The sect

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Having introduced Psychological Safety as a cornerstone for companies, this company was trickier. Psychological Safety was removed from the original Agile transformation agenda for some reason, but I introduced it as a channel in MS Teams, where the discussion started. I helped HR with workshops on the topic, hoping they would be the messenger in the company, and not me. I held inspirational talks about Psychological Safety, where I exposed my mistakes, with a secret agenda to make the management comfortable to do the same. These mistakes on my part were later held against me in my assignment – and probably the reasons for firing me. The feedback didn’t tell (surprise!).

To summarize my Psychological Safety efforts, it was hard as the culture was of the silent type. This was even more obvious when people contacted me on LinkedIn and encouraged my endeavors with the PS-mission, instead of speaking out verbally at work, or in the internal email. Most of this case is an excerpt from my “final report” to this company. The final report is my way of handing over the work on the last day of my assignment with a recommendation to pass it onto the next Agile coach. This report comes as a best practice from us experienced Agile coaches, but I suspect it stays with the managers I hand it over to.

When I got a very good proposal to join the company, I did not doubt it much. My counterbid on the salary offered was swallowed without hesitation and I did the most stupid thing you can do. I went all-in without a plan B, just like I did in 2005 when I moved from my hometown Stockholm to a small village in the middle of nowhere. I burned all my ships and cancelled my old cell phone number in favour of my new company number. This was a sign that I really wanted to work here for a long time as I saw the enormous challenges ahead, which would make me thrive. I could not challenge the rule of a six-month probation period though, as it was hammered into their process stone, so I knew I needed to shut up now and not doubt as much as I usually do. My new assignment was “Senior Enterprise Agile Coach”, and my main responsibility was to:

“Educate the upcoming Agile coaches in Agile ceremonies, creating effective teams and growing a healthy, collaborative, continuously improving culture.”

The mindset and skills expected were:

“To be the guardian of the Agile mindset and, in an enthusiastic and encouraging way, contribute to develop and spread the Company culture. To be successful we believe you have a great passion and knowledge of the Agile processes, and you have great people skills, a curious mindset and a positive can-do attitude to motivate your team. You dare to stand up and be creative. We think you have great communication and leadership skills and are excellent at problem solving. We think you will detect and implement radical new ideas and solutions even in complex situations. You can inspire and coach others to continuous improvement and create a transparent, trusting environment.”

After reading this, you can assume that my usual challenging and doubting coaching style was welcomed. But I was about to fail. On the first day on the job, I learnt that taking photos in our office were not accepted, as well as talking in public about the company. I had previously worked as a consultant here, and I had heard it was strict, but not like this. As a consultant I was not able to put their name or logo in my CV. On a wall you could read the core values in bold print, and I must admit it felt strange the first day – but worse was yet to come. One of the values was open-minded, or as explained in the later brainwashing session:

  • We are open, honest, and humble.
  • We reflect on our behavior and listen to others.
  • We speak up, but once a decision has been made, we commit to it.
  • We are prepared to have our own ideas challenged and happy to let the best idea win.

The company was changing radically, including creating new roles for all employees. One of these roles was the Agile Coach (AC), like me. Half of the old project managers were selected for this retraining and the other half got fired or an exit deal offer. 150 Agile Coaches should soon be out there to spread the salvation of Agile, and I was one of ten having these skills already and should coach the others. Coaching of Agile coaches, so to speak. 150 Agile coaches were recruited to serve 350 teams. With that said it was expected that the role of the Agile coach as we know it, needed to be reviewed, or should I say devalued. At the same time, the main job for these ten ACs was to coach the teams. The balance was 50/50 on consultants/employees and with that fact a huge training effort should be needed to adapt all skills for the new way of working. On the other hand, we reduced the importance of the Scrum Master to a rotating puppet on a string, rather than a role. The Product owners were on the school bench simultaneously, and unskilled people with just theory sessions as support were running the show now. I doubted my title as the Senior Agile Enterprise Coach and made a request to get rid of the “senior” and “enterprise” part, to be true to my values of simplicity, but this was not possible without going down dramatically in salary, so I let go for the sake of not doubting too much too soon.

Soon the ten senior coaches realized that the work was 100% coaching of teams. We also understood that it was a trick to get great ACs into the organisation, bypassing the Union, as the company at the same time gave the old-school managers the sack. A big part of the role as an experienced AC is to challenge the status quo, which we did with our ideas. Psychological Safety was one factor we thought was left behind. But the management resisted with words like “can these new ACs just shut up and execute our plan?”, not knowing they were unmuted (it’s easy to forget the ’mute’ button when in conference). We, the new and experienced coaches, became a threat to the management, we were not listened to and just neglected. Of course, I could not shut up when I saw that something could be done better, and myself being bypassed, so I started to doubt this culture, and probably my days were counted already after just a couple of months. I gave feedback to the ongoing work, but got no response, and tried hard not to cross the border to the land of besserwisser. The other ACs gave the same feedback, but when not speaking with one voice we were easy to neglect. And as ACs seldom unite, it was hard to implement real change. We tend to just keep on micro changing.

There was an event for the whole business area with beers and games to kick off the new organisation. I was a new face in the crowd, mingling and asking people what word they thought symbolised the culture here. I got different answers, but three people said “Sect” and others said it more positively like united, collaborative, together and similar. I reflected on this and soon) understood that the old Project managers, who were now retraining to become Agile coaches, had worked for ages in the company and with a special relationship with each other. And they wouldn’t let new people, lacking the company history in there, no way! My next question whenever I met a new face was about time of employment, which was always very long and then I understood it would be hard, if not impossible, to be accepted by this ‘sect’.

