Change paralysis in agile teams

If you can’t agree on a change, you can’t make the change

Teams can get very good at identifying problems, but when there are a selection of solutions — it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of never picking a solution to try and evaluate. It looks a bit like the diagram below:

A bad change cycle a team may fall into

The frustration caused can show in a few behaviours:

Having a self organised agile team without a ‘project manager’ or defacto-leader makes it more difficult for the team to decide on changes. It’s a lot easier to have one person in charge, who just tells the team what to do — but the draw back is this stifles creativity, empowerment and idea generation from within the team. The easiest way to do something is often not the most effective.

A more ideal way to enact team changes

The above diagram seems easy enough, but teams may find trouble with any number of the steps. It is still a continuous cycle, as teams should always be looking for improvements — but changes are made, evaluated and closed off.

In the teams I’ve worked in, plenty of people can see what is wrong and articulate it, and there are usually a flurry of ideas to try to fix things. Sometimes people have an idea that’s not actually linked to a problem — this can sometimes be useful but can be difficult to measure how effective it’s been if it’s introduced without careful thought.

Where teams commonly fall down is picking an idea, trying it for a bit and then re-thinking if you’ve fixed the problem. The discussion to pick one idea to try can become a search for perfection, or trying to pick two similarly good ideas drags on for too long, or doesn’t reach a conclusion.

There can also be recurring hot topics, where not all the team can agree or even worse there’s a 50/50 split on what to do. If these aren’t put to bed these can become a real frustration for the team members who want to change something.

Some examples I’ve seen:

A way to eliminate recurring topics is to track them, try changes if the team can agree and measure the improvements or issues that arise. Most learning can be gathered by the team trying something, so even if some of the team have reservations it’s often the best course of action to try to make the change.

These hot topics might dominate a particular retrospective meeting, or might need it’s own breakout discussion — but it’s worth the time spent to resolve these conflicts and work through them as a team. If the topic feels to big for a short retrospective meeting, it might be that a small change can be tried to improve it — if not a longer discussion can be arranged to dig into the details.

The issues that arise in picking something to try, can almost always come down to how the team communicates with each other — and if a facilitator can guide the team past conflict to a resolution that they can all buy into. We don’t want a situation where the loudest team members dominate what’s decided, and the more meek just want to move on. The ideal team will be one where all feel they can contribute to discussions to improve the team, without prejudice or fear that they won’t be listened to or have their ideas dismissed.

A facilitator can employ many methods to steer a team. We would want them to be neutral to the ideas on offer and help the team decide for themselves.

Note taking on a board / flip chart can often be useful to keep discussions on track and to focus the team through a tricky meandering subject. This makes it easier to evaluate the ideas on offer, and the points that have been raised for or against. The team could vote on which they preferred, but an outcome where no change is made is unlikely to be satisfactory for many people.

It might be that there are too many ideas on offer, so something like the World Café method could be used to split into sub teams and evaluate each one quickly and feed back to the group.

It’s key to document the changes a team decides on, and what success looks like — so the team can discuss progress at a later date.

When changes are made, it can be that it improves, or actually the team’s productivity decreases. The only mistake the team would make is if it didn’t learn from what happened. The team should not let a change for the worse scare them away from making changes, but perhaps a way to get back on track would be to make some smaller changes to improve their confidence again.

Developer, Scrum master and Agile Coach

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