are coaching a team and you want to show them how to make their meetings better. Suggest that “for the next 4 meetings, how about we start them at 10-past the hour instead of the top of the hour, to allow people to commute from their last meeting, etc?” If they refuse, ask them to try this for just 2 meetings. If they say no again, try to get them to give it a try for just ONE meeting, and then inspect the results.


So: put them on lots of invitations, and when they say ‘no’, reduce the ask by half. Keep inviting. Keep reducing the ask.

Make invitation an essential part of your Agile coaching style. To make your invitations easy to accept, make them very-low-commitment. The best way to do this is to “not ask for a lot.”

If they say “no”, then reduce the commitment by 50%….. and ask again.


WARNING: This technique may severely reduce the number of coaching days needed to get lasting change.


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I Want To Write the Story


If you impose a framework- ANY framework– on a team, you can expect weak results and disengagement. No one wants to play a game that they MUST play. A game where the beginning, middle and end of the story is written, by…someone else.

If, on the other hand, you explain that the story is yet-to-be-written, and invite everyone to help write it…that gets you some mindshare. That gets you some engagement.

You explain that the the story of the Agile adoption needs to be written…and that many chapters need to to be written…and that the beginning, middle and end of the story are in fact “under construction”…with an unpredictable and unknown ending…that creates an intriguing invitation to come and play.


OPEN SPACE is exactly like this. When is starts, there is no story. Just a blank wall. And the facilitator explains the game…1 law, 5 principles, a couple of funny roles, 1 slogan…that’s it. Everyone understands that the beginning, middle and end of this story are by no means defined. By no means prefabricated.

And then the Open Space participants are invited to write the emerging story, the one that can only happen there… and then. At that time. With those people.

“Whoever comes are the right people.”

And: “Be prepared to be surprised.”

And: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.”


If you are starting to think that Open Space provides a model for how your Agile adoption is going to ACTUALLY be successful, how it is actually going to scale.…you are getting much, much warmer.

If you show up with a pre-fabricated, imposed “scaled agile” solution, you can expect a lukewarm reception. Lukewarm results soon follow.

If you show up with a pre-fabricated, imposed “Scrum” solution, a game no one agreed to play…you can expect disengagement. The exact opposite of what is essential for success!

If you show up with a pre-fabricated, imposed “Kanban” solution, you can expect trouble. And trouble often shows up as a total lack of interest.


Because the very people who can make your enterprise Agile adoption “take” are the independent thinkers. This is true at every level: team members, managers, architects, directors and executives.

Your pre-fab “solution” leaves them cold. You repel them with your pre-fabricated “story.” The one with the prefabricated plot. The one with the preordained destination.

Scaled enterprise agility runs on engagement. You get engagement by inviting people to play the game, and be in the story, and be an author of the story.


So: as a coach, you better figure out a way to invite everyone to be part of the story, and figure out a way to invite them to be a character in the story, and figure out a way to invite them to write the story.


Anything less will not win the game.


Because: if you present them with a process-change ALREADY created, already written, already “baked“…and you do not get their consent….you are going to lose the very people who can (and want to) actually make your enterprise Agile adoption go.



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Encourage Executives To Encourage Experimentation


Your executives are the “always on”, constant emitters of extremely important signals, whether they believe this is true or not. Every little signal gets scrutinized and interpreted. Every little signal, intended or not. Welcome to leadership.

The “higher-ups” are higher-ups because they have more formal authority than others in the group. Anyone with substantial formal authority must pay attention to the signals they are sending. Those signals get received. And quick.

The higher-ups can make good use of this delicate situation. They can convert it from a “bug” to a “feature.”. How? By signaling intentionally.

By signaling that “experiments are good.”

By encouraging experimentation.

Enterprise agility is about learning fast…and of course that means conducting frequent experiments. Perhaps your executives need to experiment with sending strong and clear signals about agile.

If the higher-ups are doing experiments of an agile nature, the signal is clear: agile experiments are important. There is no better way for the executives to encourage frequent experiments, than for them to be doing some experimentation with agile practices as an executive team.

Repeat: experimentation with agile practices as an executive team.

And so I challenge you… to challenge them to do some agile practices… as an experiment, for 6 months or so. How about working with the leadership team to set up and execute their work in an agile way? They might for example:

  • Work from a prioritized backlog
  • Work in timeboxes
  • Arrange and execute a short daily meeting that uses a protocol
  • Depict work visually
  • Limit work in progress

Invite sincerely. See what they do. If they balk, stop right there and reduce “the ask” by half.

Here is how you do it: Start by asking them to experiment with some agile practices for 6 months. If the executives are unwilling to try 6 months, stop right there and invite them to try 3 months. Three months too long? Invite them to try some agile practices for 6 weeks then. Six too long? This is getting comical. How about 3 weeks? How about 3 days? How about THREE HOURS?

If your executives are unwilling to experiment with agile practices, the signals are very clear:

  • Experiments with agile practices are for other folks– not for the higher-ups. They have better things to do
  • Agile is important here, but not to the people with lots of authority in this company

Ideally the executives will try some agile practices and then expose the results of their work to the rest of the people in the company– in the form of a monthly, all-hands demo. What kind of effect do you think this would have on your agile teams, if the executive team demonstrated each and every month exactly how they were also struggling with the transition to agile practices?


Your job as a coach is, in part, to experiment with encouraging executives to encourage experiments.


Question: What are you doing about that?



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Problem? What Problem?

Here is a list of Tweets I sent out on Sunday March 15 2015. I posted these in response to some Agile coaching folks, folks who expressed serious doubt that “imposed Agile” or “mandatory Agile practices” actually represents a serious, pervasive, BIG problem for the Agile movement…

You can click through each Tweet, to see the actual source of the quote…..there’s some good stuff here, including quotes from very notable Agile authors, like Martin Fowler, Mike Cohn and Alan Shalloway.

…is “forced Agile practices” a problem? Apparently yes, it actually  is…….


NOTE: You can investigate my Twitter feed here.


Problem? What problem?


“… I quit my last job because ‘Agile’ was rammed down our throats.” http://t.co/WOMbnpSbZI #scrum #management #leadership #lean #kanban


The 1 constant in typical #agile adoptions? The mandate. What if this is the main problem? What if you fixed it? http://t.co/BrQ1pyT6ST












The Virtue of Coercion

Is coercion a VIRTUE?

Someone has proposed a session for the Agile2015 conference entitled:

“The Virtue of Coercion” …it goes like this….quoting:

…There almost no chance of Agile transformation without the imposition of Agile practices on teams. Pushing Agile practices on teams is the primary way to obtain lasting enterprise-wide Agile adoptions.

…in this session we present 4 years of data proving that employee engagement actually has nothing whatsoever to do with successfully scaling Agile. Rather, the right underlying conditions for agility have more to do with buy-in (and appropriate funding) at the C-level.”


Is this blasphemy….or just good business?

…if you elect to add a comment this session, you may be in good company!

Others (besides myself) who have commented include:

  • Tobias Meyer, author of THE PEOPLE’s SCRUM
  • Harrison Owen, formulator of Open Space and author of OPEN SPACE: A USERS GUIDE
  • John Buck, expert on consent as applied to Sociocracy, and co-author (with Sharon Villenes) of WE THE PEOPLE
  • …and many more !

Can a genuine process-change take root in ANY organization WITHOUT THE CONSENT of the people affected?

Has this EVER worked?

Consider the American BILL OF RIGHTS. Here is how it starts:


“…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

And so…here is THE question: Do you care to comment?



Kind Regards,