How to deal with resistance in Agile Teams

Overcoming Resistance in Agile Teams


Paddy Corry

Paddy Corry is an Enterprise Agile Coach at eShopWorld, an Irish global e-commerce business, ranked the number one fastest growing tech firm in Ireland 2015, 2016 and 2017 by Deloitte.
Paddy also blogs on Agile & Scrum related topics. 

Video Transcription

Joanna: Hi, Paddy, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I very much appreciate it. And for those who don’t know, Paddy is known in Dublin in the agile community, he’s an agile coach in and also he’s a blogger at He blogs mainly on scrum related topics, actually any agile related topics, isn’t it? 

Paddy: Yeah, the scrum tends to be the start off point. But any agile related topics are good, yeah.

Joanna: So, again, thanks, thanks very much for taking the time to have the chat with me today. So, Paddy, a while ago we had this very interesting conversation about how to approach people who are more reluctant, team members who are more reluctant, and there is a little bit of less buy in on their side towards this new ways of working, agile ways of working. And we had quite different views on that. And for that reason, I thought it was very interesting, you know, and I was very interested in continuing this conversation and seeing how because that we talked about it a while ago, and I guess probably both of us tried to find out different things and different approaches, but I thought because  at that time that we represented different views, it was a nice starting point. So, Paddy, do you want to give us a quick synopsis of how did you approach that at the time? And what do you do now?

Paddy: Sure, yeah. And I think it’s fair to say that since talking about it, I’ve talked about it more with different people and my thinking about this subject has certainly changed a lot since I encountered this issue for the first time. But, it’s an issue that I think anyone who works with teams will be familiar with. You know, we’re trying to get something done, some kind of change. Maybe it’s introducing Scrum, maybe it’s just making an experiment for the first time. And for some reason, somebody in the team, maybe even more than one person is not really into the idea, not behind it, and possibly even actively doing things to make sure the initiative doesn’t work. And how do you cope in that situation as the change agent? That was the theme and I think in the past, certainly, at the beginning of my my career as a Scrum master, I fell into a trap, I think of focusing all my energy on the resistant areas. So, if a team of 8 people, for example, had one person, the person who was resistant, I think I tended to focus my energies on convincing them well, how can we get this person to change their mind? And what am I perhaps not doing right? And could we reframe the problem or explain it in a different way? And I think when we talked, we kind of talked around the subject of, well, isn’t it also good to focus on the people who are positive about the change? And shouldn’t we be bringing them along, and perhaps the person who is resistant will see the positive impact of the of the change and catch up then after the fact and become convinced. So, I think the two different approaches are possible. And I think the first approach that I described can be quite exhausting, particularly if somebody is quite resistant to change. So, I think my thinking of it has evolved a bit more towards the second approach, which is build evidence of why this is the right thing to do in practice, get alignment through building a coalition of people who are who are interested in experimenting and seeing what the result will be. And eventually you’ll have a compelling data set.

Joanna: Okay, and that to be honest with you, the first time we met, that was, my way of going, probably because I’m lazy, but I kind of thought you know, I will focus on those believers and then you know, that other people will follow once they see it working. And I remember once there was this girl, she was a developer, and she said the moment somebody asked her to test she will give her resignation. I was like, okay, she’s too good, we cannot lose her, leave her alone. And by that, you know, not even months later, it’s couple of sprints later she was testing, I was like, okay, just leave people alone. And they will follow if they want to, if they see the value of it. If you know the others can prove it. And that was a big eye opener for me. And I had, you know, I have a few other examples of how that that concept worked. Do you have an example of how, you know how you managed to convert, you know, non-believers into believers?

Paddy: I probably have more stories of failure than success, to be honest. But, I think I’ve learned from every kind of interaction like that. So, I think certainly, you know, an unwillingness or difficulty in seeing the value of even things like The Scrum Framework, that’s something I’ve encountered. And someone in a team who might even be, you know, relatively senior in the in an organization or in the team itself, perhaps not really seeing well, what’s in it for me, kind of thing, you know, where the, the, the kind of culture change that’s needed is kind of what’s in it for the team? Like, how can we all help each other? And sometimes, you know, when you’re, when you’re in a good situation, you do have to give up a little bit to join a team, and you have to sacrifice a few things, you know, in the interest of everybody doing well.

