4 things you can (and should) take control of when working agile

Agile is designed to deal with ambiguity; people aren't. Nobody likes to feel out of control; here are some tips to get you back into flow at work.

When I work as an agile coach I try to control lots of things; am I a control freak... maybe a little. I feel anxious when I have no influence, when I'm in this state what do you think is the result; I'm not showing up in the best state to provide value for my clients. We all face the need to be in control to some degree; its actually our job as agile practitioners to bring things into some sense of order (sometimes out of chaos). I want to discuss two areas of control as we go about our work:

  • EXTERNAL: Control is important in agile delivery; no one wants to work in chaotic cultures with no agreed way to get things done, some order is required.

  • INTERNAL: control of your state; manage yourself and how you show up to do your job.

In this post I want to focus on how in control YOU feel in your current role (internal). Humans are amazing creatures but we think we can control (much) more than we actually can. We are all collectively under the “Illusion of control”; it is the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over.

The illusion of control

Research on unrealistic perceived control was done by Ellen Langer (1975) in his paper 'illusion of control'. Langer showed that people often behave as if chance events are accessible to personal control. In a series of experiments, Langer demonstrated first the prevalence of the illusion of control and second, that people were more likely to behave as if they could exercise control in a chance situation where they used a physical skill. The example he used is a gambler who believes that the control they have over how they roll the dice has an impact on the outcome of the roll.


Now of course it is true that we can control our physical world, make things, dance if we want to, write blog posts etc, our challenge is that we mistake this control of things and assume the same applies to what we think and how we feel; it doesn’t, at least not in the same way. Let's go through some tips on what you can “control” in order to show up to work or job interviews with the best chance of getting what you want. I’ll focus on how to orient your mindset, attitude and intent in order to control inner attributes as you collaborate and talk with your team mates. Here's a bit of interesting research on this topic.

Flexible and responsive people are healthier

According to Sandra Sanger PhD. on www.psychcentral.com

a hallmark of mental health is the ability to be flexible — in behaviours and responses, and in relationship to feelings and thoughts. When you need to have control, you forgo flexibility and place a lower than necessary ceiling on your capacity for engaging in and enjoying life.

Let's consider what it means for agile practitioners to show up for conversations with the ability to be flexible in how they think and interact with others they talk with. I see this having two important and interrelated elements:

  1. Knowing your social (conversation) style

  2. Ability to conduct what I call “responsive conversations”

Let me quickly explain what I mean by these two points.

Knowing you social style gives you more control

Social style is an indicator of how your personality influences your needs and preferences during social interactions. Each style has different ways of using time and predictable ways of interacting and making decisions with and through other people. Here’s a little explainer video if you’d like to learn more on this.

The reason I want you to understand this model is because knowing your style and having an appreciation of others’ style will underpin your flexibility and responsiveness. With improved responsiveness you will, believe it or not, have more control over what happens to you and your career. Without responsiveness you have only one way of acting when things happen to or around you; not being able to control your responses limits how much control you have over what happens next. Being reactive is not helpful here.

Responsive conversations; a skill you can learn

As an agile practitioner we, more than most people, should be “agile” (or responsive or flexible) as we converse with others to co-create value for our customers.

I’m very passionate about this topic and even wrote a book on it (http://geni.us/responsive), and created a free email mini-course to help you learn the skill. But what exactly does it mean to be able to conduct responsive conversations?


Simply put, this means you can consciously choose the response you provide during your conversations with others. Think of two pathways a conversation can take when you’re working through an agile problem with your team:

  1. You can 'download' your idea onto the other person, answer or solution and strongly assert your position on the matter, or even argue/debate that your way forward makes the most sense… or

  2. You can consciously open and hold the conversation “space” for a deeper conversation where you are actively curious about other points of view; you’re seeking to co-create the solution with those in your team.

If you are facilitating an agile team conversation you have the opportunity to choose which conversation pathway best serves the everyone in that moment. I’ve put together a conversation model for how I see this working for agile practitioners which builds on the 15 years of work from the Presencing Institute; here’s a short video explaining the concept as part of an overall conversation model I put forward in my book. Mastering this responsive conversation skill will give you more control in how you guide team conversations.

How to control your agile career in 2021

Like the gambler holding the dice believing they have control of how the dice fall, we risk overestimating the level of control we have on what is a complex almost chaotic thing; our career. BUT we can have some control of some things; here’s my list:

  1. Practices you do daily that build the right professional career habits and mindset. This could include self-retros (here’s some videos to help you do this), working with a mentor, meditating, journaling, seeking other people’s feedback and/or ideas, active management of your self-talk.

  2. Get capable in areas of knowledge that improve your readiness to practice new skills. Being educated means you’re ready to execute new skills when an opportunity arises (or you can make an opportunity). By learning about a topic you aspire to work in, your intent and orientation is clear and it shows commitment. And I don’t only mean certificates but self-learning and community events; both as an attendee and presenter.