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Many times we (as Agile coaches) quickly discover that the Agile frameworks used in our client organizations are deeply incompatible with…

  • The nature of their work 
  • The flow of their work
  • Their overall organizational context
  • And the list goes on!

This is especially challenging when the organization has chosen to quickly scale a single framework with brute force while using a one-size-fits-all approach without considering systemic root causes to their performance issues. In my experience, this often happens when management aims to address symptoms that manifest at their flight level for immediate pain relief and inadvertently neglect to probe more deeply into systemic causes. 

As a result, the teams doing the work struggle through these mandated ways of working that ultimately lead to more problems than they solve! 

This blog post is about my experience when Kanban was a better fit than Scrum, the SAFe caused more problems than it solved, and the organization was afraid to let go and let teams explore what Agile Ways-of-Working works best for them. 

I’ll be sharing pieces of the journey that led to a 300% improvement in Lead Time along with three key questions that can help keep you on track if you find yourself in a similar spot, which are as follows:

  • #1: What problem were you brought in to solve? And what Agile good practices could help?
  • #2: Is the problem actually the problem? Or is it a symptom of something else?
  • #3: If it is a problem, are the current Ways-of-Working helping or hindering? What does the nature and flow of work tell you? What about the organizational context?

This blog post is structured according to those questions where I share the success story that came from carefully answering each one. Hopefully the article will be helpful resources if you find yourself navigating through the same murky waters!

#1: What problem were you brought in to solve? And what Agile good practices could help?

Like most Agile Coaches, I started by seeking to understand the measurable problem I was brought in to solve. And because the client wanted quick results, I also looked for what Agile good practices might help to secure some early wins.

In the specific experience I’m drawing upon for this blog post, this was, “We need to improve this department’s predictability to at least 80%”. 

The landscape

The teams were using Scrum in a SAFe set-up based on a decision 5 years ago to centralize everything Agile under one big SAFe roof. Managers and stakeholders seemed to like using PI planning as a really large batch transfer that happened every 3 months. The outcome amounted to quarterly Gantt charts from each team detailing at a User-Story level how they intended to work on the massive influx of work items the business pushed onto them to complete. Although stakeholders actively invited the Product Managers and Product Owners “to say no” to taking on more work then they could handle, during my interviews I learned that the unspoken cultural norms made it very unsafe to do so. 

What the data showed

Team interviews and high-level value stream maps indicated that, like most organizations, the teams were flooded with work due to a push-based system, features were bundled into projects creating very large batches, and there was a lack of prioritization due to minimal program or even backlog management. The result was a push-based system that was “going through the motions” of Lean Agile but not experiencing the benefits.

Although Scrum is a pull-based system, it wasn’t being used in that way. To get the system heading back into the right “pull-based” direction, I recommended we start with some known good practices for balancing capacity with demand and optimizing flow, such as unbundling features from projects to work in smaller batches, practicing regular backlog refinement, implementing clear definitions of ready and done, and implementing some good program management practices that include prioritization. 

I also recommended that we work on creating T-Shaped team members so work wouldn’t grind to a halt if people were sick, on holiday, or chose to leave the team.

T-shape that describes how to form teams consisting of members with expert knowledge together with members with good enough knowledge of the issue.
T-shape that describes how to form teams consisting of members with expert knowledge together with members with good enough knowledge of the issue.

What I did not expect

Although the Agile Coach and Product leadership team agreed with my assessment and recommendations, which I expected, the team-of-teams did not! They were firm on their stance that adopting such practices would not address the root cause to their pain points. Moreover, they disagreed with management’s assessment that they have a predictability problem. 

As a coach, this was interesting territory. I was brought into drive change in a team that believes no change is needed and doesn’t agree with the measures used to gauge their performance. 

After a few honest discussions with the team, I found myself asking the following question:

#2: Is the stated problem actually the problem? Or is it a symptom of something else?

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Mainstream coaching models don’t fully account for the unique processing styles that are prevalent in the systemic thinkers that organizations rely upon for creativity and innovation. As a result, we’re not tapping into and releasing the remarkable creative and innovative potential of today’s talent in roles involving creative knowledge work. Moreover, research suggests that many of these systemic thinkers often have attributes of ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, or other atypical ways of thinking. Given that everyone falls somewhere on the ADD, ADHD, and Asperger’s spectrum, we posit that unleashing creativity and innovation in today’s workplace requires a coaching model that accounts for multiple processing styles. We all think differently, and we need a coaching model that fits everyone.

In this blog post, we present a model designed to leverage the processing strengths and mobilize the brainpower of today’s entire (organizational) collective, which we’re currently calling the Grow/Plow Coaching Model.


