Change your attitude and the process will follow

Adopting a new development methodology is less about process change and more about attitude change. The binder is useful, but the mindset is vital.

Much of my work over the last few years has involved helping organizations “adopt” Agile. It is, after all, a poor, unloved orphan and needs to find a good home. The key to whether the new approach sticks doesn’t seem to be affected by how many checklists, process maps or charts of roles and responsibilities we provide; what matters is whether an organization can adjust their collective and individual attitudes.

There’s a great quote from the 14th Dalai Lama that says:

If you don’t like what’s happening in your life, change your mind.”

Beyond the double meaning of “if you don’t like it, decide to like it” is the more important idea that to change your behaviors you need to change your thoughts.

So that may just seem like good, Gandhi-esque, “be the change you want to see in the world” platitudes. The real question is how can you help an organization shift its attitude from a Theory X to a Theory Y approach to management? Two things that I’ve found to help are words and actions …


The language we use is a direct pathway into our minds – shift your language and your mind will follow. A change in words can facilitate a change in attitude. One clear example of this I noticed was around the use of the word “requirements”. I agree with Steve Yegge’s insight that gathering requirements is wrong-headed to start with (and I love his take on the elevator pitch), but what I’m interested with here is how the word itself is used and the connotations attached to it.

“Requirements” is a weapon word if ever I’ve heard one, particularly when used with the phrase “sign off”. Requirements are all about ordering people to do things: “I demand that you do this. Exactly this. Nothing more and nothing less. I require it!” Requirements brook no discussion and allow no room for invention. More importantly requirements stem from a combative view of relations between development teams and their customers. Signing off on requirements is all about taking a legalistic, defensive approach to covering your behind should things go awry further down the line, which they almost certainly will if you take a combative and legalistic approach to interacting with a development team.

If, however, you shift an organization’s language to talk, not about signing off on requirements, but rather about agreeing on goals, then you begin to shift from a combative to a collaborative mode of engaging. The change in mindset is two-fold: there’s a flip from saying “I” require this of “you” to saying “we” share these goals; and there’s also an expansion from the narrowing, closed, nature of requirements to the broadening and open nature of goals. A simple shift in words helps drive the evolution from defensive and hostile relationships, premised on a lack of trust, to open and collaborative interactions rooted in a sense of common purpose.

Just look at the language in the phrase “requirements capture“. What does that tell you about how requirements are handled? Once captured are they covered by the Geneva Convention or are they still considered enemy combatants? So when it comes to planning a project, decide whether you prefer white-boarding or water-boarding sessions.

You can witness similar shifts by focusing less on “sign-off” and more on “feedback“. If you get the right feedback in place early on, then final sign-off becomes a mere formality, but if you miss out on the feedback then sign-off becomes a painful and costly hurdle.

So that’s an example of how words can help shift attitudes, what about actions?


I know of nothing more soul-destroying than sitting in a darkened meeting room while a group of people watch someone update a spreadsheet or a webapp on an overhead projector. You can feel the life and energy vacate the room as people’s attention shifts from the task at hand to suggesting keyboard-shortcuts to make the process easier or just focusing on ways to keep their eyelids open.

I’ve found that a different approach can really help foster a sense of team as you’re making a plan. It’s all about physically engaging the whole team. Here’s how it goes:

  • Print or write out your stories / tasks / goals onto index cards, post-its, whatever you have at hand,
  • Lay them out on a large table,
  • Get the whole team around the table,
  • Ask them to move the cards into the order in which they want to tackle them,
  • Stand back.

It takes some teams a little while to get going – some people might be waiting for the boss to tell them the order, other people might be reticent or sceptical and someone else will be muttering about Gantt charts and resource leveling – but once someone takes the lead and starts moving cards around, a debate immediately ensues. Hands start leaping in, cards get grouped and moved and the volume rises. Then the table gets crowded, new cards get created, existing cards get rewritten, fierce debates erupt over moving a card a few millimeters to the left or right and a plan starts to take shape.

And it’s not just any plan, it’s a plan that the whole team has collaborated over, buys into and understands. It’s also, crucially, a living plan. Not an untouchable plan that is set in stone and can only be updated by the project manager with multiple sign-off from all stakeholder committees. This is important because we all know that no plan survives first contact with reality.

There are various subtleties to this style of group interaction for a planning session. The subtle movement and grouping of tasks that you can achieve is much more nuanced and multi-layered than in a gantt chart or spreadsheet. Also since no one is “driving” and controlling the mouse the plan that emerges is truly collaborative; the whole team has had an unmediated impact on the outcome. To me, though, the real key is what we’ve learned from the Wii and the group-hug: we are physical, social, creatures and we are most engaged and effective when we embrace that physicality and stand up, roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. If we are just using our eyes and our mouse finger we’re literally not firing on all cylinders.

This is the very reason that approaches like Agile and XP favor stand-ups and huddles, white-board sessions and team walks – start acting like a team and you might actually become a team.

“But what about distributed teams?” I hear you cry. Good question, we’re all out-sourced and off-shored now, so how can we leverage this full-contact planning style?

Have you ever noticed how much teamwork sucks across distributed teams? I think that’s largely because it’s nearly impossible to engender the same sense of team as you can when people sit next to each other, eat together and go out together after work. This will need to be the subject of another post, but the bottom line is that, even though telepresence technologies and collaboration tools can help, your teams will be much more effective if they take into account geographic realities. Enable each group in each location to own their own plan, where possible allow them to form their own teams.

In fact the key is to set goals rather than requirements, focus on early feedback over final sign-off and above all persuade the team to STAND UP!

One Reply to “Change your attitude and the process will follow”

  1. after years of working in the corporate world, it’s great to read some good common sense! jonny, you have a knack at tackling tough issues with an easy and approachable attitude. thanks.

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