Letting Go of Agile (Culture)

Letting go of Agile Culture“If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.” – Harry Kronman

I have discovered the truth of this with Agile. The one time in my whole life I truly surrendered my attachment to Agile, it resulted in a beautiful transformation starting. But most of the time I was too attached to Agile to let it go.

This post is about how we may accidentally harm organizations with Agile and how we can let go so that we may succeed.

Accidentally Harming Organizations

Here is the basic thinking:

  1. Agile is a good thing.
  2. We can help companies if they use Agile.
  3. Let’s do it!

Trap #1: Accidentally introduce cultural conflict

Agile for me is basic common sense – this is how to get stuff done. BUT Agile does not work in most organizations due to culture. Sure there are some small pockets where Agile just works but this seems to be relatively rare – especially now that Agile has crossed the chasm.

Agile is a different culture from most companies, so the first trap is to accidentally introduce organizational conflict. That’s why I wrote “An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture” – to help people notice this trap and avoid it.

My suggestion was to look at two options:

  1. Adopt elements of Agile that fit with the culture.
  2. Transform the organizational culture.

For many, option 1 is like giving up on Agile since they key part of it is missing so many Agile folks don’t like that option.

Increasingly Agile experts go for option #2 instead: Transform the Organizational Culture. I sure did. I set out to learn how to change organizational culture. And I figured it out. But there was a problem. A big one.

Trap #2 Attempt to Transform to Agile Culture

The core of the problem is that Agile is not an end in itself. It is means to an end. Some common goals (ends) are: a quality product, time to market or engaged staff. The problem is not that Agile doesn’t help with these goals (it certainly does), the problem is that people confuse Agile as the goal and often act in ways that undermine the real goal. We see Agile being used as a Whip or a Shield. That is why it’s a good idea to Stop Agile Initiatives. A better alternative to an Agile initiative is to have an initiative around the real goals. One way to get at the real goals is to run a workshop to clarify why people want Agile.

It is a good thing to change culture in service to what organizations really want for themselves. A specific culture is not a goal in itself, but a means to accomplishing something. We may seek a culture of engagement and innovation not for itself, but because we want our organization to thrive in a competitive landscape.

There are many many beautiful, productive organization cultures all over the world that have nothing to do with Agile. The implication is that there are many ways to get to a place where people love what they do. If we really want to help people, then the best move is to work with them to evolve a wonderful culture that is right for them. And for sure it will not be exactly “Agile Culture” (especially since this is not completely precise). If it is a progressive culture, it will likely be Agile-compatible and using Agile to get benefits will be very natural. It’s a win – win.

Agile Culture should never be a goal. If it is, we will likely just cause harm.

Let Go of the Outcome to Find Success

Here is my secret to success: Let go of the outcome.

I wrote a couple of years about about how leaders have a choice between the red pill (deeper reality) and the blue pill (surface reality). I stated it like I gave people a choice. But I didn’t. The only choice I wanted was the red pill. I wanted so much to help the people in organizations I pushed for the red pill. The truth is I cared so much for the outcome which I assumed was best that I didn’t really give a open choice. In subtle and more obvious ways I was attempting to coerce leaders into taking the red pill. Ooops! Coercion is not any part of Agile, but here I was wanting my outcome for others. And it is not just me. I have talked to dozens of professional coaches and this is pandemic in the Agile community.

The solution is obvious. If we really want to stay true to Agile values, we can’t coerce. We have to let the people (especially management teams) make their own decisions and their own mistakes. We have to help them find and walk the path that they choose. This means letting go of the outcome. This means letting go of Agile.

This business of learning to let go is not new. In fact, letting go of attachment is a central message of Buddhism.

To close, the one time I fully let go of Agile it came back in such a beautiful sustainable and lasting way. Time to rinse and repeat.

“If you want Agile very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s there forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never meant to be.”

(Stay tuned for a follow-up post on Agile as a means of creating freedom by Olaf Lewitz.)

My Apology

I helped a lot of people see Agile as a culture system and learn how to stop causing accidental conflict.

Unfortunately, I also energized a lot of people to seek culture change with the goal of growing Agile. As clarified in this blog post, this was a mistake. I am sorry.

What’s the alternative? For those who want real change, let’s help them meet their organizational goals with culture transformation and let Agile come willingly.

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My Agile Suitcase

I just noticed that I neglected to post about this awesome slide deck I prepared for the Agile 2013 session by Martin Heider – My Agile Suitcase.

It tells the story of the key tools that I carry in my consulting tool box.

Here are my slides:

Full deck with other participants @martinheider, @davidhussman, @arlobelshee, @johannarothman, @berndschiffer:

Really good summary of all the sessions here: http://www.practicingagile.com/my-agile-suitcase/

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Personal Transformation is the Heart of Organizational Transformation

In a recent post I talked about the nature of transformation as personal activity and the need for leaders to go first. But, how do we as change artists and leaders go first?

Traditionally we think about learning skills and capabilities to effect change. We learn models and frameworks. We learn facilitation techniques. We learn new tools and ways of thinking. All of this is good, but this is not personal transformation. This is illustrated in the diagram below as the parts outside the heart.

Personal Transformation Heart of Org Trans

Personal Transformation

In the classic personal growth book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey states that private victory precedes public victory. We need to look after ourselves before we can effectively help others. We hear the same message when we are on airplanes: “In the event of a drop in cabin pressure, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.”

Personal transformation is about the shifting the structure and character of ourselves – learning to alter our own identity, values, and beliefs to become better human beings. How do we do this? We improve our empathy skills or better yet develop our compassion. We use mindfulness of meditation to become more focused and present with others. We acknowledge our flaws and love ourselves as human beings not despite them but because of them. We trust others. It’s all about forming a better relationship with ourselves so that we can form richer more valuable relationships with others.

My own personal journey has centered around letting go of ego, insecurity and perfectionism to develop self-kindness, caring and being present. Although the road is hard and painful, it is also joyful and liberating. I can see a manyfold increase in my effectiveness in my personal and professional life. Now I know I am in a place where I can participate in leading a transformation – I wasn’t before and didn’t recognize it.

Organizational Transformation

We can only transform to the extent that we have a capacity in something. To build environments of high trust we need to be trusting. We need to value other human beings for them to feel valued. We need to embrace and love our shortcomings so that others can feel safe making mistakes and learn from them rather than feeling inadequate.

Of course in a transformation, leaders will need to attend to external matters such as vision, purpose and culture, but these will not fully succeed without their personal transformation.

I have recently been writing and will continue to write on topics around personal growth as I see this as central to organizational transformation.

Lululemon – An example of Break-though Culture

My last post was on the amazing culture at Lululemon. Christine Day, the CEO, is a living example of what Good to Great calls – Level 5 leadership – she is humble and nurtures those around her grow and learn.

Everyone at Lululemon gets free Yoga classes. Can you imagine the power of a workforce that is more balanced, at peace, and present with others? Wow. That’s the kind of shift I want to see cultivated everywhere.


Brene Brown’s work on understanding shame and empathy kick started this journey. Siraj Sirajuddin’s Temenos retreats had a profound impact. Most recently, I have found Oneness meditation to help me connect with my humanity and love myself more deeply.

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Working with Systems of People

This post is about some important thoughts on working with organizations that I learned from Michael Spayd, co-founder of the Agile Coaching Institute, some time ago. A key part of my learning is about the value of acting as a mirror to a team or organization when working as a coach, influencer or internal change agent.

Systems are made of People

The infographic below summarizes key elements.

Act as a mirror

Michael expressed the effectiveness of a coach who acts as a mirror to reflect a system back to itself. This can help a system become more aware of itself and act with choice. He gives the example of asking – “Do you want to be a great team?” and noting that the choice is up to them.

A powerful exercise is to ask the team to visualize themselves as if the team were an entity. This can be used to guide the team to a powerful future state.

A final word of caution is not to try and “fix” the team. Any lasting change requires that they heal themselves: it is critical that we see them as resourceful and capable to facilitate this. The alternative is to leave the system in a “better” state, but less capable of learning and growing than when we started.

A variety of differences in perspective can be used to mirror what is happening to drive insights and learning: management perspective vs. staff, present vs. past or future, team vs. group.

Look at the larger system for solutions

The concept of a holon can be used to think about what level of the organizational we are considering: individual, team, group or company. The central idea is that problems can only be solved at the next level up. Wikipedia has this definition: “A holon is a system (or phenomenon) which is an evolving self-organizing dissipative structure, composed of other holons, whose structures exist at a balance point between chaos and order.”


