A matter of secondary gains

So you explained to your team how to do X – where X is a certain agile practice you believe it will be very helpful for them – and they learned and implemented it quite well and you were so proud of the way you convinced them to change their habits until… they don’t! And the more you try to bring them to the “right way” the more they go back. They even tell you they really want to implement the wonderful technique you showed them, but actually they don’t.

Maybe you weren’t clear enough. Well, no, they understood and they were even implementing the technique very well.

Maybe something changed in the organisation. Actually not even that: the management constellation is as it was before.

Maybe you forgot to consider their secondary gain[s]!

The Secondary Gain is something your team gains by not changing (or loses when changing). It is often a very important barrier against change in individual coaching and also in team coaching. It happens to be very important because… we tend not to see it or blatantly ignore it!

seconday gains

The secondary gain is an extrinsic motivator and, as such, it is connected to one or more causes that can be clearly labeled, though they are not necessarily easy to identify. Once you have some working hypothesis about what these secondary gains could be, it is also important to validate them on the field: sometimes the consultant’s opinion is flawed by his/her own biases!

Let’s take as an example the team from the beginning that claims to implement e.g. TDD, but in fact does not want to do so. Here are some possible secondary gains:

  • Spare the learning curve
  • Hide much better their problems, so they won’t be blamed
  • Keep giving an estimate that matches what the manager wants to hear, i.e. without the additional effort for testing in it
  • Fear of being ostracised in an organisation that is still against agile
  • Fear of showing their weaknesses, for example by breaking the build with the tests they added

There can be a lot of possible secondary gains and, of course, each individual in the team might have his/her own ones, though some of them will be common for the whole team and are usually systemic diseases of the organisation. The important thing to consider is that without removing/resolving these secondary gains, no change is possible regardless of how shiny the primary gain can be!