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Q&A with Len Lagestee on Becoming a Catalyst


The book Becoming a Catalyst by Len Lagestee aims to help Scrum Masters, Agile coaches, and project managers to accelerate the culture change that is needed when an organization is adopting agile.

In the book Len calls them "catalysts"; they are agents of change who facilitate, coach, and encourage professionals on the work floor during their daily work.

They look for possibilities to improve the organization by stimulating and serving people to learn and improve continuously.

You can download a sample of Becoming a Catalyst to get a first impression of this book.

InfoQ did an interview with Len about what a catalyst can do to support people in adopting agile practices, what it takes to become a catalyst, and how catalysts can start and energize change initiatives that help organizations to become more agile.


InfoQ: Why did you write this book? What can readers get out of it?

Len: My hope for readers is to get them excited about the possibilities of the role of Scrum Master. In my opinion, the Scrum Master has often been misunderstood and underutilized. I’m finding this in larger organizations but specifically for those transitioning from being a project manager to the role of Scrum Master. Becoming a Catalyst was written as a guidebook for those Scrum Masters looking to discover the opportunities available to them every day, with every interaction, to make a positive difference in the work-life for those surrounding them everyday. By reading the book, Scrum Masters will be able to answer the question, “What role do I play in bringing vibrancy and responsiveness to my organization?”

InfoQ: The book introduces the term catalyst which comprises people in the roles of Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or Agile Project Manager. Why do you call them catalysts?

Len: I used the term catalysts because when I hear that word, I visualize movement, acceleration, and energy. This is what is will take to overcome many of the dysfunctions infecting organizations. The book hopes to inspire Scrum Masters to think of more than just the mechanics of their role but to think of themselves as change agents – the accelerant to sustainable culture change.

While I focus on the Scrum Master role in this book, everyone can be a catalyst. Look for the Leadership Edition of Becoming a Catalyst later this year.

InfoQ: Can you explain why catalysts are so important in the adoption of agile? How can they contribute to make it successful?

Len: Catalysts build and sustain momentum. I have witnessed and heard many stories of failed Agile transformations. Expensive Agile coaches are brought in for a few months but as soon as they leave, old organizational habits re-emerge. Overcoming the resistance to change is hard work and having people brave enough to resist the status quo is crucial to the success of an Agile transformation I believe. Catalyst Scrum Masters are the exit strategy for external Agile coaches.

InfoQ: What does it take to become a catalyst?

Len: For me, it started with a shift in attitude. Believing in the power of bringing people together to build cool stuff and do fun things. I talk about other attitude shifts in the book, but becoming a catalyst requires a decision that you want to become one, personal mastery around a few traits and competencies, a bit of bravery, and the ability to keep yourself healthy along the way. I have seen many change agents fade away after an initial period of excitement (myself a time or two) so a full chapter in the book is focused on staying healthy.

InfoQ: Serving people is something that catalyst often do. People sometimes find this hard to do. Do you recognize that? What can people do to become better in serving other people?

Len: I definitely recognize and relate to this! This is the hardest trait for me and subsequently the hardest section of the book to write. I knew it had to be there because of the impact I have seen this have in organizations. When we serve we have no choice but to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. Looking for ways to serve others reminds us just how human we are and how much we need each other. This one shift in thinking can revolutionize company culture.

If you are not a natural “server,” what has worked for me is to just start with a few random acts of kindness for people on your team or others you are working with.

InfoQ: In the chapter “necessary fuel" you include "everyday retrospectives" to help catalysts to gauge how they are doing when igniting the flame to encourage and support change. Can you elaborate on that?

Len: The Everyday Retrospective is an opportunity for the catalyst to take a step back at the end of the day and assess the impact they had with people, with their teams, and within the organization. For each development trait introduced, there are just a few simple questions to self-assess the progress they are making on their journey to becoming a catalyst.

InfoQ: You described eight foundational traits that help catalyst to develop habits that help them to support change. One of them is to become an intense observer. Can you explain this trait and give some examples how you can develop your observation skills?