I would like to thank Michael Spayd for increasing my awareness of what is possible and improving my dynamic range as a coach change agent. He has helped start a multi-year journey of learning and growth.

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An Influencer’s Playbook

(Joint post with Pascal Pink)

I was extremely privileged to share a day with Pascal Pinck and learn his “playbook” as a powerful influencer. His lessons span mental models, coaching stance and tools for effecting change.

The infographic above expresses the key concepts – I will tie them together below.

Situational Awareness (Stance)

The place to start as an influencer is as a “co-sufferer”: to approach a system with deep respect and humility. Siraj Sirajuddin refers to this as “supplication”. I have experienced that this is the single most critical ingredient for success. More on this in coming posts.

When connecting with a system is essential to “Listen to the music, not the words” (Quote from Gerry Weinberg). This is because language may transmit conflicted sentiments and channel residue from past traumas, whereas the underlying spirit knows what is needed to create a resonant future.

One expression of respect for a system is detachment from the outcome – accepting the will of a system to choose it’s own destiny.  Pascal says this has gotten much easier for him since he accepted the reality that systems will not generally let influencers move them in a direction that is counter to their underlying orientation or DNA anyway.

Think of the organization as a person

An organization is a biological, organic system. We can use the metaphor of a human body as way to think about making interventions. We may also think of a system as having a personality: what are it’s hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions? See KrisMap for a workshop to explore this.

Homeostasis in the human body is a very powerful force that keeps us healthy. In systems, the status quo is expressed through the invisible and powerful force of organizational culture. It’s like the water we are swimming in that we can’t see. What can draw us away from homeostasis?

Compelling Shared Vision is a Critical Attractor

A shared vision is not enough. It needs to be a compelling shared vision to create a strong enough attractor to shift away from the status quo. Values and purpose intertwine with the vision to create a powerful attractor. A particularly powerful vision is that of a breakthrough organizational culture.

One purpose of compelling shared vision is to help induce relational flow so that the parts of the system are constantly aligning and self-synchronizing, which allow multiple sources of energy to pull in the same direction.

Intervene with Leading Indicators

One problem with organizations that focus (at a strategic level) on goals is that outcomes are by definition lagging indicators. Influencers get better results by focusing on the leading indicators. A simple example of this is whether to focus on team trust, alignment, and communication patterns (leading indicators) or budget variance, “lessons learned” and “best practices” (lagging indicators).

Pascal uses the metaphor of acupuncture where you poke the body in one place to get a result in another. For this to work we actually have to have some sort of model of the connections between things. In line with Cynefin framework for complex environments we can’t fully understand situations but can conceptualize “probabilistic directionality” to reason about interventions.

Oscillate between future and current state

A good influencer will oscillate between current state and future state. We need to connect with the current state to have empathy for the system and we need to connect with the future state to provide direction and sense mismatches. It also provides a great source of questions.  Pascal recommends The Three Laws of Performance by Logan and Zaffron as an excellent way to develop a deeper understanding of this topic


I would like to thank Pascal for inviting me to LA last year to experience one of the most insightful days of my life and for sharing the secrets of his success. And then for co-writing this post with me.

I would like to thank Siraj Sirajuddin who developed or co-developed several of the ideas expressed in this post.

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Book – An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture

I am very excited that I just published my free book – An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture on InfoQ. Agile change agents will find it valuable in helping companies succeed with Agile and avoiding failure.

About the Book

Struggling with Agile? Frustrated that people don’t really get it? Tired of fighting with organizational bureaucracy? Wondering how you could have been more successful? If so, then this book is for you!

The book provides a set of essential thinking tools for understanding Agile adoption and transformation: how they differ and what you need to know to know to avoid being another statistic in the widespread adoption failure. In particular, you will learn how to use culture to work more effectively with your organization.

It is called a survival guide since so many people have found the concepts to be invaluable in understanding their experiences when working with Agile.

This book includes:

  • Identification of causes of the widespread Agile adoption failure
  • A model for understanding Agile, Kanban, and Software Craftsmanship culture
  • An outline of key adoption and transformation approaches
  • A framework to help guide when to use these these approaches with your organization
  • Real-life case studies of what has worked and what hasn’t

Electronic Version is Free

You can get a PDF or ePub version of the book for free on InfoQ. Why free? My primary goal is to change the world of work, and by making it free I can best achieve this goal. Of course, I would be really happy if you bought multiple copies of the print edition to give to your friends and clients to help them succeed as well as support my work.

