How NLP can help to get an Agile mindset

As long as there is no pill to change people’s mindset into an Agile mindset, Agile coaches have to work hard to deal with resistance during Agile transitions. As long as there is no truly believe that Agile will help and people are convinced that there is no need to do things differently, the transition to Agile will not fully succeed. This article is about how we can use simple and effective techniques from NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) to help people to become more open-minded in the transition to Agile. Because who open-minded is, stays open for options and who stays open for options, stays open for another way of working.

With the help of NLP you will get insight in the most common restrictive believes and thoughts of people which hamper them in the change to Agile and which I collected during the Agile transitions I did. By using language patterns and metaphors we can startup a search in our unconscious to options and alternatives which helps to change our mind. When we start think differently, our behavior will naturally start to change. Once you have started to master this change for yourself, then you can start to coach other people to become better at identifying and changing their thinking and subsequently their behavior in relation to Agile.

What is NLP?

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, USA in the 1970s. NLP helps you to communicate effectively and to understand what makes you thick; how you think, how you feel and how you make sense of every day life. It is a toolkit for personal and organizational change.

NLP contends that we all have our own world view and that view is based upon the internal maps that we have formed through our language and sensory representational systems, as a result of our individual life experiences. It is these neuro-linguistic maps that will determine how we interpret and react to the world around us and how we give meaning to our behaviors and experiences, more so than reality itself.

People who respond creatively and cope effectively are people who have a rich representation or model of their situation, in which they perceive a wide range of options in choosing their action. The other people experience themselves as having few options, none of which are attractive to them. What we have found is not that the world is too limited or that there are no choices, but that these people block themselves from seeing those options and possibilities that are open to them since they are not available in their models of the world.

For example in the Agile transition: Our project is too complex because …..

A primary mission of NLP is to create tools which help people to widen, enrich and add to their internal maps of reality. According to NLP the richer your map of the world the more possibilities you will have of dealing with whatever challenges arise in reality. Everyone has his or her own unique map or model of the world, and no one map is any more “true” or “real” than any other. Rather, people who are most effective are the ones who have a map of the world that allows them to perceive the greatest number of available choices and perspectives. They have a richer and wider way of perceiving, organizing and responding to the world.



Think in outcome

Sleight of Mouth (S.O.M.)

S.O.M. helps us to become more aware of the filters and maps that can block and distort our experience of the world and its potential. By becoming more aware of them, we can also become free of them. The purpose of S.O.M. patterns is to help people enrich their perspectives, expand their maps of the world and reconnect with their experience. S.O.M. patterns can be characterized as “verbal reframes” which can influence beliefs and the mental maps from which beliefs have been formed. Some has to do with the magic of words and language. It can help you to say the right words at the right time. Sleight of Mouth means literally, agility with your mouth and language, being alert and react ad rem.

A police officer comes to a house because there was domestic violence reported. She was alert because it can be dangerous for her. When she arrived she hears shouting and screaming from inside. A man was yelling loudly and suddenly a television set comes crashing through the window and smashing on the ground in pieces. The police officer rushes to the door and begins to pound on it as hard as she can. She heard the man shouting with an enraged voice: “Who the hell is that!”. The police officer said: “Television repairman”. There is a moment of dead silence inside and finally, the man breaks out in laughter and opened the door. The police officer could make her intervention avoiding any further violence.

Linguistically, beliefs are typically expressed in the form of verbal patterns know as “complex equivalences”. These are statements which imply equivalences between different aspects of our experiences. We say A is B or A means B. like “Having a lot of money means you are successful”  or “Love means never having to say I’m sorry”.

Marketing, advertising are using these techniques to make their product attractive. For example: a customer asks: “are those cakes very sweet?” The retailer said: “yes they are sweet, and very tasty”. So the pattern is the customer believes too sweet = not tasty (A = B) and the retailer reframes it in sweet = tasty (A = C).

How to use in Agile transition?

Sleight of Mouth is a persuasion skill, a vehicle for the reframing of beliefs. It is a system of 14 different patterns of response to a stated belief. A system that, once mastered, can allow you to always have a response that will effectively elucidate your position and help you to persuade rather than be persuaded. It helps people to get another view of the world. There are 14 different patterns in how you can react, 14 ways to say, hey have a look to it from this perspective?

For example: work out Agile example

Let’s say you’ve come into work late several times and your boss calls you in and growls, “You’re being late shows you don’t care about the job.” There are 14 different responses you can use:

  1. Reality strategy: How do you know lateness and caring are the same thing?
  2. Model of the world: Some people believe caring is shown by quality of the job done and the results obtained.
  3. Counter example: We all know people who are always on time and yet are goof-offs once they get here.
  4. Intent: My intention is not to be late or uncaring but to give you the best quality time and highest productivity while I’m here
  5. Redefine: I wasn’t late, I was delayed in traffic
  6. Chunking up: Are you saying the most important aspect of my job is showing up on time?
  7. Chunking down: How specifically are lateness and not caring the same thing?
  8. Metaphor or analogy: If a surgeon is late for dinner because he is saving a life, does that mean he doesn’t care about his wife’s cooking?
  9. Another outcome: The real question isn’t whether I’m late or I’m caring. The real question is how much I’m producing for the company.
  10. Consequence: If I wasn’t late I wouldn’t have been able to close the sale while I was at a breakfast meeting.
  11. Hierarchy of Criteria: Isn’t it more important to focus on how much the person gives while on the job rather than punctuality?
  12. Apply to self: Gosh, I wish you’d cared enough about me to tell me this sooner.
  13. Changing frame size: Over time, you’ll see I brought in more business in a timely fashion for the company than all of the people who showed up to work on time.
  14. Meta frame: Lots of progressive companies are working with flex time for their high producers. I thought you were a forward thinking manager.

