Painting the picture
In my previous job, the department where I worked started the transformation to the Agile way of working in the winter of 2016, which meant a huge change for a lot of people who had been working for this organization for longer than I’ve been alive (literally!).
(One of my favourite small talk topics are the stories older colleagues tell about how they used punch cards and such back in the day.)
Meet Julia. Julia had been working at our organization for over 35 years. Like a wise old owl, she has loads of knowledge and experience that she has accumulated having worked in different departments during this time. But, alas, Julia was also a shining example of the well-known proverb ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’
Julia did not enjoy the new way of working and was very vocal about this. Intimidatingly so even. She didn’t understand the need for it. “This was ‘just another hype’ the organization chose to follow, and when it proves unsuccessful, we’ll all go back to ‘normal’.” Her attitude was: just let me do my job, don’t ask me too many questions about my job or tell me how to do my job, and especially don’t ask me any questions about my personal life. Work and private should be like church and state: separate.
The Julia effect
As you may have guessed, Julia’s attitude not only affected her but also affected her teammates in a petrifying manner.
- People were afraid to contradict her for fear of her wrath. She had a history of stomping out during the conversation and you would be on her ‘You’re dead to me and I’m never speaking to you again unless absolutely necessary’ list forever.
- Experimenting was seen as something that was just not done. Any mistakes made were met by ‘I told you so-s’. Julia had been around long enough to have seen any and all new initiatives (i.e. experiments). This led to the team becoming unwilling to try new things.
- Like in a cartoon, you could almost see the thundering clouds above her head when she was having a bad day, so people tended to avoid her. Which in the end only fueled her bad mood more, because she wasn’t involved in certain decision making processes.
- The retrospective was just a mandatory meeting and held no value. The team was just going through the motions, like scrum zombies, and took any opportunity it had to skip it, if possible.
The overall vibe in the team was not a happy one. In fact, I wouldn’t even call them a team to begin with. This was a group of individuals who worked ‘together’, and I’m using the word loosely. Any initiative to change this was met with resistance and people just didn’t have the will or energy anymore to try.
Enter center stage: me, the new Scrum Master
Fast forward to early 2018. I had been working as a Scrum Master for little over a year when I became Scrum Master of a second Scrum Team in my department. And part of this new team was Julia…
I had heard about Julia and her “terror” ways and, like Perseus, I was ready, and willing to slay this Gorgon for the sake of the team, the organization and all of mankind!
One of my first steps as a Scrum Master of a new team is to have a little one on one with all the team members. And this meeting with Julia actually caused my initial tactic (slay the beast!) to change: I realized there was something more behind the prideful mask of resistance that Julia wore. And I was willing to put in the time and effort to find out what it was.
The three steps
In retrospect, one could divide the actions I took into 3 steps:
- Deposits in an ‘Emotional Bank Account’
- Monk-like patience
- Walk down your garden path (i.e. small steps)
1. Emotional bank account
The workings of a bank account are not new to us. You can deposit money, you can save it up and you can withdraw it. Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) used this as a metaphor and created the ‘Emotional Bank Account’, which he uses to describe “the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship”. Positive interactions will lead to a deposit in this ‘Emotional Bank Account’, whereas conflicts or betrayal of trust lead to withdrawals.
One of the first things I discussed with Julia, aside from the obvious pleasantries, was my intent:
- My intent with the team: improve moral, teamwork and the work in general
- My intent with the organization: make sure we follow the guidelines of the Scrum framework and tackle things with an Agile mindset
- And my intent with her: use her knowledge and experience to better the team and the work, amongst other things.
By stating my intent clearly and talking to her in a direct fashion, she was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. It also didn’t hurt that I had played into her pride by saying I wanted to work with her because of her experience, which I genuinely meant. This was my first deposit into our ‘Emotional Bank Account’. Over the course of time, I made more deposits and some withdrawals:I backed her up in front of our Product Owner when she commented on certain events that were not handled correctly. I only backed her up when I agreed with her. If not, I would say so honestly. Which sometimes led to a small withdrawal.
When introducing new things, I made sure I involved the whole team and that everyone felt heard. Julia included. When she had a good idea, I was the first to support her. Because of her “overbearing” personality people tended to ignore her altogether. One time, I handled a confrontation between Julia and some colleagues in an unfortunate manner. I discussed the incident with her colleagues that same day but I didn’t discuss it with Julia (she had already left). I was in the wrong, and Julia rightfully pointed that out to me. This was a major withdrawal from our ‘Emotional Bank Account’. I apologized to Julia and also thanked her for her feedback. Thankfully, the withdrawal was significantly smaller after we talked it through. When I felt my (emotional) balance sheet with Julia was high enough, in the positive, it was time to start gambling a little.
