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InfoQ Homepage Articles Dealing with Politics in Agile or Lean Teams

Dealing with Politics in Agile or Lean Teams


Katherine Kirk did a tutorial on navigating politics in Agile/Lean teams at QCon London 2015. InfoQ interviewed Kirk about how agile or lean can increase politics and how she combines ideas from agile and lean with eastern and tribal philosophy to deal with the people issues that arise. InfoQ also asked her to give a different perspective and practical advice for addressing and navigating politics in organizations.

InfoQ: Your experience is that in some case agile or lean can increase politics. Can you give some examples?

Kirk: Agile/Lean appears to have developed in response to an increase of the rate of change in the technology industry. Projects and product delivery could no longer be planned and executed in a traditional way because industry and customer demand increased far too much for our ‘old’ ways of doing things to work effectively anymore.

So, in a people-centric environment where there is continuous change like this, the people working in that environment need to interact each time there is a change in order adapt what they are working on to incorporate the adjustment.

This means that as the rate of change goes up, the need for the rate of people interaction goes up. Agile/Lean reflects that. It responds by helping increase interaction in order to organise working effectively together (and with technology) at the rate of change that you are under.

Every interaction between human beings increases the likelihood of politics developing. This is natural. Humans are political beings.

So it can be fair to say that, inadvertently, Agile/Lean could be seen to increase politics.

InfoQ: Your explanation sounds logical. But my feeling is that most people expect and maybe even hope that agile or lean can reduce politics, for instance through transparency?

Kirk: Yes, you would expect and hope that transparency would reduce politics. But that’s like saying being truthful will stop us from acting out of self interest. The truth is one thing, learning to act out of self interest is a much deeper effort.

For instance – being truthful, you could say “I am doing this for myself”, however this does not make you collaborative or considerate, even though it might be honest.

In the same way, you could then say being transparent doesn’t necessarily mean it will reduce politics. Despite being more open about what they are doing, people can still act and manipulate the situation and others in self interest.

Therefore I wouldn’t claim that Agile/Lean’s transparency reduces politics – it just usually transfers it to a different form which can be channelled into an effective outcome if there is good, continuous facilitation.

Let me explain. Politics seems to me seems to occur because of internal motivations and interpretations of individuals about what’s going on around them. Although Agile/Lean might make activities, intentions and outcomes more clear, it doesn’t control the motivations and interpretations of the individuals who are doing the activities, having the intentions and dealing with the outcomes – so that’s all still prone to delusion, aversion and misunderstanding if you don’t have good facilitation.

For instance, one of the key complaints about stand-ups is that they run too long or are ineffective. A pattern you will notice in stand-ups is that although it appears that the team have transparency because people are displaying their current status openly, they can still (and do) generate politics inside, before and after that standup – just because its natural for human beings to try to influence outcome to their own agenda (e.g. talking extensively, being negative, hiding work etc).

Kanban boards are also a good example – consider that just because we have collaboratively visualised our workflow in a transparent way does not mean that the individuals in the team or stakeholders outside the team will stop political manoeuvring. My experience is that after the dust settles of a new process, technique or tool implementation, politics reasserts itself – albeit in an altered format due to the different way people have been restructured to work – so it will always need facilitation in order to channel it into an effective outcome.

InfoQ: With the transparency that agile promotes you would expect that it would be easier to recognize and deal with politics. Is that the case?

Kirk: It depends what you mean by transparency.

If by transparency you mean people verbalise their actions, intentions and outcomes much more when they interact in an Agile/Lean way – then yes. Obviously that would make it easier to identify politics. But as for dealing with politics – it could be said that if Agile/Lean was good at dealing with politics, then our industry wouldn’t be looking for cultural change methodologies and techniques as desperately as we are at the moment.

If by transparency you mean that the methods of Agile/Lean make us less manipulative and less destructive in our interactions – then I’d have to say no. I don’t agree. Because no matter what structures you put in place, if humans want to be manipulative and underhandedly political it doesn’t matter how great the methodology is, they will find a way to game it.

InfoQ: Do you consider politics to be a good or bad thing? Why?

Kirk: I don’t see politics as good or bad. Its a reaction. Reactions to situations are just that, reactions. However it is whether that reaction creates good or harm to the situation which classifies whether it is a good or a bad thing.

Why I take this view is because I believe we can’t really take politics out of human relationships but we can identify and channel reactions into positive outcomes – so we can, with this way of looking at things, therefore, use our reactions to bring about a positive swell toward an intended outcome rather than make a situation worse or continue cycling through an endless mediocrity-loop.

InfoQ: Most companies have a hierarchical power system. If an organization want to become truly agile, would they need to change the way that power is distributed?