Len: The ability to watch and listen is crucial to becoming a catalyst. This trait will allow you to begin to trust your gut instincts when something doesn’t feel right on the team without anyone speaking a word sometimes. The ability to use all of our senses to observe the team will provide the opportunity to reveal cracks in the team foundation before they become traumatic events. Many people are not comfortable sharing what is bothering them or are afraid to mention what isn’t working or causing them stress so this trait will also allow you to connect with them individually to get to the root cause of the issue.

The best way for a Scrum Master to develop the trait of Intense Observer is to take the time to watch and listen to another team. Ask another Scrum Master to tag along during one of their team ceremonies and observe everything. Take notes and review them with the Scrum Master – it’s amazing what you will discover.

InfoQ: Change is not a separate activity but is something that is embedded in everyday events as you describe in the chapter "building the fire". Why do you take this approach to change?

Len: Too often, change is treated as an event. Something we do and check off the list. With the speed in which the world is changing, change needs to become part of who we are and a part of everyday life. I have seen this time and time again as an Agile coach. Something isn’t working or is painful but people will wait for a leader or a coach to make something happen or solve the problem. There isn’t time for this anymore and those organizations struggling with embracing and thriving in change will have a tough time keeping up. Catalyst Scrum Masters have the opportunity to instill this attitude of resilience and growth into the interactions and events of daily work life.

InfoQ: When it comes to identifying risks and removing impediments, Scrum Masters have a double role. They have to support the team to deal with this and solve issues themselves. Can you give some advice how they can learn to balance this to decide what they should do themselves and where they should encourage and support others to do it?

Len: I believe Scrum Masters should first ensure their sprint planning sessions are having full and robust discussion around each story (as they are being sized and as tasks are being created). Too often, potential risks or impediments are glossed over just to get through the planning session as fast as possible. Rather, the Scrum Master should be probing for potential impediments so the possibility of something blocking the team within a sprint is greatly reduced. This is often done by asking probing questions. In the book I call it "prospecting for risks."

If an impediment does occur mid-sprint, to help with the balance you mentioned I prefer to have the Scrum Master "shepherd" the impediment to resolution. This change in wording shifts the thinking from a role of doing to to a role of guiding. By guiding the impediment, the Scrum Master will solve it if they can, find others who can solve it if they can't, or escalate it until resolution. This takes self-awareness and practice to develop the ability to know when to let go and when to escalate.

The Scrum Master should do whatever they can to ensure a clear runway for the team in doing their work. Anything emerging from the team that cannot clear themselves should be removed or escalated by the Scrum Master.

InfoQ: Change initiatives often start with much enthusiasm and energy by the ones driving it, but it can be difficult to keep the flame alive when things get tough. Can you give our readers some ideas on how they can do this?

Len: I have found that if change is being “driven” by someone it will often fall on deaf ears. A colleague of mine, Si Alhir, says we need to “unleash a healthy virus” into organizations and let it spread. It needs to be embedded into the system and driven by everyone in the company. This is why we need catalysts or accelerants to be the “carriers” of healthy interactions so they can overwhelm unhealthy elements.

Building communities of practitioners and “co-creating” the change with them is a great way to start. This simple action redefines how we work together so when times do get tough, everyone knows their voice will be heard and will be a participant in shaping the future.

InfoQ: You mention at the end of your book that people can share their catalyst stories and experiences at this website. What are your intentions with this website?

Len: The goal is to have Becoming a Catalyst website become a place for catalysts to build community around the world. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll start by setting up a forum for catalysts to introduce challenging situations they are encountering so others can share what has worked for them and for all of us to share ideas. As I mentioned in the book, making the decision to become a change agent is not easy so hopefully, this site will become a support group for those in the trenches.

About the Book Author

Len Lagestee is an Agile coach and blogger. As an Agile coach, Len interacts with large organizations to connect people, revolutionize leadership, deliver results, and humanize the workforce.


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