How To Deal With People Who Constantly Are To Slowing Things Down

Episode 119

September 04, 2013


The Agile Weekly Crew discuss how culture affects ability to make decisions. Why people like to slow things down to get comfortable and how to deal with people who want to slow things down.

Jade Meskill: Hello, welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Roy VanDeWater: And I’m Roy VanDeWater.

The Fear Of Taking Action

Jade: We wanted to talk about a pattern that we’ve noticed lately of [talking very slowly] people who like to slow things down. That’s for you listeners listening at two speed. We’ve seen on different teams, different companies, different environments that people have this fear of taking action.

What are some of the ways that you guys have seen people slow down the process of moving forward, of moving to something new?

Derek: I see a lot of discussion, so when I’m afraid of something, I think we’d call that slowly slowing something down until I’m comfortable. “Hey, you guys are all going way fast. I’m not comfortable. Let’s slow it down.”

“Hey, can we talk about what’s the best way that we can solve this problem”? Or, “I’m not so comfortable. We haven’t talked to Roy about it and I think we really need to have Roy involved in this conversation.”

Or, “I don’t think the boss is going to be OK with that. I think we need to set up a meeting and figure out if we would even be allowed to do something like that before we can really make a decision.”

Sometimes it will revolve around a decision, but a lot of times, I see it just around action. We should be doing something, we should be moving something forward, but instead we’re going to talk about it.

“Let’s talk a lot about what the new product should have in it. Let’s talk about what the product should be like. Let’s talk about who should be on the team.” Instead of doing things to move some step closer to doing something.

What It Means To Own The Result

Roy: Why don’t people just do things?

Derek: Because I think you have to then own the result.

Jade: How does that affect an Agile team? So if you have a team that is trying to become Agile, be more Agile, what side effect does this have on them?

Roy: I think Jim McCarthy talked about it in terms of, “You are slowing things down to the lowest common denominator,” or, Derek, you’ve put it this way too, where you are slowing things down to the comfort level of the least comfortable developer.

Jade: What does that do?

The Effects Of Slowing Down

Derek: It frustrates people who want to go faster, but what it really does is it retards people’s ability to have cycles of doing, failing, correcting. Doing, failing, correcting. Doing, failing, correcting.

If it takes me a long time to have action ‑‑ there’s a whole bunch of frustration and buildup and everything that goes along with that ‑‑ and then when we actually do something and we don’t get the exact result we want or it’s not quite right, we have to go back and we have another long process.

Two things happen ‑‑ we expend an enormous amount of energy, which is really, really valuable, and time which is the also really, really, valuable.

We also slow down our ability to learn and correct. If we choose an action and it’s not the right action but we learn something from it, that’s probably quicker than if we debated 10 different…

If we debated three different ways to do something for 15 minutes and it only takes three minutes to do each one of those things, we could be done and know for certain which one is the right one quicker than if we sat and talked about which one might theoretically be the right one.

Roy: It’s also frustrating as a developer. All of a sudden you’re demoted from having new ideas. It’s now become a bad thing to have new ideas and a new way of doing things. Anything that you suggest is going to start another chain of endless discussions. You’ll get into the mindset of, “I better keep this to myself, because I don’t want to talk about it”.

We Stop Trying When We Are Paralyzed By Fear

Derek: I think there are studies out there that really show that. We get so afraid of putting out a wrong answer ‑‑ it is so bad to do that we stop putting out the scary ideas, and the scary ideas are usually the ones that have the best results.

I think when you start to train yourself, “I’m really afraid of throwing this out there, doing it or trying it,” you debate it and you debate it and you debate it. You’ll debate 20 really awesome things that will set you all the way forward in taking the worst idea.

I see this all the time when we do the ballpoint games. If you look that up, invariably, I’ll see somebody who would throw out an awesome idea that would probably quadruple to 10 times the team’s productivity in this particular game. They usually laugh and step back and be like, “Ha, ha, just kidding”.

In reality, if they would go forward with that idea, the team would be way more effective. I think when people slow things down, it gives them more doubt and more time to second guess and to criticize their own thoughts and actions. It breeds more inactivity ‑‑ it literally becomes an energy sink.

Dealing With Uncomfortable People

Jade: So what happens to those people that were saying they want to slow things down to their most comfortable level? How do you deal with those?

Roy: First off, do those people actually ever get comfortable? Is there any amount of discussion that actually ever gets those people at the comfort level they want to be.

Jade: Sure, if nothing happens, right?