All the mainstream coaching models we’ve come across are variants of the popular GROW model, which involves establishing a Goal, examining current Reality, exploring Options, and determining what Will happen next: 

The GROW Coaching Model

Such approaches presuppose that the coachee’s processing style prefers to start with concepts, such as goals or the big-picture aspirations often discussed while coaching, before diving into the details. This processing style is known as top-down processing and accounts for how most people think. Top-down thinking is driven by cognition where the brain applies what it knows from experience and what it expects to perceive and “fills in the blanks”. 


Systemic thinkers, on the other hand, often have neurobiological and cognitive attributes that result in a bottom-up processing style that prefers details before concepts. A bombardment of sensory information comes in and their brain takes in these details before moving into conceptualization. This processing style is often connected to what’s known as the Weak Central Coherence deficit. In our experience, such thinkers prefer using problem-solving approaches to coaching that welcome the sensory details underpinning the need for change early in the process where the desired future state can be emergent and shaped by data rather than presupposed at the onset. 


We took the basic steps involved in problem-solving to create an acronym we call PLOW. The PLOW process involves defining the Problem (i.e., state the problem as clearly as possible and be specific about the situation, behavior, circumstances, and timing that make it a problem); Learning as much as possible about the problem (which includes gathering data like facts, feelings, and opinions); exploring Options; and determining what Will happen next:

The PLOW Process, which can be thought of as a generalized 4-step problem solving model
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The same rookie mistake I made on my transformation journey into marathoning is one that I see a lot of organizations make on their Agile journey: not taking the time to find the right shoes. Let me explain.

Me with some of the tools that set my foundation to become a marathoner.

“Doing” agile is not enough

I thought I had a solid start on my transformation from couch potato to marathoner by focusing first on the routines and habits of runners. I felt like I was a runner because I was DOING the things runners do, like running 5-days a week, eating healthier, and strength training. Many organizations fall into the same trap. They think they’re agile because they’re going through the same motions and copying best practices. But then my mother saw me running out in the neighborhood and pointed out something that changed everything. She gave me the same perspective that I’ve given clients looking to become agile, and it blew my mind. 

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My client is still happy. 

My goal is to coach myself through a transformation from couch potato to marathoner (well, a half-marathon). It’s been life-changing. 

Behavior science is the secret sauce

The barriers and obstacles I experience with “becoming a marathoner” are similar to those experienced by organizations wanting to “become agile”. The secret sauce lies in behavior science. Through this marathoning process, I’ve uncovered my own behavior-based twist of the Deming cycle and Lean Startup and am using them to inspire a Lean Performance Management model for teams and organizations. It’s always fun when personal and professional worlds collide!

The Behavior-Change Cycle

Below is the Behavior-Change Cycle I created for myself inspired by the Deming Cycle and how behavior scientists approach organizational change:

The Behavior Change Cycle I created for my transformation
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We asked Paolo Damelio, one of our experienced Agile coaches at Dandy People, to share some of his best tips and tools on how to maintain sustainable and High Performing Teams, now that many of the team members are working from home.

Hi Paolo! What are your thoughts on the situation right now?

This is a challenging time for everyone. For us as individuals, for organizations and for the collaboration inside teams as well as cross-team and cross-organization. And it is a challenge that, I believe, will take us to a place we only could have dreamed of just a few months ago. There is no going back to where we were before.

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The need for adaptability and innovation have probably never been bigger, and we need to use the force from our employees. We need to connect the people in our organization using new formats, perhaps being forced into some of them. Also, the distancing has affected all of us, some are suffering more than others. The need for us as human beings to maintain and build trustworthy relationships is being put to test now that we have replaced the small talk by the coffee machine with Zoom meetings. 

We are perhaps seeing the world through new eyes, and maybe even reevaluate our business as well? Can we continue as we did before and still survive? Or, are there ways to move us forward and actually help us be better? And, can the use of a Buddy System be the help we need to help us do this?

Adapt and Excel – it´s All About the People 

To be able to survive in today’s business climate our focus needs to be on our ability to adapt – and to act fast. But that is not enough. Our organizations have to continue to grow and excel to stay alive, and not standstill.

A prerequisite for us to adapt and move fast is to secure that people are responsible for workflows, decisions, actions, and have the authority to make the rapid changes needed.  The type of organization that meets these demands best is a learning organization where it is possible to create endurance and the speed needed in a complex (VUCA) world.

Learning Organization. For many, the traditional top-down management organization has reached its maximum capacity and is unable to obtain, plan, develop, implement and follow up its operations at the pace needed in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

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