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Coaching Project Managers or Embracing Organizational Change

Updated: May 7, 2022

What happens when management follows the traditional waterfall approach and teams use a lightweight Agile Framework? There are many excellent, cross-functional, and truly self-organized teams out there looking for a way to improve and make their processes as lean as possible. But often, teams have to search for a workaround as they hit a brick wall with their management, and lack of support doesn't let the needle move. Bottom line, the waterfall budgeting and traditional release scheduling model cause confusion and misalignment in Agile teams. And while it is true that top-down alignment is necessary for successful Agile adaptation, it is also true that transformation moves with a speed of wiliness of people to transform to a better way of working. Perhaps coaching management to achieve an essential mindset shift is a step in the right direction.

When new methods or processes get introduced to a team or organization, there is often resistance. It is a natural human reaction to change, and it is normal. Does it serve Agile teams well? It is probably not, and it is essential to acknowledge that transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for the organization to recognize practices aligned with its culture and overall human dynamics. Alternatively, some organizations or teams need to reach the breaking point when change is unavoidable and necessary to achieve success.

There is simply no silver bullet for adopting Agile. There are practices, 'proven to work methods,' and checklists for installing frameworks at organizations. And coaches see it in practice a lot when organizations are doing Agile versus being Agile. Achieving a mindset shift and embracing Agility takes commitment to experimentation and willingness to learn from experimentation or its failures.

Imagine asking a project manager who worked on waterfall deliverables for most of their life if they are ok with their project taking a fall? You might hear what you want, adapting to change and delivering value incrementally. The reality is far from what's shown on the surface. It is a significant change that is probably unfamiliar and sounds very threatening to the nature and purpose of project management. So, where do we go from here?

Focus on a support system. While massive organizational reorg might sound like a good approach, perhaps taking a step back and looking for a deeper meaning might spark some interesting thoughts. Scrum Masters and Product Owners often mention that management doesn’t provide them with the necessary level of support, and PMs become an impediment to continuous improvement and transformation itself. Now, let’s try to digest this thought. If team members don’t feel supported in their roles, can the same be the truth for Project Managers? We tend to jump to a quick conclusion because sense-making is more straightforward than attempting to sense what is happening. I ask coaches and leaders what problem they hope to solve or the outcome they desire to achieve with reorg. Most of the time, the answer is the alignment of roles and responsibilities. The hidden assumption is that assigning a new position or title to a traditional PM would make all problems go away. And most coaches have seen how those experiments turn out, followed by several rounds of hiring and firing new Agile Coaches and several attempts to change the organizational structure again and again.

Perhaps the more profound meaning and less sense-making can be an experiment itself. Look at the person and define if this person has the right level of support to grow and evolve in the organization. Does the organization create an environment for people to choose their career path, or does HR tightly control it? Do managers have the correct support system? Do managers of managers have the right skills to help others transform, do they have experience with role transitions, or do they have the Lean-Agile mindset to guide managers through their journey?

One company I worked with decoupled career coaching/growth from HR management. This simple shift allowed people to freely choose and switch their career mentors in the company. Those mentors guided individuals on their journey and could suggest and approve appropriate training programs. The only rule was that person hired had three weeks from the start day to pick their career manager, and there was an option to switch career managers within six months or upon mutual agreement.

Now imagine your manager with options for exploring what the transition can look like for them. Perhaps less anxiety and no fear of losing their job. Can this approach be guaranteed to work for every organization? Maybe or maybe not; it took the company I supported more than a year and several experiments to find the meaning of embracing Agility within their people, which translated to curiosity, willingness to change, and opportunity to explore different roles.

Another company I engaged with moved their people from one position to another every 2.5 years to embrace cross-functionality across the company. It allowed people to adjust to changes quickly, learn new skills and diversify their knowledge. For employees to embrace change quickly, organizational leadership should consider creating an environment for change.

Once again, there is no silver bullet or magic formula for adopting Agile. Initiatives to support mindset shifts and develop collaborative organizational culture and role transitions do not happen overnight. From my experience, human interaction and less sense-making can help build relationships and bridges to a better way of working. Focus on people and their needs. Everything else will follow.

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