Confessions of an Agile Pusher

Lieschen Gargano Quilling
6 min readJun 20, 2019

I recently started as a Scrum Master at a new company. My last company had strong agile practices and ran the basics, textbook, without thinking. My new team spent my entire interview process and on-boarding asking how they can do that as well, and told me I was the expert that should tell them how. I started to see it as low hanging fruit, so I did… And they HATED IT!

I have been an agile coach for several years, in several different organizations. I have seen and felt the energy when I help shift a team’s culture from telling them how and what to do (fixed mindset), and start modeling the agile mindset instead. And I still fell into the trap of becoming a rigid agile pusher. As a rigid pusher I started to work towards the appearance of a pull system and agile practices, rather than focusing on the real outcomes, and it is taking a lot of work to turn that around. Don’t make my mistakes, name the trap, and work to avoid it through vulnerability, trust, and appreciation.

The Trap

As Agile professionals we have the responsibility and skill to drive our team and company cultures through demonstrating an agile mindset. However, we often enter situations where we are viewed as the expert, and thrown into expectations of fast results through “telling” leadership.

Defining success for ourselves and setting those expectations confidently and early is a great way to avoid the trap, but it sounds easier than it is.

When we start a new role, or work with a new team, we know we need to take time to get to know them and where they are in their agile journey. Pair this time of observation with exasperated leaders who want fast results, and we quickly shift to pushing the teams to “get agile” quickly, resulting in pain, anxiety and frustration for our teams and ourselves.

The Way Out

“Be vulnerable, Hold Trust, Express Appreciation” — Jean Tabaka

Be vulnerable.

We are expected to not be emotional or difficult at work, which often translates to agreeing, avoiding conflict, and generally hiding our humanness. But we know change is conflict. That difficult conversations breed alignment and innovation. Being vulnerable then, means modeling doing the hard work to get better, instead of the easy work that feels better.

Ok, but what does that mean?

It starts with regular one-on-ones with our leaders where we consciously practice STATEing our path: Sharing our facts and Telling our story of how we believe we can be successful as an agile leader. Asking them to share their view, then talking Tentatively and encouraging Experimentation around a shared solution. It takes courage and vulnerability to have these conversations with our leaders, and to set healthy boundaries and controllable expectations, modeling what we also hope to do for our teams.

Using one-on-ones to STATE our path is also a perfect example of doing the hard work to get better. We can be tempted to do the easy, feel good work of saying yes to our boss’ vision for us, or having a joyful conversation with them instead of a hard one. But showing up as the expert they expect us to be, means being vulnerable, and clear about our experiences and approach.

Hold Trust.

“When people feel respected, the natural result is to trust and cooperate.” — Simon Sinek

Respecting our teams starts with demonstrating our belief in their ability to solve their own problems. When we pepper them with “should do’s” and questions about agile practices and metrics, we force them into a fixed mindset of proving themselves. When faced with constantly proving your worth, the team will start viewing our coaching as an attack to be defended, and a change to protest.

Using open ended questions that aid the team in coming to their own conclusion and solving their own problems, not only allows us to demonstrate our belief in them, but to use our coaching to guide them to result that they own and see value in.

Not just any open questions will do. If we ask “what were your results?” and “what is your plan for improvement?” we put them right back on their heels. Instead, ask a question about the process that is focused on growth like:

“what is your greatest challenge?”

“What did you learn?”

“what frustrated you?”

“what felt good? and why?”

“What can you control in this situation?”

Where and how we reinforce results shows, through our actions, what we and our organizations value. Only asking questions about results, and praising based on those results, demonstrates a disdain for failure, and sets feedback cycles and learning behind short term numbers. But we know as agileists that the more experiments we run and the tighter the feedback loops, the more likely a success will hit, and that we will reach our numbers long term. Building empowered, resilient employees who are along for that ride, requires demonstrated values of failure and learning.

Encourage failure, and fast learning cycles, by giving a specific focal point for improvement over several cycles, creates muscle memory around experimentation. It reinforces, through action, the value of consistent improvement and experimentation. Choosing one focal point for improvement, based on the answers to your powerful questions, offers a path to success that is fun and achievable along the way.

Express Appreciation.

People want to please those in leadership and live up to their values. This is why the questions we ask matter. It is why how we reinforce results matter, and ultimately it is why sincere feedback and appreciation matter.

Never missing an opportunity to give a specific, sincere compliment. I catch myself missing opportunities for this all the time. I have even caught myself denying others compliments because the coach in me wants more. This is another symptom of the pusher trap. Tell the team when they have improved, even in the smallest way. Celebrate individuals when they do something new, or uncomfortable on their agile journey. Something as small as acknowledging the team has been under WIP for a day can go a long way to reinforcing pull culture.

The same goes for feedback. If the only time we give feedback is a when we schedule a special one-on-one that is out of the ordinary, we will create a sense of dread around receiving feedback. Instead, by never missing an opportunity to give compliments and celebrate wins, our sincere, specific, and actionable feedback, will be received with the same vulnerability we have demonstrated, with the trust we have earned, and likely with appreciation for our effort in supporting their success.

Jean’s words are a mantra for me. I apply them every day. Sometimes I slip up. Sometimes it is really hard. Through it all I can see the change growing, and I know I am digging myself out of the pusher trap, and I know you can too.

What are you going to focus today? this week? this month? to shift in a pull direction? What do you need to let go of to make it happen?

I can’t wait to hear about it!