Dealing With Resistance to Agile: A Coaching Case Study

Posted By - Geoff Watts


Dealing with internal resistance to agile (and change in general) is an inevitable part of an agile coach’s job. In fact, it could be fair to say it IS their job.

When things are going well and people are loving what we are saying and going along with our workshops and facilitation it’s all too easy to think “this is how it should be” so when you meet that inevitable resistance it can be a bit of a “Woah!” moment.

Maya’s Story of Resistance to Agile

I recently met up with a coaching client of mine – let’s call her Maya – and she was happy for me to share a story from our time working together. Maya is an agile coach and now is one of my coaching supervision clients.

Maya is what you would probably call an agile enthusiast. Not an evangelist because she’s more pragmatic than that. She’s had to be pragmatic because she has been working for a few years in a very big firm that’s let’s just say has “seen better days” in terms of innovation. She had a lot of success early on in her time there, getting a few leaders on side and changing processes, policies and mindset in a few pockets of the organisation. But, as time went on and the odd “crisis” came up, she saw more of a “rollback” – a reversion to old ways and a lot more resistance to agile.

Maya is a very talented, skilled and experienced coach. My relationship with her wasn’t one of education. As a coach for coaches, my job was to help her reflect, regroup and refresh her approach.

This story is an insight into the world of an agile coach and how even the best agile coaches will find themselves questioning their efficacy and whether to just throw the towel in and try somewhere else.

A Promising Beginning

Like I said, Maya started off on the right foot in this mammoth of a company. She was brought in with a bit of a fanfare; a proclamation that “we’re going agile” and that she was there to help instil the necessary changes. And her initial observations, interventions and suggestions were met with energy, support and resources.

The teams she was working with got greater focus, delivering much more value while reducing their thrashing. Overall cycle times reduced noticeably and people who historically kept themselves to themselves and wait to be told what to do were stepping up, engaged and energised. Former project managers were letting go of control and embracing more of a servant-leadership approach with their teams. “The business” were adopting product leadership roles and giving the teams problems to solve rather than solutions to implement.

Shortening the planning cadence, more cross-functional teams and leadership attendance at sprint reviews were three of her more notable early wins.

A Rude Awakening

But after about a year of being there things started to change. When Maya tried to branch out into new parts of the organisation and reach the higher levels of management, she described a feeling of smacking into a wall of resistance to agile. In one of our earlier sessions she described it as feeling like being in a different time period – she used the analogy of King Arthur and the round table.

“We’ve been doing this since before you were born.”

This was something she literally heard from the leadership team when she got to speak to them about how agile could help them at a more strategic level.

Even some of the department heads were a lot more resistant than she expected them to be.

“We don’t need agile because we deliver just fine, thank you very much.”

This was essentially the message she got from them, when she actually got a response that was.

But Maya didn’t throw in the towel. An advocate of a “growth mindset” she doubled down and saw it as a worthwhile challenge. She was curious to learn how to reach those she was struggling to engage. This resilience eventually took its toll on her though and that’s when she reached out to me.

She emailed me in response to one of my newsletters that resonated with her and we were exchanging messages when she asked if we could have a more structured chat to work through a specific situation. We were both due in London the following week so agreed to meet up at a cafe we used to frequent near our old mutual client’s office.

“It’s like I’ve crashed into a brick wall,” she said. “I really thought I was changing things, but it feels like I was kidding myself with those superficial changes from the early days of my time there. They’re just not listening any more.”

To begin with, all I did was listen to her journey over the last 12-18 months. It was a lot, but in reality I didn’t need to know all of this stuff, yet it was important for her to verbalise it.

I remembered Maya as a very visual person, regularly doodling and drawing things out to help her make sense of things. So after a while I asked her to create a visualisation of all the people and departments she had come into contact with. She naturally begin to map the organisation and, without me prompting, began to colour them in to represent her successes, the alliances she had created and where the resistance was.

Maya’s visualisation started off looking a little like this battle map.

I asked her what the common factors were in her successes and what aspects of those successes were missing in her relationships with the “resistors”. After a while, she surmised that the initial successes were all with people who were keen on agile as a concept, a philosophy, a direct answer to their challenges. In contrast, the later people she had tried to engage saw agile at worst as a threat or at best as an irrelevance. They just wanted to do what they were doing better.

She realised something crucial: Maya was speaking agile, but the majority of the company was listening for something else.

Expanding The Landscape

On top of that initial stakeholder map, she added other potential allies and influencers, “cultural architects” she called them. Her plan was to engineer some one-to-one chats with them, try to understand their fears, their goals, and work out how she (and potentially a more agile approach) could help them, personally.

The other factor she identified was her brand needed to evolve. Her early successes were all tied to people who already had a good opinion of her, appreciated her experience and reputation. The later people had no opinion of her, considered her “agile experience” to be irrelevant and so had little respect for her professionally.

She felt she not only needed to build her personal relationships but also her credibility.

Maya went back, armed not just with enthusiasm, but with a plan more suited to the lay of the land. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she felt more hopeful. She felt there was a chance that with a bit of patience and a lot of listening, she might yet get them to come around.

Seeing the Wood for the Trees

I often find it funny how sometimes we’re so focused on the path we’re on that we miss the turnoffs leading to new opportunities. That’s where Maya found herself – skilled and knowledgeable, yet a bit too close to the puzzle to see the picture. And that’s why she sought me out.

