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Name Calling and Ad Hominem Attacks

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Name Calling and Ad Hominem Attacks

It’s been a crazy few weeks for me.

Three weeks ago I was Nicaragua working on water systems for a non-profit my family and I support. Two weeks ago I was in Washington, DC for the Agile2015 conference. Last week I was digging out from the previous two weeks with clients and our ever expanding sales pipeline. This week I’m bouncing around the country talking to prospects while trying to sneak a quick trip to Gainesville to drop my middle son off for his freshman year of college.

Kinda nuts, but I digress…

In between the week in Nicaragua and the week at Agile2015, I got to spend a day at the Agile Coaches Camp also in DC. One of the sessions I proposed and facilitated was on impediments to large scale agile transformation. Go figure, huh? Of course I have my own ideas around the kinds of things that get in the way of large scale agile transformations, but I wanted to start by talking to the group and getting an idea of what they thought was important.

I was kinda blown away.

It seemed like everyone thought the problems adopting agile in large organizations came down to managers not being open to doing agile. The thinking was that managers were too command and control. That managers were not agile enough. That companies didn’t have an agile culture, that no one was willing to inspect and adapt, or that no one was willing to respond to change. Everything was about how managers were getting in the way.

Here is a question for you…

What if managers were actually open to doing agile? What if managers didn’t want to be command and control? What if managers were agile enough, and were willing to build an agile culture, were willing to inspect and adapt, and desperately wanted to respond to change… but what if they didn’t know how? What if the environment around them had real barriers to adopting agile and what if all they wanted was guidance toward how to remove them?

What would you tell them? Go forth and self-organize?

What is your answer when an organization has contractual obligations committing them to 10 times more work than they can actually do?

What is your answer when formal business processes are hopelessly entangled?

What is your answer when legacy architectures are full of technical debt and there is insufficient automation…or a regular build… let alone continuous integration?

What do you do when there aren’t enough people to staff complete cross functional teams or governance and regulation get in the way?

Stop the ad hominem attacks

I think we need to stop labelling people, stop the ad hominem attacks on management… and if we are serious about helping companies adopt agile in a meaningful way… start figuring out strategies for helping managers solve the real issues effecting real companies with real business problems to solve. It’s the system these folks are living in that is driving the behavior you are seeing in large organizations. We can’t change attitude unless we fix the systems.

Help me get there

Our industry has an absolute fixation on end-state. We continue to iterate on SAFe and LeSS and DaD and Scrum. We talk about Beyond Budgeting, The Future of Management, and Holocracy. The problem we have right now, with the companies reading these books, isn’t that the end-state isn’t understood… it’s that they can’t see how to take their existing organizations, with their existing models, and existing constraints… and find a way to transition to the new model.

They need help understanding what the intermediate states look like.

It’s easy to tell a child who can’t swim to jump in a pool and swim.

It’s easy to tell an overweight teenager to be healthy and loose weight.

It’s easy to point to the goal and call names when someone can’t seem to achieve it.

The hard part is meeting people where they are and helping them craft a strategy for getting where they need to be…even where they want to be… but just can’t seem to find a way to get there. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the end state isn’t the problem… it’s the transition patterns. It’s the change management. It’s helping companies make progress, and still deliver, while they are changing.

Name calling and ad hominem attacks don’t help.

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Comments (11)

  1. Peter Saddington

    Great write up. Appreciate the candor and the intellectual honesty!
    We try to positively assume that all are trying their best within the constraints of the system. Systems thinking can help a lot here… that’s where we start ;)

    Hope your trip went well too!

  2. Jenni Jepsen

    Hi Mike,

    Great post — and timely. I’ve had a restless night’s sleep. And after reading your blog at 4:30 (Danish time), I had to get up, grab my computer and respond! Yes, yes, yes, there is are a lot of complaints about what people (managers) CAN’T or WON’T do. And we need to help them acquire the tools & skills in the transition to Agile — or just in the transition to creating environments where their people thrive and deliver value faster and delight customers! In order to give control, managers need to make sure people have the technical competency and organizational clarity. That’s it. From the employee perspective, people need to keep managers informed about what is going on. That way, managers do not feel worried which elevates the “I’m -not-in-control-I better-do-something-to-get-back-in-control” feeling. We’re running a leadership program (, together with David Marquet ( that teaches the skills — giving specific mechanisms to help managers become Agile leaders; and sharing & practicing with the tools needed on the journey. Very specific. And, we tie in the neuroscience of WHY this kind of leadership works, why Agile works. Why people hate command and control environments and what we can do about it by taking advantage of how our brains work, how we are motivated, how we deliver our best work. Agile frameworks and formulas are a great starting point, but certainly not enough.

    • Mike Cottmeyer

      Thanks for the great comment Jenni! One can only hope you have problems sleeping more often! ;-)

  3. Bob Marshall

    Welcome to the #Rightshifting world! :}

    – Bob

  4. Ray Edgar

    Thanks for this article. Of course what you are talking about is the Fundamental Attribution Error which most people are unaware of. That is, they attribute behavior to individuals rather than the circumstances they are in.

    As coaches or consultants or just people people we need to hold this up to examination every days. This is just one of the System 1 styles of thinking we need to call out on behalf of the organizations we are trying to help. Then we have to start coaching System 2 to help people help themselves.


    • Tim

      All it takes to villainize a person is to mix Fundamental Attribution Error with Confirmation Bias. Within a year you will see the enemy you insist upon.

  5. David Roy

    Thank you for shining a light on an issue that a lot of people are not aware of, within their own organizations.

  6. Tim

    I may have walked out on that session.

    Imagine how much further we could get if we would give our managers permission to be human.

    I’ve heard too many stories about “evil managers” who actually were darned nice and darned smart men and women with a lot of experience in the industry and a lot to offer their teams. I’ve met and befriended a number of them.

    If we want to help people, we can’t start with an argument. We need to start with a question. Once we put judgment aside, it’s easier to bring curiosity to the equation, and curiosity might lead us to solutions AND relationships.


  7. Paul Boos

    Interesting, wish I had attended that session…

    As someone who was a manager, I totally empathize with them. I\’ve also seen managers that were but too laissez-faire in how they expected the transition to occur or some that were too dogmatic to make change happen (and reduced their supportive culture to ashes).

    Finding ways to help managers (everyone really) transition is a key point in being successful. Of course not everyone is willing, but anyone that is, should be brought along on the journey. And many will become willing once those championing the transition listen to them and their concerns. While many managers may need to change their behaviors, thinking its like flipping a switch and they should just get it is both naïve and reckless IMHO. Look at the system, find ways to nudge the organizational habits in ways that help them want to embrace it and expect it to take awhile.

  8. Martien van Steenbergen

    If transitions are the key thing, Pattern Language comes to mind, as each pattern provides a small srtucture preservibg transition from the current situation to an improved situation. The Language part (web of patterns) makes it a never ending story (of small transitions).


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