Paddy: So it’s not always an easy change, to make to start using a framework like Scrum, for example. But, I think the main thing I’ve learned from the attempts to resolve these kind of problems is the self-management piece, not investing too much emotional effort, not investing too much energy into thinking about the problem, worrying about the problem, taking it away and maybe taking it home. If people are really, really resistant to something happening, you know, perhaps they will be you know, perhaps they will be resistant, perhaps that resistance will carry on and maybe they’ll end up moving to another team that isn’t doing the what they’re resisting, that’s a possible outcome. And it doesn’t mean a kind of personal defeat for a Scrum master. You don’t represent the framework, you know, you you’re, you’re there to try and make sure it works for the team. And sometimes that might mean, somebody’s saying, it’s not for me, and that’s okay. And I think, when I encountered those things early on in my career, I probably would have beaten myself up about it as a failure, as a failure of the Scrum master role. But I think I’ve developed my own thoughts on that, and part of the conversation with yourself would have influenced that you can’t always make change happen, you can plant the seeds, you can influence things, you can coach, but if someone really doesn’t want that to happen, that’s another possible outcome.

Joanna: And Paddy, just one question, for more junior Scrum masters. Do you have any advice to give about how much to invest? How much time to give somebody before we decide, okay, too much is too much? I know, there’s a very fine line there. But what would be the cutoff point, Where do you give up?

Paddy: I think the key word for me, and the word that comes up again, and again, and I moved into a coach role recently. So, I’m talking to teams and talking to Scrum masters about the role more than being hands on these days. I think the key word for me on this is expectations. I would strongly encourage, if you’re starting out as a scrum master in a new team, team agreements right from the start, you know, discuss expectations of what the team needs from you and what you need from them. What kind of Scrum master they want, and what kind of Scrum master you think you can be because you may need to adapt very early  and you could go through a few sprints of pain, and a few difficult retrospectives. It might not be clear what those expectations are, until you have some trickier conversations. But, having that upfront and a team agreement, discussing expectations, I think if I could go back to that situation that I’m thinking of now, it might have changed things. It might have, you know, made the situation more transparent earlier. And then we could have done something about it earlier. Maybe I could have done something differently on advice from the people who are resistant to change, you know, we could just have had a clearer conversation.

Joanna: Very interesting Paddy, because again, I’m representing a little different view. So, thats why I enjoy working with you and you know, talking with you , like working with you in the community sense. Because very often we complement each other’s viewpoints. I agree about the team norms, I think contracting is a solid basis. But I also believe that the Scrum master, especially with the teams which are immature and sometimes never worked that way, it’s like a customer, if we ask the customer, what do you want? They don’t usually know exactly. So, I feel personally, I’m more, you know, autocratic is a bad term, but I would be more rigid in terms of Scrum upfront, because I believe in informed decisions. So, I believe people cannot make decisions until they are informed. So, in the beginning, I would be more rigid, I would, you know, I would expect people to learn and be informed before they make the decision that this is not for me. So, you know, that’s why in the, in the beginning, I’m more autocratic, you know, this is what it is. This is you know, how we follow. But then, as we go with our sprints, I would ask for opinions, and I would relax. But, I think in the beginning, if we ask the teams too early, especially immature teams, especially people who are very comfortable in the old ways of working, who are well settled in the organization, what do you want? They definitely, either they don’t want to change, or they don’t know how it can be better or how it can be different. So, I think contracting is definitely something that I do and that I’m very fond of, but sometimes I think asking people too early, they might just not know. Any thoughts on that?

