The Anxiety Iceberg

Let’s play a game. The object of the game is to initiate and obtain a rapid, lasting and positive change, across your entire organization, at scale, as fast as possible. OK?

Let’s call it “the culture game.”

To win the culture game, you have to see everything that is going on, just under the surface…

Let’s assume the org is a very large bank … with tens of thousands of employees…many of which have worked there for 10 years of more…let’s also assume the contemplated change is “an Agile adoption.”

…the main impediment to Agile adoption at this company? The legitimate concerns, worries and anxieties of everyone involved. Slamming “structure” changes into the organization triggers people with very legitimate worries, anxieties and fears.

These very legitimate worries, anxieties and fears (repeat: very legitimate worries, anxieties and fears) exist just under the surface, and represent about 90% of ALL the challenges and impediments to your Agile adoption.

There is lots of scientific proof that triggered, fearful people do not learn very quickly.

If at all!

Agile is about generating adaptability through learning.

Fear just shuts that learning down.



But wait. Some of the triggered people are formally authorized leaders who run entire departments and divisions. People with some authority. With direct and indirect reports. What happens when these leaders are not really supporting the Agile “structure” changes?

Answer: They send very clear “anti-Agile, anti-change” signals to their direct reports, who receive the signal. Then the receiver also (quite rationally) fails to strongly support the new change initiative. These direct reports of the leader in turn then become senders. They send clear signals of “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about the Agile-change to their direct reports. It just cascades down the reporting structure.

At the start, just one leader had doubts. Now 80 people are “skeptical at best.”

Multiply that times dozens of leaders, in a large company, at scale. This is actually THE main problem.

But wait. Some very vocal Agile coaches suggest these leaders (and their direct reports) can “self-organize to another job.”

Really? Does that actually work?

Because the reality is: these now highly triggered, very worried people do not vacate. Far from it! The reality is that people at a job 10 years or more are very, VERY slow to vacate. They have, after all, spent years fine-tuning their situation at work. And they can and will outlast, outwit and outplay those who authoritatively slammed in the Agile “structure” change.

When this happens, we say “Agile failed.” What actually failed was an attempt to force a process change on people– the leaders and the teams– without their consent.

And people want to be free.

The mandated approach can work. For it to work, lots and lots of people have to quit.

This usually takes many years. By then, the Agile coaches have come and gone: just like the Agile adoption itself.

Sound familiar?


Mandates create impediments hidden under the surface.

These “iceberg impediments” torpedo the very best of intentions for positive change in your company.


A Faster and More Lasting Solution- the OPEN Approach

The best way to bring process-change into an organization is to frame it as an experiment to be inspected … and invite people into the process of experimentation and inspection. That is, actually implement Agile in an empirical, inspectable, emergent, highly adaptive Agile way.

Leadership sets direction– and invites people to play. Leadership also sets the context with leadership storytelling and other intentional signaling behaviors that support the approach.

This is the fast-track to a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. Engage people. The people you already have! If people sense they can actually help author the new story, and be a character in the new story, there is no “buy in” …. because there is no need for persuasion. The people are not “bought in” …. instead, they are “LOCATED IN” … the new story. The Agile adoption story is THEIR story.

The Open Space meeting format can scale to thousands of people. We use this meeting format inside a wider method called Open Agile Adoption. It gets great results. It frames the experience as experiments— with inspections. And adjustments. There is no force-feeding of a mandate, and nothing is set in stone. It starts and ends in Open Space with a period of experimentation in between. Everything is inspected and the enterprise then adapts.

The Agile Manifesto is the single constraint- any practice can be used as long as it supports the Manifesto principles.

Pushed people are triggered people. Invited people are not. Invited people are free, pushed people are not. Invited people feel that the story of the org is unfolding, and that they are helping to write it, and that they are free. This generates absolutely tremendous levels of human engagement, the very fuel of a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.



Most of your biggest Agile adoption challenges are below the surface.

An open and inviting approach is the way to address these challenges, and neutralize them. Convert that anxiety from a bug to a feature. A double-positive, using one simple yet profound leadership move.

For handling any kind of enterprise-wide change initiative, you can use Prime/OS. For handling your Agile adoption, you can use Open Agile adoption, which is built on top of Prime/OS. Both are listed below.

Both of these tools will help you completely take the steam out of the very legitimate worries and fears that your people have.

This is done by “opening space” for everyone to express themselves, get in the game, and help write the story. And be a character in the emerging story.


Related Links:

Open Agile Adoption- based on Prime/OS (link)

Prime/OS- technology for culture change in organizations (link)

Video testimonials (link)

Telling Management What It Wants to Hear (link)