Leaders Go First

In a real adoption of Agile, formally authorized leaders go first. They do the very thing that they ask their direct-reports to do. They do their work in an Agile way. They craft a backlog. They have a short daily meeting. They do a formal demo. They use a Kanban to display work in progress.

If they do not do these things, and also mandate the use of Agile practices, we can expect cynicism. We can expect some resentment. We can expect more than a little dis-engagement.

If, on the other hand, the formally authorized leaders go all the way, and do these things, and go first, then we can expect enthusiasm. We can expect appreciation. We can expect more than a little engagement in the work of figuring Agile out…up and down the organization.

We can expect the feeling (or spirit) of community. Of communitas.


If and when leaders go first, a whole lot of enterprise-wide alignment can and will begin to take shape. And  show up. And be great.

So: If you are coaching, it is your job to get this done. Leaders, specifically the formally authorized leaders, go first.

This is step number one.

If you, the so-called “executive and Agile coach,” cannot help formally-authorized leaders to go in this direction, the Agile adoption and the so-called “transformation” is probably dead in the water.

It ain’t gonna happen. Can you see why?


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Agile Trance Formation

Most Agile adoptions are “roll outs” or “push” of Agile, usually by higher-ups with plenty of formal authority. The C-level folks. In an entirely well-meaning manner, execs are often encouraged by “Agile transformation firms” to push a specific framework on the organization. This has the effect of creating an enterprise-wide “trance formation.”

At every level, people in the org wonder what is going on. They have no part in the creation of the story, even as they are expected to do “what the story says.” To do what leaders say. Or else. Without much respect for what the people who do the work want, or think or feel.

Up, down and across the organization, the people in it have defined a game…a situation within which they are comfortable. Some spend years fine-tuning the design of their job and position.

Now when Agile practices are forced, it forces triggering questions about:

  • My status and position
  • My role
  • My career
  • My current authority
  • How much money I make
  • My kids college education

These are triggering questions. Unsettling feelings about survival and fight-flight become predominant… up, down and across the organization. These are feelings triggered by fear, by  a focus on what is feared. This can happen at the enterprise level as more and more people begin to feel fear and get triggered. When this happens, the result is a very counter-productive,  enterprise-wide “trance formation.” An entire organization full of worried, triggered, fearful people, behaving unconsciously.

And after a while, more than a few resentful people. At every level of authorization. People who never agreed. People with good ideas! People who know what can work. People who are now consciously and unconsciously slowing it all down. Some of these folks have substantial authority. And they are now RESISTING.

This is exact opposite of what you say you want.

What to do? The remedy is very simple. If you are a coach, encourage formally authorized leaders to define a very clear Agile direction, and INVITE everyone into the process of getting there. INVITE everyone. Open Space (and other tools and techniques) can help.

This is how to get a genuine and lasting transformation, instead of the typical outcome: a zombie-like, unconscious, triggered, fear-based, enterprise-wide “trance formation.” A triggered state of being, one that leads to enterprise-wide trance, resistance, resentment, lower morale, weak results… and eventual backsliding into the old way to doing things.

If you are an Agile coach, and you say you are coaching transformation, then you must learn the dynamics of invitation, and teach these dynamics to those well-intentioned higher-ups that are signing your checks.

To do otherwise- to “leave out” or omit this teaching about invitation–  this is the same as valuing transactions over transformations. If this is what you are doing, stop.

Stop right there.

Because, truth be told, you are an enabler. Your unwillingness to teach invitation to those executive leaders is part of the problem.

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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Open Space Tells The Story


Everyone wants to know the story. Open Space tells that story.

Open Space inside organizations is a very lightly scripted drama. There are 3 roles. First, authority stands up, in a role called Sponsor. The Sponsor is the host, and welcomes the group. The Sponsor tells the story of the issues and opportunities the group is actually facing, and makes sure everyone feels welcome and safe. They do this by formally authorizing the gathering. This means the Open Space gathering represents work that is very important to the organization.

Next, that same authority figure introduces the Open Space Facilitator, and, in a somewhat ceremonial and ritual fashion, hands the “management” or “administration” of the gathering to the person who is occupying the Facilitator role.

The Sponsor then sits down.

Now the Facilitator is the only one standing up.

Imagine if you will:  hundreds of people sitting in a circle.

The Facilitator is standing up.

The space is completely silent.


What is about to happen?


What is about to happen is, this Facilitator is going to take almost all of the authority they have received from the Sponsor, and deliberately hand it over to all the Members. The Facilitator will then work to maintain this arrangement for the entire duration of the gathering. The Facilitator will then “hold the space”, wide open, for the Members to do their thing. To self-manage. To “self organize.”

