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Adopting Agile in an Environment of Fear

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Agile adoption and transformation is sometimes effective, and sometimes not.  Is there a common thread to the failures?  Does fear have anything to do with it?  Opinions vary on the effects of different fears upon success:

Jim Highsmith talks about fear of change and fear of choice, and that perhaps fear of making a choice is just as much a factor than the common belief that fear of change is what gets in the way:

Agile, flexible, adaptive and dynamic are all words we use to encourage people and organizations to be more responsive to the turbulence in our business and economic environment. We then deride those who we view as resistant to change. But maybe what holds us back is as much “fear of choice” as it is “fear of change.” In “Linchpin,” author Seth Godin says that entrepreneurs and leaders who create tons of value for their companies often perform the same tasks as the rest of us, except for a critical 5 minutes per day. And in that 5 minutes they are somehow able to cut through the thousands of possible choices and select the one that creates value. For others, this cornucopia of choice is paralyzing. It’s the fear of choice that holds them back.

Radu Davidescue writes that agile adoption needs a fear-free environment:

Agile environments needs to be "fear free" places. When people have no fears they can unlock their creativity, bond together easier to work in a team. Trust comes better when there are less fears. People spend more time working rather than dealing with their fears.

Naresh Jain cited fear of failure as one of the prevalent roadblocks for successful agile adoption in India:

While these companies are adopting agile, they have lots of concerns and questions. One recurring theme I’ve seen, is all these companies are really really afraid of failure. IMHO, this fear leads to a very dysfunctional agile adoption. Teams pick what is easy to do and what fits into their existing model, in the name of reducing risk, call it fail-safe ;) . With this approach individuals and companies fail to see the real benefit of Agile.

Michael DePaoli argues that fear is an over-generalization of why things fail, and competent professionals will deal with fears effectively, but the risk/reward structure is what is at the heart of failed adoptions:

Perhaps when looking at the impediments to an agile adoption we need to take a different perspective beyond just fear, because not everyone is patently afraid of change.
If you can, look at how management is compensated in your company. After 25 years in the software industry I’ve been shocked at how often management’s stimuli (bonuses) are tied to meeting schedules and budgets, not to the delivery of value and quality. This frequently results in a response counter to change.
In my opinion, this is based on an over-arching human psychological challenge that reaches beyond just work… The illusion of control! We can’t control even what goes on in our own bodies, let alone how a group of people will interact and what exactly they will produce and when, yet compensation is too often based on this.

So there are several opinions on the impact of fear on agile adoption initiatives.  There still remain many unanswered questions about how to deal with fear specifically.  Also what about a culture where fear is built-in?  What if there was no way - at least in the short term - to address the fears? Could agile initiatives still be successful?

Please share your insights and experiences in this very important, but under-addressed topic.

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