There aren’t many people from college I keep up with anymore. Just a few close buddies that I spent almost every day of life with for a few years. After graduation, we would call often, even do group calls to laugh at each other. Then when one of us would get engaged or have a kid, we’d trek to their hood for some fellowship.
Now, there’s a group text where we share what’s going on when something needs to be shared, coordinate a rare meetup, or make fun of each other’s teams during the NFL season.
When we were in each other’s lives in our 20s, we spent a ton of energy around hanging out. There was a huge return on the investment because I have lifelong friends that would come bail me out at the drop of a hat if I asked.
To spend that much time on them now would be much more work for very little return. We have significant others, kids, pets, jobs, and lives to lead in other cities. If we finally did a weekend trip somewhere it would be much more expensive than drinking cheap beer at the lake in college. And the morning after now would be much more painful.
What I’m describing is an aspect of the law of diminishing returns.  It’s a fairly simple concept and refers to a point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested. At some point in time of my relationship with these gents, we all realized it wasn’t going to be like it was.
The same could be said for the time we spend coaching our teams, programs, and leaders today.
It’s a harsh thing to communicate. The minute I meet a new group of people to partner with on the road to agility I’m trying to put myself out of a job. That means I have to immediately prepare them for the day I won’t be around. I rarely have the exact date in mind when I say this, but we all know it’s true.
My time with teams will at some point need to come to an end.
In the beginning, everyone has hope (or less skepticism than usual) for a better way of working. They haven’t gotten tired of the sound of my voice. My analogies and cliches are new. I might even bring treats to the initial kick off. That never lasts though, and they will eventually have their fill.
Which led me to explore the concept of understanding when you’ve reached that tipping point and how to best handle that transition.
Just as a caveat, this may not apply to all of you. You may be a full-time employee assigned to a team or group of teams. You may have contract lengths to adhere to as a consultant. Or you just may like the area you are working in. I’ll add something at the end for those of you as well.
Avoid the awkward with better up front expectations.
One of the most important parts of my job is sitting down with leadership early on to establish our working agreement. This includes several items, depending on the engagement. Most importantly, I want to know what they think I should accomplish and how to handle it if I disagree with some their assessment after onboarding.
Often, the objective includes phrases like, “teach us this framework, then step us through a few iterations.” It could be to assist them with a re-org as they build agile teams from scratch. I might even be fortunate enough to teach leadership some things about viewing our work differently before moving to teams.
The struggle is by the time I show up many clients are chomping at the bit for me to get started and want to breeze past the initial working agreement. There are several reasons for this, which probably merit a post on just this topic. Just know you can’t push past this.
Defining the endpoint may be difficult, but establishing the end point is key. I’ve often been sitting in leadership meetings with this awkward feeling. Everybody is asking me how things are going. Discussion centers around the topic of how do we know if we are accomplishing our goals. If I had done a better job of establishing expectations earlier in the process, I would be better equipped to handle this discussion.
You won’t know if it’s time to push the baby birds out of the nest on unless you know where you want them to go. If you want to read more on this, Jason Little’s book is a great place to start.
They need me to step back from them, but they may need to step away from you too.
Let’s say you’ve established a great working agreement with leadership, including healthy outcomes for the team or program. Then comes the actual execution. Even the most experienced coach can struggle to accomplish tasks with some groups. The more entrenched the culture and frozen middle, the harder the transformation can be.
Often, the task is too much for a single person.
What I often hear from colleagues (and myself) will be to blame the other side for the challenges. “They’re just not ready for transformation,” is the common refrain. All of that might be true, but what I’ve had to learn the hard way is the team’s problem might be staring me back in the mirror.
As a guide through the buzzword of transformation, all I have is tools and a few quirky stories to tell teams. I do not have a magic wand.
When I notice that teams aren’t responding to me like they used to, I try not to lie to myself. There could be a personality conflict with me, a difference in approach. Maybe I made a scrum master feel disregarded, or a project manager marginalized. It could be the just won’t want to play along. Regardless, the best thing I can do in this situation is own my part in things.
If it comes to a point where they would respond to someone else, made its best to be honest with leadership. Its hard doing that, but if we really care about their journey then we should create the best environment. One that doesn’t include me for the moment.
Involve them with identifying the tipping point.
Change plans are a necessary evil with my work, one that I’m not very good at. It could be my lack of training in the area of Organizational Change Management practices. Or I’m stubborn and just want to tell funny stories in workshops instead. Either way, plans help everyone feel better about the work we do.
What I find disconcerting is the propensity to hide them subconsciously instead of just make them as visible as our product backlogs. Just like a well written epic, I find writing the objectives with leadership on cards and decomposing them in front of the team a healthy practice.
If everyone is walking the wall of transformation just like our other boards, everyone comes to the realization at the same time that we are reaching our tipping point of diminishing returns.
Another awesome tool I’ve had the chance to participate in is transformation demos. Just like the working software version, we want to iterate our way through the process of change and show our work along the way. I’ve seen leadership benefit from breaking up the work into smaller chunks and having a conversation about how the work is going.
By seeing transformation in smaller chunks, it’s easier to see when we are getting close to our definition of done.
What if you want or need to keep going?
For all the reasons I described earlier, and many more, you might not have an opportunity to fire yourself. You would like to find a way to stick around, but you can see all the tell tale signs mentioned above. What should you do?
First off, have an open and honest with leadership and acknowledge where you are. If you’ve been stepping everyone through the process, it will seem more natural to want to help evolve your role or swap things up.
You can also stay put but shift into more of a mentor with your area of work. Find ways to elevate others into your position. The learning you gain as a mentor far will pair with your first hand experience.
Also, explore more areas of transformation in your program or team. While it may seem like you’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip at first, people are usually up for coming up with more ways they want to change things up. Add to your transformation backlog just like you would a product backlog.
Regardless of how close you are to the tipping point, just know that it’s coming. And it’s okay to reach the point of diminishing returns of your coaching. The more proactive you can be as you near it, the more prepared you will be for the next stage of change.
- Yes, I did a lot of research into the law. It is commonly used by economists to describe that if I increase the amount of energy I spend on something I will get less in return. That would apply somewhat differently to this article, but it can apply loosely. Dont come at me with your pitchforks, Internet. 🙂