Jade: If I could use it as a weapon to stop things from changing…

Roy: The only way to effectively give the person the value that they are looking for is to continue the discussion and definitely never do anything. That sounds like we could just skip to discussion and not do anything.

Jade: [laughs]

Derek: They think a lot of times those people would prefer that. I don’t think they’re in love with the discussion. I think they’re in love with the idea of [laughs] “Well, let’s make myself comfortable with this.”

Roy: If they don’t want to do it, why don’t we just give them the power to say, “I don’t want to do this”?

Jade: How do you do that though? You have a team of people who are trying to work together.

The Decider Protocol

Roy: In the past we talked about using the decider protocol ‑‑ it requires unanimous vote, so if one person’s out, then it doesn’t go through ‑‑ so everybody has the power to say no. Every person is going to get listened to ‑‑ not listened to in the “talk‑forever” sense ‑‑ but listened to in the “have‑their‑way” sense.

Derek: I think it comes down to a couple of things. Certainly if you’re using the core protocols, there’s a lot built‑in that allows you to do that, but if you’re not, you can still handle it in one or two ways. One is we refuse to not do anything, so we’re going to do the best idea that we currently have, and if you have a better idea, awesome, let’s hear it, but just slowing down to discuss is not going to be allowed.

You can say, when we’re in a discussion point, it becomes, “Hey, I think we should do XYZ.” If multiple people are, “Yes, let’s do XYZ,” and somebody continues to, “Well, I want to slow down,” part of me says…at that point, do you just check out and say, “I’m going to go spend my time doing something else”? Or do you say, “I’m going to do X”? “I’m no longer going to wait for you. It’s taking too long. I’m going to suffer whatever consequence comes from just taking action ‑‑ that inaction is too much of a penalty already. I would rather suffer some other retribution for taking action than suffer the penalty in the problems with taking no action.”

Culture Of Uncomfortableness

Roy: I think there’s a culture component to this as well ‑‑ if you have a culture in which everybody needs to be comfortable, you’re going to have problems in terms of going fast because as we often say, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going fast enough.” So creating a culture where it’s OK to be uncomfortable starts promoting that type of thought.

If you have a culture of uncomfortableness, that’s probably going to be very tightly linked to a culture of “No Criticism”, and a culture of dishonesty. If we’re a culture that’s all about you being comfortable, Jade, then I can never criticize anything you do because I’m going to be making you uncomfortable.

Jade: Which is true.

Roy: Right, exactly.

The Motivation Behind Slowing Down

Derek: [laughs] I think you’re touching on something really interesting. There’s something behind the motivation to slow things down. It’s not that people are completely unreasonable, or just not decent human beings. They’re afraid of something. Have you ever worked with someone to help understand what it is that is behind their need to slow things down and help them overcome that?

Derek: Yes, I see a couple of patterns. One is lack of confidence, so…

Lack Of Self-Confidence

Jade: Self‑confidence?

Derek: Yes. “I don’t trust that I’m capable of doing this, whatever this is, so I don’t want to take the action until I’ve got complete assurance from other people that it’s safe for me to take this action,” ‑‑ there’s a lot of validation that needs to happen.

We need to go lift 50 pound block, but I don’t think I can lift the 50 pound block, so I want to discuss it, not necessarily because I think I want to slow it down, but I want you guys to pump me up to the point where you make me believe I can actually do it. When we get to that point, then, yes, I’m full‑on willing to go do it.

Another one that I see is ‑‑ like a flip‑side of that ‑‑ “I don’t feel comfortable admitting that I have a lack of confidence.” On one the discussion is “I’m really nervous about this, and I want to go over this again, and I want to understand,” so somebody is like, “Will you help me understand? Will you help me understand? Will you help me understand?” What they’re wanting is that self…

The Need For Affirmation

Jade: Affirmation.

Derek: Right, affirmation, and then I think there’s the flip‑side where, “I don’t know how to do it, but I don’t want to tell you I don’t know how to do it,” so what I really want to do is I want to debate this thing to death, because the thing you are asking me to do, I have no clue, but I know how to do this other thing over here, and even though I know it might not be the right thing, I’m going to argue to death that it’s the right thing because if we do the thing you want, then I have to admit I have no clue how to do that.

Lack Of Trust

Roy: Another variant is lack of trust that the other people know what they’re doing. Argue it to death so that instead of having a high level discussion about it and agreeing this is where we’re going to move forward and trusting that Derek is going to do it right, we argue about it endlessly and insist on ironing out all of the details, so that I can have full control over making sure that Derek does it the right way, because I don’t trust him to do it.

