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Navigating Stakeholder Awkwardness in Agile: No Idiots Here! The Role of Product Owners and Agile Coaches.



Why is Agile for (some) stakeholders so very awkward?

What can we as practitioners and transformation leads ‘do’ for our stakeholders and how might they come along the agile journey with us? Where does an a product owner lead and where can an agile coach teach and support? And what happens if an agile coach is 'missing in action' or you just haven't factored coaching into your agile journey plan? What can go wrong and how will it affect your agile journey progress with your stakeholders? So many questions!! 


This is just a snip of the questions I have asked myself and experienced in working with agility whilst embarking on ‘transformative works’ in the some very embryonic stages of organisational change in small and large businesses. 


Whilst all are valid questions, and without doubt, come with a very mixed bag of feelings, opinions and reactions. This is especially true when you’re trying to get the work underway, gain support, make things happen – release on demand in a highly constrained standard and perhaps in a monthly release stack. All whilst ensuring to capture the relevance of a backlog item that could be developed and delivered as a working product within a sprint or two! Time to take a breath here...


I’ve recently finished re-reading a fantastic book ‘Surrounded by Idiots’ (by Thomas Erikson). Now I know how that sounds – awful! I am not by any means suggesting that our stakeholders or SME’s - whom we need and want to take on our agile journey - are ’idiots’ by any stretch.


Perhaps, in some circumstances you have experienced times when stakeholders are challenging, resistant, or perhaps even slightly belligerent (and maybe disrespectful) as change and new ways of working are put to them. Like many, I too have had my fair share in receiving awkward - to straight out uncomfortable behaviour from stakeholders - enough so far to help fill my stakeholder profiles of all types! Every experience counts. 


But instead, what the book ‘Surrounded by Idiots’ actually tells us - is that communication and how we communicate coupled with our natural reaction to the people (i.e. stakeholders) who offer a polar opinion or reaction to our own - we immediately see them as ‘idiots’. This is only because they present and challenge us with the exact opposite to our 1) own value system and/ or 2) expected behaviour that we are used to or comfortable with. So how might we harness this 'opposite' - we can't control the stakeholders but we can control our way of communicating and our behaviour so we can help overcome the awkwardness through our engagement together. 


In Erikson's book the way and the tool we might take advantage of is the method of understanding human communication is derived from the renowned DISC profiles, a widely-used tool for assessing behavioral styles and personalities. It's a model that categorises individuals into four primary personality types each associated with a particular colour with the employment of the color-coded framework consisting of red, yellow, green, and blue to delineate various communication styles and behaviors.


By understanding these color-coded personalities, individuals can enhance their communication skills, adapt their approach to different behavioral styles, and foster more effective interactions in various personal and professional settings.


As Erikson's book dives deeper into the why - our inclination to name people who react and behave in stark contrast to ours can be linked and better understood for revewing our own ‘DISC’ personality. (Stakeholders) may have personality and behavioural drivers that are opposite to our own, and therefore these drivers can present as direct conflict, confusion or misalignment – thus creating an awkwardness and perhaps an unwillingness to ‘get aboard' the agile way of thinking and working that is required during this adoption and transformation process.

For more on DiSC take a look at this link here.


So, whilst the DiSC profile awareness may help to provide indications as to stakeholder personality, values or behaviour drivers. There may also be a huge chasm in the lack of understanding of the 'why' and 'what' Agile means, or 'how' it will impact them. And moreover, how will they (the stakeholders) get help, who might provide support and facilitate adaptive learning. These factors can influence stakeholders’ behaviour and any success of the business agile adoption progress.


If you have been in a squad, a product team or a specific practice supporting the change for business agility and its transformation, then this will be familiar for you, and in the same vein, hoping that this is not too triggering for you! Stay with me.


So, what do we do (as practitioners) to support our stakeholdrs to ‘get on board’ – or are at the very least get comfortable 'at the station' and ready to 'get on board'! 

In an effort to work through some of my recent experiences and a chance to reflect – I have put together some ideas here that may support both you in the squad as you pioneer the adoption of agile in your business, and those who may also be a stakeholder - who are perhaps experiencing this awkwardness seemingly just thrown onto them.


In all fairness - embarking on an Agile journey can be both exhilarating and daunting, especially when faced with a business who with stakeholders will vary in their enthusiasm and understanding of Agile principles and how it will work for them. And importantly, if they have been made aware that business agility has been committed to that they are working within! *ADKAR. Never underestimate business readiness and change management especially when talking words like 'agile', 'business agility' and 'transformation'! More on that in another article!

And while some readily embrace the flexibility and collaboration that Agile offers, others find themselves at sea (a wild and raging one at that), grappling with uncertainty and discomfort. Not a great way to work and to earn a dollar. 


We first need to get in under it all in - Understanding Stakeholder Awkwardness: Agile methodology champions adaptability, transparency, and iterative development.

However, these principles can be disconcerting for stakeholders who are accustomed to traditional, linear (waterfall) project management approaches. For some, the shift from rigid plans to dynamic iterations may feel like stepping into uncharted territory without a map or a compass. 


