Agile Transitions and Employee Retention

A question from my mailbox this morning (paraphrased):

Our organization is transitioning to agile. I often hear that not everybody will suit an agile team. I’m concerned that some of the non-agile-minded will drop out. How do we keep everyone on board?

My correspondent had heard statistics and advice like “20% of the people in your organization will not make the transition. Be prepared for some turnover.” And he’s right to be concerned. Agile transitions are not easy. No significant change is ever easy.

Since this is a question I hear often, and since my response to my correspondent applies to any organization in transition, I decided to post my response here.

I offer four observations:

1. People sometimes surprise us.

The person who seemed complacent, satisfied to stay in their little comfort zone, resistant to taking ownership, may turn out to be a great collaborative team member when given half a chance. I’ve seen it happen. By contrast, the “top performer” who seems so pro-active and who everyone is desperate to retain may turn out to be toxic in the new organization because she prefers the mantle of hero to true collaboration.

2. Leaving isn’t the worst thing in the world.

One of my absolute worst screwups as a manager was to work too hard to “help” an employee that was not performing well.

He was on a performance improvement plan for months. Both of us were miserable about the situation. He’d been with the company for a while, and after many organizational changes ended up in my group. The organization had changed, and he wasn’t fitting in well in the new world order. No amount of training or coaching was helping.

When we finally mutually agreed that things weren’t working, he found another job at another company almost right away. The next time I ran into him at a conference he was brimming with happiness at his new success. His new organization loved him and he was thriving. His skills and temperament were a perfect fit there.

So while I thought I was being kind when I tried to give him every chance to succeed in my group, I was actually being cruel by prolonging his feeling of failure unnecessarily.

Similarly, at one of my clients, a QA Manager who had been resisting the transition to Agile ultimately left. Upper management was very, very nervous about what his departure would do to the QA group. But it turns out that everyone was better off.

Leaving isn’t the worst thing in the world, and sometimes it can be the best thing for all concerned.

3. Creating safety is more important than retaining individuals.

Transitioning to Agile inevitably results in increased visibility. That visibility can be incredibly scary, particularly in a political organization where people have historically practiced information hiding, and information hoarding, as a survival strategy.

Instead of trying to retain specific individuals, it’s more important that managers focus on making people feel safe. Much of creating safety is about not doing things: don’t use velocity as an assessment mechanism; don’t add pressure by blaming the team if they miss sprint targets; don’t foster a culture of competition within a team.

Even more important is what managers can actively do to promote safety: talk to individuals about their concerns; get whatever resources people say they need in order to be successful; reward collaboration over individual achievement.

4. Treat people well.

The people in the organization are humans, not fungible “resources.” They deserve support and compassion. As long as managers treat people as people consistently throughout the transition, it will all be OK, even if some people decide that the new organization isn’t a good fit for them.