Do keep in mind ‘how’ you might use your tonality when delivering the responses; Its both what you say and how you say it. Don’t forget to use it with respect to another person. Use it with the intention to help someone, not because you want to win a discussion or something.

Now imagine the power of having ALL these patterns at your fingertips for every single objection you are likely to encounter in every single situation. For example during your Agile transition. The next table shows you real life stated believes against Agile and useful responses. Enjoy!!


Stated beliefs against Agile
Examples of S.O.M. responses
1.       We already tried Agile before, it doesn’t work ·       You have only tried? Oh I thought Agile is about doing instead of trying

·       Was all of Agile not working or only parts of it? Which parts of Agile did help you?

·       You can use some of Agile all of the time and all of Agile some of the time

·       How do you know that Agile was not working?

2.       Agile is a Hype, let’s wait for new management than we do something else ·       Is something what is founded in the 80’s and still used by 80% of the IT companies a hype?

·       If Agile is a hype than is using your mobile phone for internet or internet banking also a hype

·       Is calling it a hype a reason why you don’t have to change?

3.       We say we do it, but actually we don’t ·       Is this how you always deal with changes? Does this help you?

·       Who are you tricking with that?

·       Have you also tried to say you don’t do it and actually you did?

4.       Agile gives a lot of overhead because of all the meetings per iteration ·       Do you always start immediately without thinking what to do?

·       When you never look back how can you learn from your mistakes?

·       The best way to forecast is to look at yesterdays weather.

·       How do you know that you run in the right direction if you never stop to look on your compass and get some feedback from your environment?

·       Like a Rugby team: scrum is a moment the game stopped and the team bring back the ball in the game.

5.       Our supplier doesn’t work Agile, so we can’t work Agile either ·       So you say that all vendors can’t work Agile?

·       Than it is time to challenge your vendor

·       Are you dependent of your vendor for all your work?

·       Who is in charge here?

·       I thought our customer is number 1

6.       I can’t sell this to my customer, he don’t want to pay for Agile way of working ·       How do you know, did you already talked about it?

·       Do you want to pay for something when you don’t know the benefits?

·       How would you like to sell it?

7.       It is very childish the thing with all those stickies. ·       Why can’t work be fun?

·       What is wrong with visual management?

·       We are happy that it sticks otherwise it fells on the floor

·       We like it so our management can understand it too

·       The good thing about low tech tools is that it is always working

8.       Our project is very special, Agile won’t work here ·       Agile is actually common sense, so why can ‘t you use common sense in special projects?

·       What is special about this project when you compare it with 100 other projects who use Agile?

9.       Agile only works for small projects, our project is very large and complex ·       Then you split up your project in small projects.

·       So you say that the business can only be at the steering wheel in small cars and not in large cars?

·       The more complex the project, the more flexibility you need.

·       Comparing it with zebra’s, a large herd of zebra’s is just as flexible as a single one

·       Better a complex project than a chaos project. What did you do to avoid chaos?

10.    Iterative & incremental development is not possible because I can’t slice the development work. All parts belong to each other and are important ·       The only way to eat an elephant is bit by bit

·       Impressive how you can do it all together at the same time and still having an overview

·       I know big companies, like Essent, Google, Amazon, Apple  and they deliver working software every 2 weeks. So if they can do it….

·       How do you think we can deliver working software in a shorter timescale?

11.    We do this work for over 10 years, it works fine, why should we do things differently? ·       If you do what you always did you will get the same results you always have

·       Did you ask your customer?

·       For you it works fine, but what do the others think?

12.    I’m a project manager, and project managers have no future in Scrum ·       Which other scrum roles do you think are interesting for you?
13.    We don’t have a clue why we have to work Agile ·       Did you already asked? Who can answer this question for you?

·       Why do you want to work Agile?

·       What do you like to hear?

14.    It is all the same, first DSDM, than RUP, than Scrum, now we call it Agile. Agile brings nothing new. ·       That is great than you are already an expert!

·       That’s right it is all common sense and best practices, which ones do you like most?

15.    We won’t have one product owner, a steering committee works well ·       Do you know what an elephant is? That’s a mouse specified by a committee
16.    I don’t believe in dedicated teams, we work on multiple projects at the same time ·       When playing in a football game what happens with the focus when some team members step out to play with another team?

·       Minimize task switching because productivity will drop. Repetition improves the productivity. What happens with the productivity when teams have different ways of working?

17.    Agile is like a silver bullet, it will solve all our problems ·       In Agile you also fail, but you fail early and improving all the time

·       Don’t be afraid to fail. There is no failure, only in no longer trying.

·       Sprints don’t fail, sprints only fail when you don’t learn

18.    Our work is very specialized, we need specialists. ·       When building a house we can ask a constructor to do all the work or we can ask a team full of specialists, plumbers, painters, brick layers. What do you choose? It depends on the complexity of the product.

·       It is about the right person on the right place. Let people do where they are good in, but let them also learn new skills.

19.    We have to much operational pressure, we have no time to implement Agile way of working ·       Is sounds like you have to travel far but you don’t want to use a car and keep on walking

·       How can you deal with operational pressure if you have no time to work efficiently?


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