Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing: Advice for Agile Evangelists

If you are an Agile evangelist within a company, you probably spend (or will spend) a fair amount of time talking with people across you organization about Agile and its benefits.  When I was in this role I ran into a full range of responses from heated skepticism to full embrace.  Having the opportunity to talk with hundreds of people provided me with a wonderful laboratory to see what worked and what didn’t.  Here are some of the thing I learned.

Understand and Speak to your Audience’s Frame of Reference

I found that I was significantly more successful, unsurprisingly, when I put more of my attention on my audience’s perspective than my own.

When you are talking with a group about Agile, the people in you audience have probably worked hard to get where they are, and they have a level of pride and attachment to who they’ve become.  Almost involuntarily, they are comparing what you’re telling them to their view of the world to see if it fits.  If you are not speaking to them with an understanding of their issues and values, you may not be very successful.

You’ll be particularly unsuccessful if you directly threaten their position in the organization and the things that they value.

Failed Change Management
(click to view full size)

Here’s another example.  Imagine you are speaking to a group of mid-level managers about Agile and you say:

“With Agile, it’s all about the team.  Self organizing teams who determine their own work process.  We break down the rigid silos and get much better results.”

My guess is they’d be threatened, think you are dangerous and would trying to figure out how to get you escorted out the door.  You’ve practically said “sorry, what you do isn’t valued, there’s a new way that’s better.”  Not the result you were looking for.

Here’s an alternate approach.

“Organizing work in a complex organization is a challenge.  As a group we’ve risen to that challenge effectively in the past.  Yet we’re in a recession and we’re being asked to respond even more rapidly to a constantly changing world.  There’s enough evidence to indicate that Agile may be a powerful new process for our company.  It is an uncertain path.  We don’t know if it will work for us and what the long term implications are for our structure.  But we’ll take one step at a time.  We’ll experiment thoughtfully, discuss the results together and collectively decide how to proceed.”

There are a few important things here:

  • You are acknowledging them for what they’ve contributed to the company.
  • You are honest about the uncertainty.
  • You’ve let them know that they will have a role deciding how to proceed in the future.

Before you make your pitch, think of the people who will be in the audience an how your message might be received.  Do your homework first.  Figure out in advance which people in the audience are most likely to help or hinder your cause, and set up some time to meet with them individually whenever possible.  In these individual meetings, listen a lot and talk very little.  Find out what is important to them, what they know about Agile, what they think it might offer and what concerns them.  Use that to shape how you talk with the group.

When something comes out of someone’s mouth that sounds like an objection, consider this important data.  If you don’t effectively address the concern, you might not get the opportunity to proceed.

Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that 20% of what you hear comes from the other person and 80% is what you fill in with things from your own perspective.  You are at an enormous disadvantage when you are really trying to understand what another person has to say.  But understand you must if you want to be an effective change agent.

Have Room For Your Audience to Say Yes or No to your Proposition

My preferred approach to discussing Agile with a new group is to let them know clearly that they are in charge and that any decision they make is up to them.  I describe the challenges that other organization have seen that have led them towards Agile, and then ask if they face the same challenges.

If some items resonate, they’ll usually want to talk more.  If a lot of things resonate, they may ask how they can proceed.

This I found to be far more effective than attempting to sell Agile.  When the only answer I’ll accept is “yes”, my audience’s instinctive reaction has be to try to protect themselves and we end up in a tussle.

For this process to be effective, I have to OK if the groups says “no thank you, this isn’t for us”.

I also have to be clear about what will work and will not work.  If a group wants to try Agile without product owner, or without a full-time team, I simply let them know it won’t work, why it won’t work and suggest they not try.

The Connection to Pigs and Singing

In the early 80s, I was given a rubber stamp as a “present” from my boss and a peer.  On the stamp was a quote from Robert Heinlein: “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

Their point was that I was wasting time trying to change people into something they weren’t and had no interest in becoming.  These days I try to avoid the temptation (although it is still there), put the attention on my clients, on their issues and let them choose.

If pigs are singing around me, it’s because they want to.

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4 Responses to “Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing: Advice for Agile Evangelists”

  • Rory:

    Good advice, both for Agile, and for any type of Change Management. Working as a Six Sigma Black Belt, I tried to teach a lot of pigs to sing, but have often found myself singing alone in a crowded room.

  • Mario:

    Yes, I like this. I have seen Agile evangelists tell people that Agile is the only way and then start to dismiss the traditional methods the people have been using for year. This is effectively telling them they have been wrong for all this time. Agile is about culture change and you need to give people enough time to get their arms around the value added change that Agile provides.

  • Marina Shalmon:

    Hi Bob,
    I liked your article very much. I had similar experiences. It’s very nice of you to share. It’s an important area that does not get enough attention from the Agile practitioners, and leads to failure.

  • Insightful article, especially the bit about the 80/20 rule for communication gaps. I put myself into a situation a few years ago while volunteering for a non-profit. As a member of the organization, I had tried to be an instructor and a collaborator on their Web site strategy, when they were neither interested in collaboration nor had the capacity to understand issues of ownership, service, and maintenance. I personally invested thousands of dollars of my time to demonstrate the feasibility of using a database-driven site to manage their marketing programs, using a popular open source CMS to ensure that the system was open and could be worked on by others.

    Yet the CMS was discarded and a contract summarily awarded to an ISV to deliver a “Web site” based on the concepts I had introduced. The ISV was all too willing to give a fixed price while asking no difficult questions, and proceeded to construct a closed-source CMS under the pretense of Web site development. In the end, the customer’s disinterest in taking ownership worked against them, and they paid several thousand dollars for a low-quality site over which they now hold little real control. The ISV is now holding them a virtual hostage for simple content changes to the site.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them think. Sometimes pain is the best instructor.

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