Carl Sagan and the Agile Transformation of Companies

The way scientists and agile coaches think may have more in common than most of us might imagine. In my search for knowledge within these two fields of study, I’ve noticed that in phrases by the best-known scientists of the 20th century, we can learn a great deal about the mentality we need to promote agile transformation in businesses.

Carl Sagan was a scientist who contributed to a great number of advances in the scientific community, among them a better understanding of the nature and atmosphere of Venus, the discovery of oceans on some of Saturn’s moons, and he was one of the first to talk about the dangers of global warming. Beyond these conquests, it was for his communications skills in awakening a passion for scientific thinking, skepticism, and discoveries about the universe that he became an icon of science and pop culture.

Sagan’s fight for solidification of science in schools and teaching institutions as a basis for human development is directly related to the environment and mindset in which we, agile coaches, scrum masters, managers and all agents of transformation, should be capable of creating in businesses. In order to continue reflecting on our roles and how our aims are evolving, I’d like to talk about three crucial Sagan quotes:

1 – “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

It’s not unusual for us to come across the following scenario in a company: a leadership team, agile coaches or management banging their chests to show, supported by charts and metrics, how their teams have already achieved the highest level of maturity.
In such cases, I always recall this phrase of Sagan’s and reflect on what sort of questions the organization is putting to these teams. Are they really addressing the most important problems and being courageous enough embrace that which “is true rather than what feels good”? Are we abandoning old problems and moving on to the next priority issues in accordance with a systemic vision of the current scenario?

Companies, teams, and individuals who are satisfied with their current state and not continuously seeking possibilities for evolution, are probably removed from the right mindset for promoting agile transformation. I always avoid that idea of “the glass is full” or that I’ve already learned all there is to learn. The dysfunctions and problems that we don’t yet know how to solve and which are important for the continuity of our transformation, are often hidden behind unfounded beliefs, conformist thinking and comfort zones, which brings us on to the next quote by Carl Sagan.

2 – “You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep-seated need to believe”.

For the work of an agent for transformation to be of value, it must be directly linked to the company’s results. A team doesn’t want to be agile just for a sake of it, companies don’t (or shouldn’t) invest in transformation just to be different. In this process, companies are striving to stand out in the market, to improve financial and non-financial returns, greater client satisfaction, the capacity for innovation and maintaining the best professionals. These should be the goals.

However, along the way, we’ll come across numerous people and structures that don’t want to change, regardless of the pain burdening the system or the results they’re trying to achieve. People who tell us “we’ve tried all that before” or “that won’t work here”. These people and their beliefs, as Carl Sagan tells us, haven’t necessarily got where they are through the evidence and clarity of their trials and experiments, but merely because they’re part of a system which has been around for a very long time and which has always benefited and promoted other behavior which is completely different from that which we seek to cultivate in an agile environment.

The great lesson here is that, if we don’t understand this system of beliefs and how it got here really well, we won’t be able to dismantle it. Old developers have a deep need to believe that their knowledge is needed by the company. Directors and managers have a deep need to keep those they manage under their command and control because that way they can still justify their presence. The testing department has a deep need to keep control of quality since it’s the only one able to evaluate that element.

People who were born, grew up, studied and graduated in the industrial logic of stable markets and low variability still haven’t broken their beliefs and accepted the reality of the VUCA world (an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) where we now live. It is amid the fear of change and the unknown that beliefs become even more important to people, like a strip of land in the middle of the ocean gradually being submerged by the tides of change.

What can we as the facilitation agents of this change do to build a safe environment in which the old people can make a positive contribution to the results we’re seeking to achieve? Revolution or evolution? Empathy or stress? All these are fundamental questions for our daily lives and finding the right strategy might mean the difference between success and setbacks of the agile transformation process at the companies where we work.

3 – “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Ultimately, a moment will come when we don’t have answers to certain problems. Things we’ve never come across before and which aren’t in the books. It as at such times that this phase by Carl Sagan becomes so important.

Today, only 4% of the universe can be observed or studied by scientists. So we can’t see, detect or even comprehend 96% of the universe. This number might lead many scientists to give up and stop where we are now. Eight thousand years after the birth of the first known human civilization, and we’re still only at 4%? But the main factor which keeps us motivated and moving towards comprehension is that we’re constantly, and ever faster, learning about everything that we didn’t understand before.

It is not for lack of prior evidence of so many things about agility that we now know and practice, that extraordinary individuals failed to work collectively, based on the search for results, bringing to life new and revolutionary ways of working and creating business value.

Organizations that are undergoing agile transformation will almost always have people who cling to universal truths, perfect examples, silver bullets, and magic formulas. And when these don’t work or become ineffective for very long, beliefs will be developed that certain things are the way they are. The search for a culture of experimentation which allows us to validate all our uncertainties and generate the evidence of improvement, principally gauged in business results, is one of the main goals of leaders within the agile transformation. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

Conclusion

The ideas spread by Carl Sagan and many other scientists in this journey to understand our universe are fundamental to my professional career, as I try to resolve problems and help develop people and organizations through True Agile. I hope they awaken the same feelings in you!

“Curiosity and the urge to solve problems are the emotional hallmarks of our species.”
Carl Sagan (2012). “Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence”, p.54

Raphael Montenegro
Raphael Montenegro

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