Some stakeholders I’ve worked in the past thought the (agile) squad was ‘just another project team’ and couldn’t understand why they only got a small, finished product instead of a big technically enhanced item - after their engagement of 2 or 3 sprints (1 sprint being 2wks). The two ways of working, the principles and expected engagement and outcomes - are miles apart. Here lies the rub and the awkwardness of it all if not discussed and aligned early enough. 

As demonstrated the awkwardness often stems from a lack of familiarity with Agile practices and terminology. Stakeholders entrenched in traditional ways of working through waterfall methodologies may struggle to grasp concepts such as sprints, user stories, how to share feedback in a timely manner within the sprint, collaboration and feedback is critical to sprint success within playbacks and showcases, and prioritisation of backlogs. 


Moreover, stakeholders accustomed to hierarchical decision-making structures may feel uneasy with the distributed authority and self-organising nature of Agile teams. Hence the delay in providing timely feedback, making decisions, and unable to commit to a time that is seen as asking 'too much' or 'too quickly' to ask for a decision or answer.


'Agile is Simple - It Just isn't Easy.'


Navigating stakeholder awkwardness - On both parties this can be exhausting, effort draining stuff, but get it right it's a-mazing what you can do together! Engaging stakeholders effectively in the Agile journey requires patience, empathy, and clear communication. Now I’m here to say with hand-on-heart I am often personally challenged when it comes having and demonstrating the grace of patience – the very fibres of 'delivery' in me at constant war with one another!


As is the very nature of business agility we turn around ideas into deliverable workable products in an agreed short (boxed) amount of time. But that said patience coupled with true empathy and communication usually allows room for vulnerability and opens for collaboration and trust. Circling back to Erikson's book and (part of) the message being how we communicate and the empathy to understand why we need to communicate differently to those who have contrasting views and drivers to us - are key to helping to remove the discomfort for your stakeholders, and you. 


Just as you, yourself, may have had to change your ways of working, having to adapt, unlearn, and then relearn and adopt. It is challenging – effort draining stuff. I know that you'd want for the same - patience, empathy and respectful communication - is what we can provide our stakeholders, so that they will want to join us on the agile journey. 


Here are key areas and ideas for navigating stakeholder awkwardness:

1.     Education and Empowerment: Provide stakeholders with comprehensive training and resources to familiarise them with Agile principles and practices. Empower them to actively participate in Agile ceremonies and decision-making processes, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability. Is there a key learning strategy available, is there any minimum required learning for the business and stakeholders to undertake - as part of the transformation and business agility adoption. The old adage - 'knowledge is power' goes far here.

2.  Tailored Communication: Adapt communication strategies to suit the preferences and needs of different stakeholders. Utilise plain language and visual aids to convey complex Agile concepts effectively, ensuring clarity and alignment.

3.  Establishing Common Goals: Facilitate collaborative workshops and discussions to identify shared objectives and priorities among stakeholders. Encourage open dialogue and consensus-building to align everyone's interests with the Agile mindset.


The Role of Agile Coaches: Agile coaches play a pivotal role in supporting product owners and teams in navigating stakeholder dynamics. They offer guidance, mentorship, and facilitation to address challenges and foster Agile adoption. Agile coaches help product owners refine their strategies, facilitate stakeholder workshops, and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement.


An agile coach can help bring an awareness and learning strategy to life when working with the (key) stakeholders and identified stakeholder groups. If you have a change management stakeholder heat map this can be an initial key tool to help guide where the efforts may be best utilised in the first instance. In parallel the coach can work with the product owner and squad as to specific stakeholder learning or just-in-time support.


Consequences of Coach Absence (and role capability absence): When Agile coaches are "missing in action," several challenges may arise with stakeholders:

1.     Misalignment: Without the guidance of Agile coaches, product owners may struggle to align stakeholders' expectations with Agile practices, leading to confusion and frustration. This may present with backlog instability, poorly agreed Definition of Done (DoD) and user story changes or incompletion without sign off, resulting in diminished sprint value and effort, and frustration for all involved.

2.     Resistance: Stakeholders may resist Agile adoption in the absence of coaching support, clinging to familiar but outdated methodologies and impeding progress. This can present in delayed feedback or no decision making, instead of providing just in time feedback at a playback or showcase.

3.     Inefficiency: Without Agile coaching, product owners may lack the tools and techniques to effectively engage stakeholders, resulting in inefficiencies and missed opportunities for collaboration.


Navigating stakeholder awkwardness in Agile requires a healthy blend of patience, empathy, and effective communication. By providing transparency and clear communication to stakeholders, leveraging Agile coaching support, and fostering a culture of collaboration, product owners can overcome many of these challenges and be able to progress towards successful Agile adoption. However, the absence of Agile coaches can exacerbate stakeholder difficulties, highlighting the critical role they play in facilitating Agile transformation and ensuring its success.


A closing thought - A wonderful squad member once said ‘.... engage early and often’. This is a great ‘Didi’ to stand by and may help to ease any awkwardness between any of us agile or 'not-yet' agile folk!



For more information on how you can start to explore your business agility potential and how we can help you- Contact | quenable or email directly to info@quenable.com.au

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