Some folks may invite the Facilitator to “manage” or “fix” things that seem to need attention during the gathering. These invitations to “manage” or “fix” things will be declined. Instead, the Facilitator will encourage all the Members to “manage” themselves by following their senses of passion and responsibility.


“Without passion, nobody cares. And without responsibility, nothing gets done.” -Harrison Owen


The entire group starts noticing that lots of important interactions are happening all the time in this gathering. Lots of “individuals and interactions.

The executives who attend definitely notice this also, as they experience the event. They may attend sessions. Or not. They may start to question their assumptions about the “management” of people.

The people start to notice that their “street credibility” seems to count for something big in Open Space, while their formal title suddenly seems to be far less important in this setting.

And those normally very quiet people have a curious way of showing up big in Open Space. Quiet leadership can and will emerge in this setting. “Be prepared to be surprised.

As the event progresses, people who might have had standing disagreements with each other may reach some important common ground as they “live out loud” in Open Space. “Responding to change over following a plan.” If anything or anyone attempts to squelch this flow, the Facilitator may mysteriously appear. This may seem like odd behavior for someone, who, just a moment earlier, was picking up coffee cups and paper plates from the floor, and putting them in the trash.

Everyone starts noticing that great conversations are leading to great solutions. “Collaboration over negotiation.” They also notice not just who was present the whole day, but also: who was not.

Open Space tells the real story of how self-organization actually works. At scale. “By doing it and helping others do it.” The core idea that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams” often shows up very big in Open Space.

Open Space tells the whole story.


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Start in Open Space


The Open Space meeting format provides a wonderful way to get a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. The basic idea here is that Open Space provides a direct experience in self-management and self-organization. Instead of talking about it, we simply DO IT. After an experience in Open Space the executives get a sense of how a great Agile adoption looks, and a sense of how a great Agile adoption actually feels.

You may be familiar with Open Space events that are part of public conferences. Believe me when I tell you that private Open Space events are very, very different from what you may be familiar with.

In public conferences such as Agile conferences, the binding or cohesion in the social system is usually very low. Organizations, on the other hand, have much more cohesion and operate and behave more like a family or clan. These folks are familiar with each other. They do after all work with and for each other 5 days a week. And they earn a living from this. The stakes are high.

By starting the Agile adoption in Open Space, everyone gets an opportunity to say what they want, think and feel about it. They identify solutions- and problems. There is laughing- and some moments when there is obvious and tense conflict. There is passion and responsibility present. The not-so-obvious (informal) leaders that can take the Agile adoption forward will clearly identify themselves in Open Space.

Starting the Agile adoption in Open Space is an extremely leveraged use of time, if what you are seeking is a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

Some of the advantages include:

  • Identification of key issues that will impede the adoption
  • Identification of the people who can help
  • A sense of whether the timing is good
  • The opportunity to see what “self-organizing” actually looks like
  • The creation of crucial conversations with teams, executives and other leaders

And so: if you start your Agile adoption in Open Space, “be prepared to be surprised“, because you are in for many pleasant (and extremely useful) surprises.

Start in Open Space.


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Practices Change; Principles Don’t


Ask 20 people what Agile is, and you might get 21 answers.

This is no way to start.

You must start with the Manifesto as the definition of Agile if you want to have any chance at all of being successful encouraging an “Agile transformation.”

First things first.

Take for example the Manifesto principle “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.” This principle informs specific practices and specific collections of practices, like Scrum. Is Scrum the only way to honor the principle “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development?” The answer is obviously no. Teach that.

The Agile Manifesto is not perfect. It is, however, good enough for the beginning of the beginning. Therefore: Take your ego out of it. Stop using your shorter definition, even if it is valid. Teach the Manifesto instead.

By focusing them on the Manifesto, you gain the following advantages:

  • You gain a durable, scalable agreement about what Agile is.
  • You gain a shared language for making sense of Agile reality
  • You define an important set of guardrails (guidance) for behavior.
  • You trigger feelings of freedom and creativity about creating and experimenting with a wider range of Manifesto-aligned practices

Practices come and go, but principles are forever. Therefore, at every opportunity, invite the teams to either use a pre-fab, Manifesto-aligned practice like Scrum, or invent their own. Repeat: invent their own.

The one rule? Whatever they come up with must align (and stay well within the boundaries defined by) the Manifesto. Will some of them end up at Scrum? Kanban? Something else? Yes, yes, and yes.

This teaching is very liberating for teams. And you want teams feeling liberated and authorized, not coerced or forced. They learn much faster this way. To make this work, first get agreement with higher-ups on two things:

  • Experiments are good
  • Teams can experiment with any practice at the beginning, so long as they stay within the general guardrails of the Manifesto.

The added advantage here is that you are also teaching the executives something. You are getting an agreement with them about the nature of experimentation, and those (very useful!) Agile Manifesto guardrails.