Paddy: Yeah, there’s an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot. Where I work now, we work in this safe framework. And sometimes there’s just an idea or a concept that sticks in your mind that there’s this idea of solution intent. And it like most things in safe, I’m sure they originate somewhere else. But the idea, one part of solution intent is that you start off with a combination of a fixed idea of what the solution is, and a variable component of that. So, in a complex environment, the variable part is big. And the fixed part should be relatively small when you start out, because obviously, it’s a complex looking environment. So you got to figure it out as you go learn and adapt. And I think the same principle can apply when you come into a new team, you could, you know, you will always have conversations with stakeholders to the team, before you go in, you will always have an idea of the context of the team before you before you enter. For example, the other side of this conversation is a high performing team. I think a really good question for a Scrum master is imagine a team where everything’s working well. There’s a good engineering culture, strong engagement with the product owner. All the metrics indicate that it’s a high performing team. You’ve just started work as a Scrum master in that team. What do you do? what’s your role in that position? And I think a team agreement in that position is really important. Because it’s light touch, it’s observation, it’s coaching, it’s facilitation. Whereas if you come into an immature team it’s a completely different role, like you say, and I think it needs to be more instructional, teaching, there are different stances needed. And perhaps, I think, what some junior Scrum masters aren’t taught always is that to be a Scrum master is to be adaptable to the situation that you’re coming into, to think that you’re doing to be the same kind of scrum master, or take the same stance with every team I think that’s probably flawed. You can’t always be a coach, because a junior or intermediate team who are relatively new to an agile framework, they need more than that, they need someone to be more like a teacher.

Joanna:, I agree with you Paddy, 100%. And even it’s the maturity of the teams that matters. But also the makeup of the teams, two different teams are made of two different types of people, and very often I would work in parallel. I would have multiple teams at the same time and I would do different things with each team, different techniques works better with different teams. So I think what you’re what you mentioned here about this, you know, plasticity of the role as a Scrum master, It’s very important because I think that the important and crucial part of being a Scrum master, is this ability to figure out what’s working with one team and what’s working with another team.

Paddy: Yeah, I think so. And it’s fun. I think one thing I learned early on, when I started working with more than one team was trying the same experiment or the same process change in the two teams at the same time, and seeing different results. I mean, how much more information do you need? It’s like one team loves it, the other team hates it. Okay, this is a good data set. So, yeah, every team is different. And I think that, you know, Barry calls it the stances. I think Barry Overeem calls it the stances of the Scrum master that the kind of default role that you’re expected to play in a particular context. I really like that idea because in order to develop in the role, you know, career progression as a Scrum master probably means getting better at those stances that you are not as comfortable in, like look at those four stances that Gunther Verheyen has or the eight that Barry has and ask yourself, am I good at all of those? Can I do more to develop myself in any of these? And, you know, personally, I found Barry’s paper really, really strong. So, that’s one that I’d recommend to any Scrum master out there.

Joanna: And, okay, Paddy, so before we finish, and maybe we could, you know, give a word of advice or sentence of advice to a junior Scrum master. And, you know, having in mind, the initial statement that we started with: how do you deal with a team that not all team members are on board with the change, and what’s happening, this new ways of working?

Paddy: I think my, my kind of piece of advice in one sentence would be prepare to be adaptable. And, you know, there’s ways to do that. But I think there are stances of a Scrum master. The stance that you used the most in your last team, may not be the one that you use the most in, in this team. That’s maybe, how I’d sum it up. Well, what do you think, yourself?

Joanna: I guess, you know, to me, the most important thing is being open minded. And, you know, just remembering that agile is about people. Sometimes, you know, in agile, we are meant to value people over processes, but sometimes we just lose that bit. And it’s like, break or fit into our process. So, I just think being open minded and sensitive, you know, sensitive to the needs of others, because if we are tuned into other people, and you know, leave them alone, either they will buy in, or we will find out and figure out this is not for them. And then it means you are not like breaking somebody, forcing and forcing them to fit our process, this is to me is not exactly an agile way of being.

Paddy: Yeah. Yeah. I think that sounds that sounds a bit prescriptive, which is the kind of code red word for a Scrum master. We don’t like if we’re described as prescriptive, right?