Thank You

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

I would like to thank Henrik Kniberg who has contributed so much open source material to the Agile community and inspired me to write a free eBook to pay it forward. I also appreciate him taking the time to write one of the forewords.

I would like to thank the attendees of workshops with early incarnations of this material – XPToronto, SoCal Lean Kanban, Agile Tour Toronto, and Agile New England. Your comments, challenges and reflections have helped in immeasurable ways.

Thanks to all the people who read my blog posts throughout 2011 on this topic and provided valuable feedback.

A big thanks to Michael Spayd for first introducing me to the Schneider culture model and for conducting a survey of Agilistas.

For sure this work would not exist but for Mike Cottemeyer’s differentiation of adoption and transformation.

Thank you to the review team for feedback: Chris Williams, Irene Kuhn, Armond Mehrabian, Krishan Mathis, Bernie Jansen, Ed Willis, Eric Willeke, Karl Scotland, Sabine Canditt, Todd Charron, Bob Sarni. Olaf Lewitz in particular deserves distinction by providing an extraordinary quantity of valuable comments, questions and challenges.

I would like to thank those who directly contributed to this work as well as reviewing: Olivier Gourment for contributing a case study; Jeff Anderson, Olaf Lewitz, Jon Stahl, and Karl Scotland and Alexei Zheglov for sharing their challenges and alternate visions in the appendix.

I would also like to thank Alistair McKinnell, Jason Little, Declan Whelan for providing feedback on the Methods & Tools article that formed a chapter in this book and to John McFadyen and Dave Snowden for feedback on the Cynefin section.

I am very appreciative of Jurgen Appelo for taking time out of his busy schedule to write a foreword.

And of course a big shout out for my daughter Scarlett who provided original art with the jigsaw puzzle and butterfly transformation drawings.

Wow! Even a small book such as this benefits from so much help.

– Michael Sahota


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My Personal Vision

I am re-inventing myself both from a personal and work perspective; in this post I share my vision for working with clients and partners.

Personal and Organizational Transformation

My main goal is to work as a change agent in the world at large to support people and organizations in transformation.

On the left of the photo we have individuals undertaking the hard work of personal transformation: learning and growing; shedding the baggage of our pasts. This is very hard and rewarding work. I have been getting more involved in this as evolve as a coach. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the work of Brene Brown to learn more.

The core of the photo shows the daunting challenge of organizational change. It is like attacking the ramparts of a castle: climbing up the ladders to effect organizational change is not for the faint of heart. The rewards – of liberating people and companies – is commensurate with the challenge. My purpose is to add safety and capability to this challenge.

It is my belief and understanding that personal transformation precedes organizational transformation. Leadership by example is required for success.

Consulting to be 10% Better?

In Gerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting, a good consultant never promises more than a 10% improvement since it would imply that the management of the organization doesn’t know what they are doing. A kinder view that I adopt is that many organizations are not ready for personal and organizational transformation. In these cases, I am happy to help them get a 10% improvement and support curiousity about larger improvements. Siraj Sirajuddin’s approach of Supplication is about appreciating each person, client, organization for where they are at now.

In the photo at left, one can see the consultant applying tools to help the machine. The large monkey is the 800 pound gorilla of organizational inertia that is to be respected.

Organizational Structure to Support Vision

The rather intricate model in the photo (left) depicts my future state organizational structure to support the vision outlined above. It has two main parts: the people and the culture.

In the foreground, we see that success is enhanced by a core group that works closely with each other. Of course the number follows Luke Hohmann’s rule, “More than 8, no collaborate.” Everyone is wearing red to denote alignment to a compelling shared vision. Like a cross-functional Scrum team, skills and talents will vary. Beyond this group is a wider circle (heads on ground) to support this group.

At the back, we have the tree of culture. At it’s highest, we see that there is balance between individuals in the organization. I see this along the lines of WorldBlu (democracy for the workplace) or culture guides such as Valve that are about self-accountability. Other elements:

  • Red flower is for compassion and caring
  • Net is for safety
  • Wand is for passion and purpose
  • Monkey is for me – helping the world connect with play
  • The lion is for courage to do the right thing

Alternatives to create Organizational Structure

An open question for me is how to realize my future state organizational structure. The diagram above shows three possible ways for me to achieve this.