Derek: There’s that control component there too ‑‑ fear that people won’t do it how I want it done. I’ll debate it to death just because I want to make sure that this stupid you gets every single detail right.

I can’t agree to take action that I’m not going to personally do until I know that you’ve affirmed every single decision that can possibly be made about that action.

Roy: Which is interesting because I’ve definitely worked on teams where I did not trust the other people to make good decisions. It was for good reason because they made stupid decisions all the frigging time.


How do you deal with that? I guess that’s part of the culture of honesty ‑‑ you need to be able to say, “Hey listen, you make stupid frigging decisions, so let’s talk about this.”


Derek: It’s bringing the better idea to the table, right? If everybody has to do the work, maybe it’s, “Hey, that sounds great. Let’s pair on it.” Or, “Hey, that’s great, but why don’t we check in every hour and make sure that we’re going down the right path”?

There are a lot of ways to deal with very real problems, without necessarily having to slow down forward movement.

Roy: Part of it though is that nobody actually wants to talk about the fact that they don’t trust the other people. Nobody says, “I am afraid that you aren’t going to implement it the way I want to see it done.”

Jade: If you had a high trust environment, you probably wouldn’t be having this problem.

Roy: Yes.


Lack Of Decomposition Contributes to Slowing Down

Derek: Another thing that seems to happen is, just like people are not good at breaking down requirements or stories, or you name it, people are not good about breaking down decisions. A lot of times, it’s like we’re trying to negotiate every single detail in this really big thing before we take one step forward.

Instead, if we said, “Can we all agree that we want to go east? Yeah, we all agree, we want to go east. OK, let’s start walking east and as we are walking east, let’s make a decision about how far we’re going to walk,” or whatever, right?

A lot of times, that’s another delay tactic, “I don’t want to start moving because what if we start going east and in another two hours, we decide we need to go north? We could have gone diagonally and gone a lot faster, so I don’t want to move from this seat until I know exactly where I’m going.”

Roy: Just assuming from the principle that for the most part, your gut feels that sometimes you may be wrong and that you will suffer by having to walk back in the opposite direction to get back to where you started to then start heading north. Usually, when everybody agrees, “Let’s go east,” you’re probably going to end up going east.

Derek: You can slice it down into decisions that are small enough to say you can find that baseline, “Where is the real fear at”? Is the fear in moving altogether or is the fear in going east? What is it?

If we can get agreement of 75 percent on the stuff, that allows us to get moving while we figure out the other 25 percent. If you’re trying to schedule something with somebody with tight schedules and neither one of us could hook up, this week I just said, “Can you come out between this date and this date”?

No details. No, “This is what we’re going to do. This is what we’re not going to do,” just, “Can you make it out during this time? Yes or no, that would really help me.”

The person was able to say, “I have no idea what I’m committing to, but I can commit. I will be available sometime within that week. Can we please talk in the next day or two to determine what those details are”? [laughs]

That allowed the conversation to move forward, but didn’t require all of the details.

Jade: Let’s wrap it up here. We’ve got about a minute left. What’s our advice to people who are stuck in this challenging situation?

Roy: Go faster.

Demand Action If The Slowness Is Frustrating

Derek: Anytime you start to feel frustrated with the speed that’s something moving, it’s a good sign that you should demand the action or decision be made.

Jade: You need a tool or some ability to make quick decisions and take action.

Roy: If the team or people are insisting on not being able to make decisions, get from them, very concretely, what it would take in order for them to be able to get to a place where they’re making a decision. If you can’t get that, that’s a huge problem.

Check out, probably, at that point. Just leave. Go do something useful because you’re wasting your time.

This person’s telling you, “I’m not comfortable. I don’t know what it will take to get me to be comfortable,” so talking to him isn’t going to help.

Derek: That’s exactly it, right? It really is. If you get to that point where you’re frustrated because stuff is not moving, say, “We need to get this moving. Here’s what I think we should do. Can we get consensus”?

If there’s no way to get consensus, you’re better off going and doing something else.

Roy: Avoiding the temptation of large groups and just have management go in and say, “We can’t come to a decision. I’m going to go do this. Anybody is welcome to join me.”

Derek: Or, “I’m going to go do something else that needs to be done that’s not related to this and when you guys get to the point where you know what the hell you want to do, let me know. But I’m not going to sit here and spend more and more time trying to get you comfortable.”

Jade: Great. Thanks for listening to the Agile Weekly Podcast. Check us out on Facebook at We’d love to hear from you guys. Thanks for listening.

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