An interview with April K. Mills, a global speaker, consultant, coach and trainer on change agency and Agile, conducted by Monika Potiopa

People driving vs. change driving system. Which one is better for agile transformation and why?

The Agile Manifesto says, “by doing it and helping others do it”. That’s the part of the manifesto that is most often skipped over. When the movement started it was developers trying new methods and many were “doing it and helping others do it”, but now, with enterprise Agile implementations there is much more “telling others how to be Agile” going on. I differentiate the behavior of forcing others to change as driving people and behavior of choosing the Agile change for yourself and clearing the obstacles for others to choose Agile too as driving change. Driving Change is at the heart of the Agile Manifesto because it is the term which defines what we do when we “do it and help others do it”. If you want to be Agile, I think you must Drive Change and should not Drive People. 

Who is the Change Agent and what are his/her essentials?

Each of us is a change agent. We have the ability to influence our environment. We often have much more ability than we think we do. The essentials, as outlined in my book, Everyone is a Change Agent: A Guide to the Change Agent Essentials are seven principles and actions that enable everyone to lead changes from where they are in their organizations and communities. The first, and most vital, essential is to Drive Change (choose a change for yourself and clear the obstacles for others to choose it too) instead of Driving People (using coercion to compel others to change). The next essentials are: to create and maintain change buffers, to set a Concrete Goal, to map the Terrain, to challenge Assumptions, to focus on Sustainment and finally – to try.

What skills are needed to be a better change agent? Which particular skill(s) we should focus on and how to improve them?

The first key skill is to get comfortable with going first, with being the only one, with trying something new. Nothing changes until you are willing to change. From there, I think change agents need to break away from the habits they see modelled to them in organizations: seek authority, dictate a plan, enforce compliance, push hard until you give up. Instead, change agents should choose their change, help others join them, protect their change with what I call a “change buffer” – a ring of protection you create and maintain around your new change, and more. You improve by trying, reviewing how you did, and try again. No one is perfect the first time and every change is different because the situation is unique, the people are unique, and you are different every time you make a change. 

Fot. Przemek Getka (organizer Superskrypt) April K. MIlls at the AgileByExample 2019 conference in Warsaw

Do you think that when you come with an “Agile Coach” kind of mentality it is easier or harder to do agile transformations?

The best Agile Coaches are those that seek to help teams learn and who focus on getting problems out of the team’s way. The Agile Coaches who fail say, “I know best”, and “Do as I say!”. I think an Agile implementation succeeds when the teams would continue the behaviors even after the coach departs. So if you’re not helping the teams learn and level up their skills then you aren’t doing your job as an Agile Coach. 

What are the most common mistakes made in Agile implementations? What outline techniques can you use right away in order to get your implementation back on track?

The most common mistake in large Agile implementations is the assumption that senior leaders don’t need to understand Agile. Agile at the team level will accelerate feature delivery, but it won’t transform your business if the teams run up against planning systems or project management systems which set all details upfront and don’t learn their way forward. You can’t force teams to be Agile. What we can do to lower resistance is to adopt the changes first, seek their perspectives, and partner to clear their obstacles. There is a tactic in my book called “Change Perspectives and Dissolve Resistance” which is quick and useful if you’re encountering resistance.

How to eliminate or reduce people’s resistance to change? What to do and how to deal with people who do not welcome change?

People don’t mind change; but they don’t like to be changed. They are more likely to join us in a change when they see us doing the change, trying, struggling, sticking with it, learning and laughing along the way. They lower their resistance when we honestly ask them “What do you see as positives and negatives of this change?” and “What do you see as positives and negatives of not changing?”. By asking those questions and listening intently we earn a measure of trust. Change is not about forcing our position or opinion on others. Change is about creating the future you want and helping others join you there. For more on this, you see the tactic “Change Perspectives and Dissolve Resistance”.

Fot. Przemek Getka (organizer Superskrypt) April K. MIlls at the AgileByExample 2019 conference in Warsaw

From where to draw the strength for change, and how to deal with the fear of failure?

I encourage all change agents to create a personal buffer, an intentional support system that keeps them strong while they try to make the change. Some people create this personal buffer by believing in themselves and their cause. Some people create this buffer by finding a great friend and call that person whenever they feel frustrated, sad, or defeated. Some people partner with leaders so their leader can encourage them and give the confidence. Then the change agent knows that if they fall, the leader will be there to help them back up. There’s a whole chapter in my book about building and maintaining these vital buffers so our change agents can dare boldly and drive wonderful Agile changes. 

How to maintain the right level of motivation within the whole process among the participants of the change? What group of employees should we focus on the most?

Motivation is sustained in a change by proof that the change is working. Each week, a change agent should be helping the team gather and celebrate their wins. A win is a small accomplishment that the team says is valuable. You don’t want to wait for the product to ship to celebrate. If this week you fixed a major bug, or agreed on the groomed backlog, or checked in a feature, then celebrate. The more you celebrate, the more energized you will be. People love a sense of positive accomplishment and you can give them doses of this joy regularly.

Often, I find it is the middle managers that most need to be encouraged in Agile implementations. They have a very tough job. Executives expect the change to happen just because they said so. Team members expect the middle managers to remove all the obstacles in their way. Neither expectation is reasonable, so encouraging the middle managers to find their wins, partner to solve bigger problems, and keep finding the positives in the change is vital. If you have limited time to support the people in your change, spend your time with the middle managers. 

We use to repeat that people who resist the change the most within an organization are the middle managers. Is it true? If yes, what is the reason for?

The middle managers seem to be the biggest resistors because often they are the point where inconsistent expectations meet. For example: dynamically prioritize the work in the backlog and stick to the 3-year waterfall plan from the program manager. Create self-directed teams, but enforce compliance to all of the corporate Agile principles. Eliminate your technical debt, but keep your development costs down and deliver faster. Middle Managers are really stuck. Hence, I recommend that developers and senior leaders can accelerate their changes if they seek to understand the conflicts that middle managers face and partner with middle managers to resolve those conflicts.

Fot. April K. Mills archive

On your website, you have written that middle managers might be found in the Diamond Zone. Could you elaborate on this concept?

The Diamond Zone gets its name from the forces that are compressing the middle managers. They get demands from executives pushing down on them. They get increasing expectations pushing up from the development teams. Pushing in from the sides are customer demands, family demands, technology demands… demands, demands, demands. Amidst all of that you can imagine how crushed you would feel. The pressure is real. Managers can collapse under it or they can learn new ways of creating change, influencing senior leaders, leading developers, and thriving amidst the pressure. That’s the diamond layer; diamond because carbon under pressure transforms into something beautiful and valuable. That can be the future for a middle manager if they choose to seek it. I hope many more will. They and their organizations will be better for their new strength and brilliance. 

Taking into account your extensive experience in driving change, what advice would you give to a less experienced person? Is there any golden rule that you always stick to?

I would tell a new change agent: Be bold and be kind. Bold with what you want to achieve, bold with your willingness to go first. Kind with others as they learn to see what you see is possible with your change; kind to yourself as you try, stumble, maybe fail, and get up to try again. The golden rule, or the closest version of it, is Drive Change, Not People. If you can get this right, you have all the potential in any change. If you get this wrong and drive people, you will have a rough road ahead.