Kirk: Obviously I’m not a political scientist and political science is a better place to put this question. But from my viewpoint this question assumes there might be a simple answer to a very complex problem. And evidence in my career thus far points itself toward this not being the case. In my personal experience, I found that Agile/Lean does lean itself toward a tribal way of working – but when I lived in the tribe the hierarchical power system of white society had no trouble disabling and dominating that tribal structure. So I’m not sure that Agile/Lean could become a predominant way of working for a group of western individuals who have been brought up and educated in a hierarchical power structure. This is why I have extended my studies into Eastern Philosophy, because it seems to have had thousands of years of strong interactions with Western hierarchical power structures quite successfully and it is through that, (that it appears to me), we can find some sort of successful interplay between the positives of each: Western power hierarchy, Eastern philosophy and tribal methodology.

InfoQ: In your opinion how do politics relate to collaboration, both within teams and between teams and their stakeholders? Do they support collaboration or are they hindering it?

Kirk: Like I said earlier, politics to me is a reaction. Its how we channel that reaction that makes it good or bad. However, even negative politics can sometimes be seen as an ‘attempt’ at manipulative collaboration, even if it is perhaps for the sole purpose of self interest. Interestingly, I’ve often seen that when a team and stakeholders become aware that their self interested attempts at collaboration (e.g. manipulating the group to act the way an individual or small group of people want them to act) is actually producing an outcome which isn’t in their self interest (e.g. the manipulation is actually making people less effective), they often become more than willing to then begin to collaborate properly. Its a strange twist in perspective.

InfoQ: Which practices does agile and lean provide to help people to deal with politics? How can they deploy them?

Kirk: Most practices in Agile/Lean encourage interaction and a form of transparency. This can either increase or decrease politics, depending on the approach you take to implementing them. For instance, retrospectives are fantastic but if you take the wrong approach to implementing one, the meeting (which has a brilliant intention) can quickly become a sticky, painful team session controlled by one person who calls themselves a facilitator but is actually a ‘manipulator’. This is why I’ve focussed my attention on the power of approach in the last few years.

InfoQ: Can you tell more about the power of approach?

Kirk: In a people centric environment, tools, techniques, processes and methods are all things which can improve or hamper success but it is how you implement them (e.g. roll them out) that makes all the difference. That implementation process is what I mean when I say ‘approach’. In other words – I can decide to create a Portfolio Kanban board, but without thinking carefully about the approach I take to create it (e.g. who I involve, how I socialise the idea) and then implement and use it (e.g. use it as an ongoing collaborative experiment vs a way to keep tabs) I could inadvertently ruin the intent I actually had in the first place.

Take BDD for example. BDD is an awesome framework for communication – however, if you take the wrong approach with its implementation by using it for control, self interest and to satisfy the wrong people, it can become a brittle ‘contract’ people use to hold each other accountable (see my Skillsmatter talk. This outcome is quite the opposite of the intention of BDD, so an effective approach is obviously a vital part of whether BDD is a success.

InfoQ: You use ideas from eastern and tribal philosophy to deal with politics. Can you give some examples?

Kirk: There are many models I am exploring at the moment. One which is most helpful to me is one I explain more in depth in my ‘Navigating Politics’ talks. Inspired by Buddhist monk teachings, I put it together to simply help analyse any approach you think you might take to something to check if you’ve really thought it through. I use it to ‘debug’ any solutions I think I might implement – to try to find out if there’s something I’ve forgotten to consider, and also to inspire me to explore other elements which might help.

All it involves is examining your intended solution (e.g. rolling out ‘Crucial Conversations’ training) or practice (e.g. retrospective) and asking yourself (not necessarily in this order) a few questions:

  1. Equanimity: Have I thought about how to bring open, calm curiousity to the [situation/individual/group] and myself for this [practice/solution]?
  2. Insight: Have I thought about how insight can be generated/what insight is needed for the [situation/individual/group] and myself for this [practice/solution]?
  3. Compassion: Have I done a compassionate walk through of what it would be like for the [participants/individual/group] to experience this? Have I thought compassionately about what it might be like for me to implement this?
  4. Grit/Determination: Have I thought about how to ensure the solution (or its effect) lasts/is maintained consistently and effectively over time?

Using this simple “approach debugging model” helps challenge you to extend your thinking beyond just the solution or implementing a practice but also into the reality of the how – in other words, it focuses you on your approach and how it might be improved to ensure the success of the overall outcome.

I’ve found that concentrating effectively on approach can mitigate negative politics considerably.

InfoQ: Can you give an example in which you used this approach to examine and adjust a solution or practice before implementing it?

Kirk: Most recently I’ve been working with an executive team and various IT teams who are working in a complex, international IT department that seems hampered by unnecessary politics – where Agile/Lean has been implemented but ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions are absolutely not cutting it.

In order to help adapt their intended responses, reactions and solutions to their context more effectively and to try to increase their benefit, we use the model regularly to review their ideas and mitigate against risks, inspire us to think of things which we might have missed, and bring in an element of innovation to our strategies.