I can continue to work as an independent but invest time and energy into building a close network of partners who share my vision. (Shown on left)

I can build a regional consultancy with others. (bottom)

The third option is to join an existing organization that is compatible with my vision. Some candidates are Agile42 and NuFocus. (on right)

What’s Left?

Lots. My goal for the next six months is to explore relationships and do some safe-to-fail experiments to test out these alternate structures.

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Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide – Full Video!

I am very grateful to New England Agile (and Ron Verge in particular) for videotaping my presentation. For those of you who haven’t heard me speak about culture and adoption, I believe this is a crucial message for anyone acting as an Agile change agent. Enjoy.

Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide from Agile New England on Vimeo.

P.S. I am actively working on an eBook for those who prefer print. Drop me an email if you want to help review it before it comes out.

P.P.S Slides are here.

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Improve your communication with NVC

At Agile 2011, I was very fortunate to attend David Chilcott’s session on NonViolent Commuication (NVC) for Agile Coaches. NVC is a very powerful communication toolkit that has already helped me. I wonder how I ever managed without it.

At it’s very simplest form it is about explicitly considering your (and other’s) feelings and needs. The following diagram outlines the key elements of NVC for coaches.


Observing is an important skill for an Agile Coach. In NVC, the goal is to observe without evaluation, judgement or analysis. The idea here is that when we focus on observable data (I see, hear, etc.), we can operate and reason about what is actually happening rather than the filtered, distorted version that our brains typically serve up to us.  In the workshop we practiced distinguishing observations from evaluations and practiced removing the evaluation to focus on observable properties.

Of course, you can also practice observing with my fun Coaching Skills Dojo.


People’s feelings shape the conversation. They can uplift and energize or take you down a rabbit-hole. Here is an inventory of feelings that you can use to understand what’s going on with people.


Needs are the place where feelings come from. Positive feelings come from needs that are met. Negative feelings come from unfulfilled needs. Here is an inventory of needs that can help you identify what’s going on.

Know thyself!
As a coach, it behooves us know where we are so we can help others.

First, get an understanding of your feelings and needs in a particular situation. This will allow you to more effectively communicate and manage your internal state.

Second, consider what you client is experiencing in terms of feelings and needs. If you pay attention to facial expressions, tonality and words, you will be in position to ask clarifying questions to understand what’s going on for them.

Exercise to find balance

The best part of the workshop for me was the following exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair with your eyes closed and think of a situation.
  2. What are your feelings in this situation?
  3. What are your needs in this situation?
  4. Stand up, open your eyes so that you leave the situation in the chair.
  5. Look at the chair and imagine seeing yourself in that situation.
  6. Now coach the person in the chair. Say an appreciation. What else will you say to them to help them?
  7. Sit back down in the chair, close your eyes and integrate.
Wow! What a feeling!

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How to Incubate Transformational Leadership

Jon Stahl had an enlightening talk at Agile 2011 where he walked through his process for incubating transformational leadership to achieve an Agile mindset.

Confused about adoption vs. transformation?  Check out ways to make progress with Culture Gaps.

Agile Mindset – Do you want it?

Jon shows the following short video of IDEO design group to illustrate the Agile mindset and the type of servant leadership needed to support it.

After watching the video with executives who want Agile, he checks in with them:

  • “Is this what you really want?”
  • “Are you prepared to change your own behaviour to support this?”
  • “Are you ready to go first?”

The approach outlined here is to go big or go home. Go big means to help transform an organization or division. Go home, means that rather than help adopt a few Agile practices that may disrupt the organization, to stop work and looks for clients who really want Agile.

Leaders Go First!

The remainder of the presentation is about how leaders can go first by adopting Agile principles as a management team. Jon summarizes this as:

  • Live the values
  • Lead by example
  • Be as transparent as the teams they lead

Here are some example activities for the management team:

  • Public display of values
  • Visualize projects and plans
  • Visual management of key information: people, technology, etc
  • Daily stand-up meeting in public place
Check out the groundbreaking slides for more details:

Thank you Jon, for sharing this at Agile 2011.

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