I really tried to shut up, waiting for the probation period to end, but as a true Doubter you just can’t. After a couple of months, I understood that I needed to be true to myself, so I challenged the Ivory tower as I called them = the Agile central team responsible for the Agile transformation. I wanted this ivory tower to have internal and open demos on their ideas before trying them, and not expect us ACs only to execute these ideas without a chance to give our feedback first but nothing happened. The training material, produced by an external company and changed by the Ivory tower, was glossy PowerPoints very similar to those I recently had seen at another company, only with a new brand as signature. The Ivory tower was like a beacon in the Agile Sea with a Gore-Tex entrance with minimal transparency for other than the core managers high up in the Sect hierarchy. They were all far away from the trenches (daily work), and just showed up for monthly all-hands meetings with the employees. I would later join this Ivory tower as a result of my open feedback, and understood it was not Gore-Tex, but nuts and bolts on the door. The people inside the ivory team had +10 years each with the company and were great skilled practitioners in all the important areas. They completed each other well, like a cross functional team but people outside the Ivory tower were considered a nuisance and we, the new senior Agile Enterprise coaches, were the worst. We were organized in business areas, very much like value streams. The setup of a business area was one technical product owner and one more business focused, coached by an Area Agile coach. Lisa was the Area Agile Coach and the lead for the other Agile coaches in the same business area and I was her mentor and a part of her group. The role of the Area Agile Coach was assigned to a senior project manager, who just added Senior to her new Agile Coach title as well, without any earlier experience and still being on the internal reskilling program.

We were ten “Agile coaches” under Lisa, half of us experienced and the others in retraining. A great mix of experience, skills, gender, age, consultants, and employees to build a team. But no one had been with the company very long except for Lisa who was a +10-year employee and a true ‘Sect’ member. We created a team agreement, like all teams do, and came up with the usual things like respect, punctuality, and feedback. Two weeks later it was forgotten. On our own homepage, the material from this team meeting had ended up as a picture in a document under Meeting notes. But no one, including yours truly, objected.

Now it was the end of the week, and we were about to have our usual fun hour. Lisa came up with a new ”fun” game to activate our rule of feedback. The game consisted of giving someone a virtual flower for a good job and a ”poop sandwich” for the reverse. The poop sandwich, however, would be given with a twinkle in the eye and you were expected to talk to this person first, before the fun hour, to prepare him for it. We were informed of the rules the day before and had one day to nominate our candidates and prepare them. I don’t remember why I kept silent at the time about this very bad idea.

We should start the fun hour by giving virtual flowers to great efforts in our group, so I started off and gave two people in the group a flower each, just because they gave me great personal feedback. I had admittedly invited these people to a feedback meeting with the idea that they would ask me for feedback in return, but they didn’t. One of these persons was Lisa. She had great theory skills in Agile for being a recent project manager. However, she had never collaborated with a team before, which I pointed out in my feedback, wrapped nicely with the great parts. She kept the group on short leashes and often took over our meetings. My feedback to her was not appreciated at all so we ended our mentor relationship on my recommendation. Everyone got flowers except me. Had I been inexperienced, I would have been sad, but I knew that I am a doubtful person who likes to challenge the elephant in the room, which in a new group, or want-to-be-team like ours, often can have the opposite effect. When all the flowers were handed out, it was time for the poop sandwich. I went first again and gave it to someone whom I thought used email way too much. Of course, I had prepared him for this beforehand, according to the rules. I was thinking about giving it to Lisa but decided to save that sandwich. The others in the group skipped the sandwich or gave it to themselves, except for Lisa who was last. When she gave her poop sandwich, it was to a person outside the group, and as I learned later, had not heard this from her beforehand. The sandwich was definitely not delivered with a twinkle in her eye but wrapped in foul language and feelings. Later I informed this person of our feedback rule, of which he was not aware. That person was not a ‘Sect’ member and was shortly thereafter fired for some reason.

One day before my six-month probation period was ending, I was notified that they did not want me anymore. It came from nowhere at that point, but today I understand I was too challenging. Again. I was unemployed from one day to another, no heads up, just goodbye. I worked for this company for six months and during this time I was not welcomed in any community or event, except for occasional invites for lunch from a couple of ‘Sect’ members with the same ‘diagnosis’ as I, but more tactical and agile. I learnt that it is very hard to become accepted in companies with a Sect culture, but it takes two to tango and I didn’t do much to get in there to be honest, as I did not want to be part of it. So, I moved to the next job and lived happily after with REAL TEAMS instead of sects where you need to align and not doubt. In retrospect this was one of my best moves ever, so I have to thank the sect for this and the understanding I didn’t have then:  You don’t have Doubters in a sect.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

Three years after (2023)

Today i can tell that the name of the company is H&M and people are getting fired from the business tech department if they don’t manage well in the tests that all employees are forced to do. The people running critical legacy systems are kept for a rainy day. I was so sad when i got fired but today i am so happy that i got out of there in time and not sinking with all other 150 agile coaches, now reduced to 40 fighting hard to become customer centric and live up to the goal ”half the time, double impact by 2023”. Also hear my pod about this.