Those guardrails actually work. Those guardrails point the organization in the right direction. Those guardrails are durable. And accessible. Those guardrails encourage teams to focus, almost immediately, on decision-making. And you definitely want them talking about making decisions.

Because discussing decisions and then making them is what is going to mysteriously draw them into the emerging story of the Agile adoption.

And a few of them will figure it out quickly, and begin authoring the new and emerging narrative. The narrative that will certainly survive your exit, and actually sustain that transformation…long after you vacate.

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Invite Facilitation


You must not only deliver excellent facilitation- you must also model it.

You must constantly invite people in the organization to learn the art of facilitation by watching you, and by doing it. And by being mentored by you.

The people who actually accept your invitation to participate in learning facilitation are the people who will help shape the new organizational story. These are the very people who will help make the organizational transformation a lasting and ongoing reality.

One of your primary tasks as an Agile coach is teach and encourage a culture of facilitation. Facilitation makes organizational learning easier. If this culture of facilitation outlives your engagement, it is a testament to your effectiveness as a coach.

Facilitation is an art; it is not a science. You must apply this art, and teach this art inside the organizations you are serving.


The root word of facilitation is “facil” or “facile”,  which means “to create ease” or “make easy.” Facilitation helps organizations more easily learn how to learn.

Disciple the facilitators you teach during your (short) time there. These folks are the very people who will soon be replacing you. These are the people who will help make the organizational transformation an actual reality…long after you are gone.

A disciple is “a follower or student of a teacher, a leader, or a philosopher.”


As you model and invite truly excellent facilitation, here are some questions you might consider asking:

What is the nature of my philosophy?

What is the nature of my teaching?

What is the nature of my leadership?


Your longer-term results provide a highly detailed answer to each of these questions.


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Your Authoritative Style Kills Self-Organization


It is important for Agile coaches to understand that coaching is an exercise in authority dynamics. Contrary to popular belief, it is not enough for some C-level person (someone capable of signing off on a big check) to authorize you.

The teams you coach must actually consent to being coached.


Repeat: consent to being coached.

It is important to ask the team for consent before facilitating their meetings. And respect the “no thanks”… if it comes.

Any attempts to coach teams without their consent amounts to a dysfunction you are definitely party to creating. The organization is trading one set of dysfunctions for another. You are a player in that drama. You are an enabler.

[NOTE: In earlier lessons the link between self-organizing teams and the real-time distribution of authority by and between the members is explained. If you are unclear on this essential concept, skip back to previous lessons and catch up.]

Yes, we all know the “Shu-Ha-Ri” model popularized by Alistair Cockburn. The “Shu” stage, or beginner-state, is the typical excuse for inflicting help on teams. The idea is that “they are in the Shu-state. They know nothing, and must be taught. We must prescriptively model it for them.”

Really? Does that actually work well long-term?

Teams are typically in the Shu-stage for a very short period of time. What happens after that?

Imagine this:  Assume that absolutely ideal conditions exist…these teams want to try Agile, and they consent to being coached. So far so good…

Question: How long do you plan to keep on playing the lead in their process? How productive is it for you to continue in this manner for more than two or three weeks?

Answer: “Not very.”

Here is why:

  • You are setting yourself up as the single source of truth about Agile and what Agile looks like. You are not.
  • You are not building any kind of capacity in the organization to reach a self-sustaining, freestanding state of Agility. Instead you are dominating the team’s entire experience of Agile.

Now let’s click down one level, and assume that the typical conditions exist, namely: the teams never consented to do these Agile practices. As such, they never really consented to your “help” either.

The following aspects are also now true:

  • You are symbolic of management. You represent management. You are part of a “solution” created by management, one the solution providers (the software developers) are forced to accept. The have no option– except to quit. This creates almost automatic dis-engagement. The reason is simple: you are turning them off with your presence.  You are party to a mandate of specific practices.
  • You are “inflicting help” on people who never asked for help; in effect you are trying to “fix” them. This is a failure pattern. It’s a recipe for creating resentment.
  • You are authorized by management; as such you are perceived as an authority figure. The team, now quite disengaged and likely feeling more than a bit resentful without knowing why, will now simply wait for you (the authority figure) to explain everything. They will wait for you to make decisions that properly belong to them. They literally cannot and will not self-organize because there simply is not enough authority to go around.

Disengaged, resentful, unwilling. This is the very opposite of what a self-organizing team looks like.

Can you see why?

How do you, the Agile coach, get out of this mess you are in? The solution is very simple:

First, make sure the teams are consenting to doing these Agile practices.

Next, find some people in the organization who wants to try doing facilitation, the kind you deliver.

Then intensely mentor these new facilitators, so they learn by watching, and by doing.

And then… get out of the way.


Related Links:

Essay: Triggered By Process Change (link)

Essay: The Anxiety Iceberg (link)


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