I have been familiar with Chris Argylis’ concept of belief-driven bias, his ‘Ladder of Inference’, since my early years as a consultant. Recently, I learnt just how beholden I am to my beliefs.

The client in question has a well defined IT operating model that mandates explicitly a Waterfall process. Its formal governance gates demand detailed Ghant charts defining upfront programme plans.

I joined a programme run by this client with an expectation to turnaround a team perceived as performing poorly. My beliefs subconsciously drove me to see all of their problems as being due to them being ‘too Waterfall’ and ‘not Agile enough’. For me, they were too focussed on creating upfront plans, not empowering their teams enough, too focussed on writing detailed requirements. Despite them telling me in know uncertain terms, I was blind the real issue: the client had lost trust in the team.

In hindsight, my prejudices around what approach that they should have been taking were completely irrelevant. I was asking myself the question ‘how can I get this team to be more Agile?’ Instead, I might have been better asking the client ‘how can we regain your trust?’ Their ‘Number 1’ answer to that question would have been: ‘give us the damn plan!’

Paradoxically, had listened to and followed their instruction, I would have had a better chance of regaining their trust and ultimately improving the overall effectiveness of the ‘Work System’.

As the weeks rolled by, despite great progress on the ground delivering the programme, the client did not see quick enough progress on their desired big plan. For them ‘no plan’ (i.e. no long-term, detailed plan) meant the programme was out of control. We were both blinded by our beliefs. They couldn’t see that good progress was being despite the lack of the plan; I couldn’t see that they still had no trust, despite our delivery progress.

This was a fine example of where an ‘adaptor’ might have saved us. The big plan would have given the client the sense of certainty, and ultimately feeling of trust, that they craved. The problem was, with my biases, there was no way I could have mustered the energy to build that adaptor. I simply could not have moved by bones to create the 1800-line plan that the client eventually paid another consultancy to create for them.

My lesson here is that if you do ever do need to ‘wrap’ your programme with some ‘Waterfall’ artefacts to maintain the trust of the wider organisation, find a ‘Waterfall’ man or woman to lead this. Find someone whose biases will drive them along is this exercise, not hinder them as they did me.