Driving organizational change through business value alignment.

In Agile, Focusing Solely on Strengths is Myopic

“I think we are going to continue to concentrate on the work being performed, not the people”

Many people in the Agile Community tout Strength Building as the best way to succeed. Strength Building suggests an Agile group should concentrate on exploiting and maximizing their strengths versus shoring up their weaknesses, assuming it is easier to gain productivity by doing more of what you are good at (i.e., head-down, following a scripted process) versus trying to become good at the things you are not (i.e., understanding and maximizing the human component in this sea of change).
As I try to follow this argument, I wonder out loud if any of these scenarios make sense to you:

  • If your car is good at going fast, but poor at braking, should you concentrate your time on learning how to go faster or might it be a good idea to fix the brakes?
  • In baseball, if you can hit a high fastball, but not a curve ball (or low fastball), should you continue to work only on hitting high fastballs, just hoping pitchers throw the ball there, or should you shore up the large gaps in your swing to be able to address all situations?
  • In an Agile environment, if your processes are not delivering the results you promised or expected, but process is your strength, should you just push more process or perhaps think about how to maximize the other aspects of Agile – i.e., People?

While using strength accentuation to improve at something is a positive first step, it is not the only step. We have both assessment and job performance data on over 10,000 IT professionals (including a subsample of over 1,000 IT leaders) and the data significantly suggest that, as a group, the majority excel at process and fail in terms of the human aspects of success.
The Four Principles of Agile are clear:

    Individuals and interactions OVER processes and tools
    Working software OVER comprehensive documentation
    Customer collaboration OVER contract negotiation
    Responding to change OVER following a plan

Our research across 60 years of experience in over 150 companies suggests that while Individuals and Interactions is the first hallmark of Agile, it is the last one embraced by the IT and Agile communities. This might have something to do with the 70% failure rate of all IT projects to end on time, within budget, and meeting the client’s expectations.

So, what to do? Here are three points that should help guide your path:
Strengths (or characteristics that are used in a positive fashion) account for about 1/6th of a person’s performance. The other 5/6ths of the performance equation are made up of

  • our education and experience in performing the job
  • the negative characteristics that get in our way
  • how well we fit with the organization’s culture
  • our cognitive complexity
  • how our brain power is used to solve problems and make decisions

Lesson 1: Continue to look at your strengths and really understand them … but understand them within the complete picture — focusing on only 16% of your capacities is not the best solution.

Performing a complete assessment of your team and project plan against the 4 Agile principles will give you the capacity of choice and the strategic insight to:

  • focus on accentuating your strengths (you are going to anyway)
  • learn to stay out of situations where your weaknesses thrive
  • ignore improvement and continue to do what you have always done (a typical response) and/or
  • work directly on developing your Agile deficiencies

Lesson 2: While evolution is imminent, change is a choice. Two points. 1) As a point of reference, while the first and third above bullets are the typical responses, the second and fourth will maximize performance. 2) The first and second bullets above are precursors to becoming a well-rounded leader, but are not a final solution.

With concerted effort, a strong feedback loop, and desire, improvement can occur. Also, research shows Agile leaders who are at least proficient at all aspects of the 4 Agile Principles will attain statistically significantly better commitment from the group than those who are one-dimensional.

Lesson 3: Running an Agile team is a lot like lifting weights or staying fit. It is never easy to improve and to get good at it requires resistance (i.e., pushing beyond your comfort zone). So, open your eyes to your entire repertoire, be strategic in how you spend your development time, don’t drive your car without brakes, and keep pushing to improve SOMEWHERE – resting on laurels or promoting what you have always done is a quick path to extinction.

About the Author
A Licensed Industrial/Organizational psychologist with over 25-years of experience, Dr. Lock is a frequent speaker, writer, and professional trainer with over 60 book chapters, publications, and presentations in professionally refereed organizations and journals. He also is a serious practitioner of best in class business tactics, having built 4 companies with sustained and long-term double digit year-over-year growth. He ingrains himself with the organization’s business mission and operating philosophy and presents his psychological and people understanding in business terms, helping organizations easily use the complex world of psychology to their advantage.
  1. Erik Reply

    Do you have any sources for your 1/6th to 5/6th statement? I’ve heard similar, and I’d like to know what your sources are.

    • Jared Lock Reply

      Thank for reading our blog (http://www.convergentllc.com/measuring-and-managing-the-human-aspect-of-project-management/) and then commenting on it. I am now looking to you for citations as I believe we are the first group to come to the conclusion concerning the 1/6th of a person evaluation that we discuss in the article. I do not have any other authors or researchers I am leaning on.

      What I am leaning on is a very substantial database including a sub-sample of thousands of IT professionals on whom we have both full person assessment data as well as job performance data (including agile success and failure rates and reasons). This database is one of the most stable in the world and brings together a person’s characteristics (i.e., job experiences, positive personality, negative personality, judgment, influence style, and cultural motivations) with their job performance AND how others perceive them on the job.

      Thanks again for your comments.

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