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Fear: The Agile Journey Killer

In most organizations, there is at least some undertone of fear. Fear is particularly nasty when it comes to agile journeys. We can take this apart by looking from two angles.

Agility is all about continuous improvement. Continuous improvement means continuous change. You can’t improve by doing things the same way. Usually, the bigger the change, the bigger the improvement. Also (usually), the bigger the change, the bigger the risk. Most people don’t love risk under good circumstances, but if your organization has a strong undertone of fear -- good luck selling big change…and thereby, good luck selling active agile journeys.

Where does fear come from? First, nobody wants to lose their job or have their career stopped in its tracks. However, we’re all subjected to the will of our supervisors and superiors, who have ultimate authority over whether we advance our careers or, indeed, keep our jobs. Those people have choices about how they use that power. What they choose will depend on their personal motivation. I contend that people become leaders for one of three broad reasons:

  1. They want to help people

  2. They are really good at something and others ask them to lead as a result

  3. They enjoy the power and control that comes with leadership

The first is tough because it doesn’t actually qualify anyone for a leadership position, so they just have to get lucky and get a leadership opportunity. The second one implies that the leader will know a lot about what a good job in the role looks like, but may not have the tools and motivation to impart those practices to other people (and help them grow as individuals). Which leaves us #3 -- the largest reservoir of leaders in the business world. Unfortunately, “power and control” are antithetical to the kind of servant leadership that fuels agile journeys.

The best way to exert power and control is through fear, either tacit or overt. Since we’re all primed for it anyway, it doesn’t take much to kill the motivation for taking the type of risks that are absolutely necessary for an agile journey.

How do organizations overcome the fear problem short of replacing leaders who don’t effectively practice servant leadership? I have lots of ideas about this, but the simplest one is to start incentivizing and celebrating risk -- especially when experiments fail! Obviously, this doesn’t remove all avenues of manipulation through fear, but it can help keep your agile journey going.

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