One of the main benefits of coach supervision, especially for someone in Maya’s shoes, is perspective. As a supervisor, my role isn’t necessarily to direct or instruct. It’s more about being a sounding board, offering a fresh set of eyes to a familiar problem. It’s about challenging assumptions, encouraging reflection, and sometimes, just listening. It’s difficult to know if our coaching is working and we often don’t have the safety to ask those who are employing us so working it through with someone like me can be a big help.

Maya was brilliant at her job, no doubt about it. But brilliance can sometimes cast shadows. In our sessions, we worked on illuminating those shadowed spots. We explored how her actions were perceived, how she could adapt her approach to resonate better with different stakeholders, and how to balance her passion with the patience required in a complex, slowly-changing environment.

Another key benefit is the space to breathe and think. In the hustle and bustle of corporate life, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day. Our sessions provided Maya a sanctuary of sorts, a place to unload, untangle her thoughts, and, most importantly, reflect.

It’s this reflection that often sparks the greatest insights. Maya began to understand the subtleties of her environment, the unspoken rules of the game she was playing. She started to see not just the obstacles but also the pathways around them.

In the end, coach supervision is about continued growth. It’s about nurturing not just the skills but the person behind them.

There were moments of profound self-doubt, where the weight of resistance felt overwhelming. She often questioned not just her methods, but her very role as an agile coach. These moments of introspection were crucial turning points and, in her opinion, magnified by the more remote nature of her work these days. She often found herself in her home office alone with her doubts rattling around her head.

This amplified her feeling of isolation and began to wear down her natural resilience but these supervision sessions helped her realise her situation was very normal, understandable and something she could address.

Insight into action

As any agile coach knows, the value from coaching comes not from the session itself but the implementation of the insights as a result. Maya knew this and so channelled her enthusiasm into making some direct changes.

Back at work, Maya’s first step was simple, yet far from easy: she started reaching out to people for informal chats, requests to learn. No agendas, no mention of agile – just friendly chats or looking to benefit from other people’s experience and insights. Each conversation was an opportunity to understand her colleagues’ daily challenges and victories.

Slowly, Maya began to build genuine connections. She learned about the project manager’s struggle with shifting priorities and the design team’s frustration with late-stage changes. She learned about the pressures that different department heads were under and the targets they had been set. She learned about some of the political and personal tensions between different people and different groups. She wasn’t there to offer immediate solutions; she was there to listen and understand.

There are a number of common mistakes people make when trying to listen that Maya recognised herself falling into recently. By reverting to really listening though, Maya was able to spot genuine opportunities to help that may or may not have an agile flavour.

For instance, during a casual chat about project delays, one leader mentioned how they wished there was more frequent communication so when Maya enquired more (without offering a solution) they suggested weekly check-ins. While Maya would naturally have suggested daily, perhaps that was too much for that person and rather than this small improvement she would have got nothing.

Maya met them where they were and offered to facilitate those sessions for them. After a couple, she asked how things were going. She got a positive response and a feeling from them that they could get even more benefit from more frequent, shorter, check-ins.

Maya found this personally challenging because it felt like she was compromising her agile integrity and short-changing the organisation with the potential benefits they could be getting. We talked this through in our sessions and while there isn’t a right answer, having someone neutral to talk it through with was useful to her.

Not just useful in terms of making *some* progress but also not getting stuck in a suboptimal place. She wanted someone she could be honest and vulnerable with but also someone who would help her to keep herself accountable to the standards she was aiming for in the long-run.

She couldn’t deny the positive ripples her new approach was having with changing perceptions. Her colleagues started seeing her not just as an agile coach but as a problem-solver, a collaborator. The once resistant teams were now approaching her, curious about how agile practices might help in their projects.

I don’t want to paint supervision as a panacea. Not every attempt was a success. Maya faced setbacks – initiatives based on her reflections that didn’t take off. But with an ally, she found it easier to see each setback as a chance to learn. We discussed these moments, understanding the dynamics at play, and thinking about how to approach them differently next time.

Walking the talk

Maya’s story is far from unique in the world of agile coaching. Many coaches find themselves in similar situations, navigating the complexities of organisational dynamics and resistance to change and feeling they need to do it on their own; that they are at the top of the tree and that looking for help is a sign of weakness.

Yet it’s a common thread that binds the agile coaching community – the challenge of introducing and sustaining change within environments that vary in their openness and adaptability. This shared experience is crucial for agile coaches to acknowledge, as it offers a sense of solidarity and understanding. Recognising that these challenges are not isolated instances, but part of a broader narrative, can provide comfort and a sense of belonging to coaches undergoing similar struggles.

Interestingly, when I talk to them about this, they see how incongruent this is. They are regularly talking to senior leaders, people very successful in their professions and telling them that they need to show vulnerability and ask for help. And yet they find it hard to walk the talk.

I mean you would never go to a dentist who had bad teeth would you; yet reflecting on your own coaching practice with another professional is not always easy to find time or money for.

When we focus too much on the here and now, it’s too easy to keep doing what we’ve previously been successful with (something as an agile coach, a trap that Maya was regularly talking to others about falling into). Without that external reflection and sounding board our effectiveness and confidence inevitably decreases.

Maya’s journey through the maze of organisational politics and resistance is a reminder that the role of an agile coach is not just about implementing methodologies but is also about personal growth, emotional intelligence, and the ability to read and respond to the unique cultural nuances of an organisation.

More Resources:

If you want to read a summary of the actual conversation we had and an insight into a coaching supervision model then click here.

I have a short video on tackling resistance to agile here.

I offer a short workshop on “Coaching Up” to enhance our skills in influencing people more senior than us in the organisation who may be showing resistance to agile.

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