For instance, the team leads and managers might have the idea to roll out an end-to-end testing initiative. Firstly, we will identify the people that might be involved and then we might use the model as follows:

  1. Equanimity: Review our ideas and examine how we could ensure that those it will affect are able to have calm, curious and valuable observations of the problem we are trying to solve so that they can collaborate with us toward a solution. When we do this, often we realise that we too need to be equanimous - for example, we are too overambitious and enthusiastic and it would be better to scale our ambition back and collaborate more in order for others to feel less threatened so they can contribute valuable information which would enhance the application of our idea
  2. Insight – We will look at the areas that we’d like us and our team(s) to have insights about, and consider what education or information we need in order for us to have an effective understanding of our difficulties so that we can contribute effectively to our idea/solution. Sometimes this results in realising we are quite arrogant in thinking that we disseminate our insight, and instead, again, we need to adapt our approach to one of inquiry and investigation a little more – this might mean that we set up training or a workshop in the relevant techniques the people involved might need – or it could be a retrospective/reflection session at the very least, or that we realise that the expertise we need is already in our team and we just need a lunchtime show and tell
  3. Compassion: We also examine what would it be like if we implement our idea as it stands: to be the recipient of it, to be involved in it, and to be the facilitator of it? How could we modify our approach so it would be more in harmony with the people situation it affects? Would it actually work in the real world? This generates an ‘empathy mapping’ scenario which flushes out the people risks we haven’t considered. It is often here that we may change tack in our approach considerably (as people do in UX, for example). We might realise that although its a great idea, we’ll all be exhausted in a month, or its actually impossible to facilitate considering the other demands that are on the participants
  4. Grit/Determination: We also try to imagine that after the ‘excitement’ and/or swell of the new idea starts to subside, what are the ways we can keep this solution/initiative effective/utilised and maintained by the people within/around it? Is it actually something that can be maintained? At this point, we often get a lot of insights into how we currently work and why solutions aren’t necessarily being carried through – so its one of the key elements of this model. Interestingly, it is fun, curiosity and encouragement that are the most effective here.

There are a couple of primary effects of this that I’ve noticed – one is that it improves our approach and therefore the success of an initiative/idea because it contextually adjusts to the reality you are in, and the other is that it facilitates considerable learning of those doing the approach ‘debugging’. For instance:

  • It encourages valuing collaboration because we begin to understand that in complex people environments, we regularly need more information from others to get a better understanding of ‘what is’ in order to respond most effectively to the changes around us
  • It helps us value contemplation as a platform for generating wisdom, as we realise that just actioning a solution/idea reactively can be fraught with unexpected risks we hadn’t thought of, especially in the people side of things – people are incredibly complex and their responses are not always predictable
  • It also shows us how much effect we actually have on our environment, so although it is sometimes difficult to see where you are going ‘wrong’, you also see how much effect that ‘wrong-ness’ can have, and in turn realise its really worth making that concerted effort to learn, investigate, collaborate and adapt – because it will make a difference.

InfoQ: If people want to address and navigate politics in their organization, can you give them some advice to get started?

Kirk: Sure. Here are the basic elements of an approach that they might find helpful that I teach more comprehensively in my workshops:

Firstly, try to see things as they really are. That’s hard, but necessary. You may not be able to do it all in one go, but teasing out reality is the most important thing to start to reduce negative politics.

Secondly, as you get a clear view of your situation, review it often and try to identify any type of suffering you see (this is inspired by ‘The 3 Aspects of Dukkha’ Buddhist model).

For instance –

  1. What is your company/team suffering from that is just generated by ‘what is’ (e.g. things we can’t change or don’t have control over, such as, perhaps a power hierarchy structure)?,
  2. What is your company/team suffering from that is generated by the rate of change our company/division/team experiences? (e.g. customer demand), or
  3. What is your company/team suffering from that is just a reaction to what’s happening? (e.g. team gets defensive to customer demand)

Thirdly, put your attention on the reactive suffering first. These are things you can do something about. Once you know what suffering you are experiencing that relates purely to your reaction to the circumstances – it is THAT suffering that you can focus in on to reduce negative politics. Because reactions are usually something we can change. This means negative politics/reactions also have the potential to come under control.

Fourthly, then develop an approach to tackle the reactions by reviewing tools and practices which you think will bring harmony to the way the people in your organisation respond to ‘what is’ and ‘the rate of change’ – whatever that might be

Finally, debug your approach before you implement it, using the model I mention above if you like – and in that process, challenge yourselves to find new and different ways too (of course doing this collaboratively is always better!). Keep running your approach ideas through something like my ‘approach debugging model’, until it looks reasonably solid to use as a starting point – keeping in mind that this is obviously a continuous process. Rinse and repeat!

About the Interviewee

Katherine Kirk is a solidly experienced independent Agile/Lean Coach and regular international conference speaker. Her primary area of expertise lies in generating cultural change through co-discovery and insight facilitation by exploring and combining eastern and tribal philosophy with Agile and Lean

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