2. Monk-like patience
The gambling did not happen overnight: I started after several weeks of intense collaboration with not just Julia, but the whole team. As human beings, we are social creatures and therefore don’t enjoy being left out. The team was very happy I was there to take the lead in working on topics such as team safety, team spirit and sharing knowledge. This positive change in the team contributed to Julia’s willingness to try new things.
One of the major struggles of our team was giving and receiving feedback. Positive feedback was generally not given, much less constructive feedback. After several weeks and several retrospectives where we had discussed topics such as team safety, the team was willing to try and experiment with me. I had bought feedback cards made by Axelle de Roy and integrated several of them in a Kahoot! quiz. These were questions that stimulated giving feedback (both positive and constructive) in a playful way.
Team members would volunteer to be subject of said questions, not having seen the questions beforehand. This way there was a sense of fairness and randomness at play. It was the luck of the draw whether you would get a positive or constructive feedback question. The first time we did this, Julia most definitely did not want to be the subject of a question. Other team members were willing to give it a go. The way the team gave each other feedback during this retrospective was awesome. Positive feedback was given with a wink and a smile, and received the same way. Constructive feedback was given respectfully, with good intent at heart, and again, received in the same manner.
Patience & vulnerability
So how do you make something new stick? By doing it over and over again. Which means a lot of practice and patience. So the next retrospective, we did it again with different questions. This time, Julia volunteered to be the subject of a feedback question. I must admit, I was kind of hoping she would be the subject of a positive feedback question. You know, just to ease her into it. But, Lady Fortune had other plans, and when it became clear that Julia was the subject of a constructive feedback question, the atmosphere of the room became charged.
This is where I give major praise to the team; they could’ve taken the easy way out and given her light, easily digestible constructive feedback. Feedback in name, but without the heavy calories. Diet feedback, if you will.
However, they did not take the easy way out. Each of them gave Julia constructive and sincere feedback and the way she reacted gave me goosebumps.
Not only did she thank them all for their feedback, she also shared that she was turning another leaf. She was going to try to not get upset every time someone disagreed with her. She shared several more (personal) things, but most importantly, she admitted this change was going to be hard for her. She asked the team to be patient with her.
This was a beautiful moment of vulnerability and was, as Dr Brené Brown writes in her book ‘Daring Greatly’ a “birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.” And, though sometimes it was a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ journey, the team as a whole flourished as a result of the small changes made. Changes don’t happen overnight, you need to be prepared to be patient. To exercise monk-like patience.
3. Walk down your garden path
Which brings me to the last step: walk down your garden path. This is actually a simplification of a saying one of my colleagues uses frequently:
If you want to go to Rome, you must first walk down your own garden path.
In other words; take small steps. This was also the case with Julia and the team. We took small steps in regards to building our team spirit and team safety. We started off in a playful manner with some Kahoot! questions during our retrospectives. We got to know each other better by answering those questions. We introduced the buddy system to stimulate intra-team collaboration. We did occasional (non mandatory) team lunches together. Once we even agreed to wear the same colour clothing on the same day, just for the fun of it. (Go Team Blue!)
The first small experiment we started was with the feedback cards retrospective. The team enjoyed it so much and it delivered so much value to the team that we ended up doing it every retrospective (amount of questions varied). In fact, it was Julia who requested we do it every retro. She saw the effect it had on the team and herself and wanted to continue it.
The ‘new’ Julia
These small, interwoven steps affected not only Julia, but the whole team in a positive way. They demonstrated a growth in every aspect of the Scrum values:
- Respect: team members were more considerate toward each other and they became better listeners.
- Courage: people were no longer afraid of being themselves, which led to a more joyful working environment.
- Focus: team members worked together on the same stories, thus enhancing inner team learning.
- Openness: people were no longer feeling trepidation in expressing themselves or giving each other feedback.
- Commitment: because of the new-found joy of working together, the team felt more committed to their work.
In the end, I wasn’t the hero of this story: I didn’t best the proverbial Medusa. Instead, I was the reflective shield that allowed Julia to slay her own demons. This is Julia’s success story: she learned to see the benefits of change, choosing them over the old status quo. In the end, it was Julia who chose to be brave.
And, unexpectedly, Julia taught me a valuable lesson as well: you should never give up on trying to bring out the good in people. Even after thirty-five years of working and acting a certain way, people can still surprise you and even become advocates for the change they so adamantly resisted before.
Would you like to know more about how you could turn your personal agile skeptic into a fan? Pick Carmen’s brain? She will be speaking on this very issue at the Women in Agile conference on March 10th in New York City.