Can one person make a difference?
Can one person make a difference?

The power of one

In my previous post addressing the question of what an agile mind looks like, I outlined the five most important elements of an agile mindset. In response to my post, I received the following tweet from Peter (thanks for the inspiration Peter!):

“The problem starts when ‘your’ mind is agile, but the organization (not being a mind) isn’t.”

When I read the tweet, part of me smiled in recognition, and another part of me remembered the frustration that I ssssoooo absolutely relate to.

Back in the days….

My first job back in 1998 was in a very un-agile world, and when I went through my first agile transition in 2008, part of me jumped with joy like a happy penguin.

It was as if I’ve finally found what I’ve been waiting for my entire life, and a sense of relief filled my body, kind of like being diagnosed with a disease. It doesn’t take the disease away, but it makes you feel better because at least you know you’re not alone and there’s a name for what makes you different.

The crazy penguin

To me being agile in an un-agile world felt like I had a disease where I was locked in a glass cage trying to speak to people, with the people on the other side unable to hear me. I often felt like a crazy penguin, being the only one going in one direction when everyone else seemed to flock together.

I couldn’t understand why people would simply accept the daily irritations and continue complaining when there was clearly an easier way. Yet no-one seemed to understand what I considered to be logic. Isn’t computer science supposed to be all about logic?

5 Strategies to cope as the only agile mind

If that’s how you feel in your organization, this post is for you. Here are some strategies on what to do when you feel like climbing the walls being the only agile mind in an organization.

1. The power of one

An organization is merely a collection of all the minds that work in it, so in fact, it is a mind. That means you can change it.

Even if you are the only agile mind around in your organization, you have the ability to influence others. One person is all you need to influence in order to be a catalyst for change in your organization. That one person will influence someone else, then another and another, and soon your organization will reach a tipping point.

Words don’t teach. Show them, don’t tell them how to be more agile.

See it as an opportunity to become an agile ambassador and change catalyst, possibly working yourself into a promotion to an agile coach role by showing the people around you how to be more agile. Chances are, they just don’t know any better and need someone to show them what it means to be agile.

2. The neuroscience of changing minds

Minds are made to be changed, and as you need to constantly exercise the muscles in your body to keep that six pack going, so too you need to constantly practice your mind muscles to keep your brain healthy, agile and happy.

What’s the point of having a mind if you can’t change it?

Neuroplasticity has proven that it is possible to build new thought patterns, but like trying to clean a really dirty floor that hasn’t been cleaned properly in years, you need to do it layer by layer to get rid of all the dirt.

When a coach potato decides to run a marathon, he first starts with short distances and work his way gradually up until he can run a half-marathon, and finally after about 2 years only will he be ready for his first marathon.

To build new pathways in a rigid mind also takes time and practice, so don’t expect it to change overnight. Cultivate some patience (one of the hardest things to do for an agile mind!) and boost their dopamine and serotonin levels by complimenting or pointing out when someone does something agile, and they’ll be sure to want to do it again.

3. Positive focus

I once was the lucky winner of being part of what was known in the company as the team no-one wants to work with. They never delivered the stories they committed to, their bug count was higher than the other teams combined, and when they delivered, there were always some exclusions that had to be re-added to the backlog.

The first two sprints I only observed, and noticed that the feedback from business was always focused on what didn’t work rather than what did.

I decided to be the change agent and point out things that did work during the sprint to counter-balance the negative and demotivating feedback. Initially, it was really hard and sometimes I sat for days wondering what I’ll say in the retrospective because nothing seemed to work. But I adopted a policy that if I couldn’t say anything good, I wouldn’t say anything at all and made a point of pointing out the successes, even if it was as simple as no fire drills to disrupt the team during the sprint (which seemed to happen every sprint at one stage).

Look for the things that are working and point it out. A motivated team is an agile team.

Painfully slowly you’ll motivate the team and a motivated team is quickly turned around into a more agile team.

4. One problem at a time

Like the butterfly effect, one issue impacts the entire ecosystem around it. Trying to resolve many improvements at once very often results in even more problems rather than solutions.

Focus on only one improvement at a time. Each sprint, take only the most important issue on the list of improvements identified in the retrospective and focus on changing that item. Don’t move on until it is resolved.

Work on the assumption that it takes about 21 days to build a new habit, and about 90 days of continued use to sustain it. Within this first 21 days of change missing one day is critical, so each day, remind the team of the decided action or change. After the initial 21 days, it is acceptable to miss 1 day, but not more, until the neural pathways have been properly rewired.

It might seem slow at first, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. It is better to solve one problem sustainably than ten without reinforcing the change or becoming aware of the impact of the change.

In essence, you are training the team to focus and to build new habits. They will get better at it within time, but you need to provide the proper structure for it to be sustainable.

5. Move, you’re not a tree

As a final resort, you always have the option to find a more agile organization. Change is something that takes some time to settle, and too much change is often more disruptive than what it is good for an organization.

If you are an agile mind in an un-agile organization, chances are you’re making some waves which can be very unsettling for the organization.

For change to be really effective, there needs to be a period of settling into the new change before the next wave of change can happen. Or sometimes, you’ve simply outgrown the organization you’re currently in and it is time to move on. Your frustration is trying to tell you something.

The question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to be in a more agile environment, or whether you want to be the change-maker in your organization?

Originally published on Medium: