Eliminate Free Radicals – A Path to Scaling Agile in the Enterprise

You might remember from chemistry class that a molecule can exist without a paired electron, making them highly reactive. Molecules fitting this description are considered “Free Radicals“. What your professor may not have told you (mine certainly hadn’t) is that Free Radicals (or Radicals as I like to refer to them as) also exist in human form and unlike their scientific brethren, they often appear in clusters, especially within large organizations. While they may play an important role to science, I’ve always placed the human version at the top of my list of reasons preventing Agile from scaling within large enterprise.

Characteristics of a Free Radical

I have some great news for you. Free Radicals are extremely easy to recognize within your organization. Here’s a list of characteristics and mannerisms to watch for:

  • Every task they represent to the organization is urgent and a top priority
  • They do not use a consistent medium to communicate information
  • It’s not easy to recognize any direct contributions they make to the organization
  • They don’t want to take time to learn about the methodology you work within (e.g. Agile)
  • They submit requests just short of the due date
  • They echo communication across many channels (e.g., email, IM, phone, etc)
  • They are quick to offer compliments privately, but never in public forums
  • They are indecisive
  • They are often the center of conversations with conflict
  • They wander the hallways with lemon water in hand (a tangental observation)

Free Radicals can Squelch Agile Adoption

When I speak or meet with Agile coaches or any executive looking to adopt or grow their Agile deployment, I begin with a cautionary statement about Radicals. Their meer presence, no matter the number, can quickly squelch Agile adoption. Therefore, you must develop a plan to insulate yourselves (see below). By exerting their own chaotic manor of work, Radicals squelch Agile adoption by:

  • With Scrum teams – Insisting that changes be admitted to active Sprints (e.g., backlog promotion / scope change mid-Sprint)
  • With Kanban teams – Insisting that their items be expedited and change SLA course
  • Not accepting deliveries against their agreed upon definition of done
  • Frequently interrupting team members
  • Forcing exemptions to be from an accepted list
  • Contributing to the delay of requirements definition
  • Refusing to obtain status updates from systems or boards, preferring them from people
  • Breaking cadence (our internal rhythm)
  • Contributing to friction and causing frustration

Insulate and Scale

Ahh, recognize them now – don’t you. Worse, you realize that Radicals are all around you, possibly looking over your shoulder right now? Relax, they don’t like to read from a far, especially articles with the word “Agile” anywhere in the title. There are three simple ways to insulate your teams and reach scale – and even better, a simpler way to remember them. You WOW them. Walls, Obstacles and Warfare. I developed this strategy years ago and it’s something that I’ve continued to practice and introduce to hundreds of Scrum teams operating within enterprise-size organizations.


I’m not talking about the physical here. Unfortunately building codes and the such require that you have adequate doors and means of egress. Admittedly a slower life form, Radicals have evolved to a point where they have opposable thumbs and can navigate simple obstacles quite readily. As an Agile organization, everyone on your team needs to be comfortable saying no to requests which challenge the methodology in which you work or jeopardize the working agreements you have in place with other departments / divisions. For humans, it’s often hard to say no and Radicals can make this harder and outright uncomfortable at times. You need to have a common redirection in place, one that everyone on your team understands and feels comfortable using. The key is that everyone must respond in the same manor and provide a near-identical response. It won’t work unless this is the case. An example of this redirection might be: “Sorry, we are in feature freeze right now, so I can’t make additional changes without jeopardizing the project schedule. You need to talk to <INSERT The Big Boss HERE> if you want that change made”. Radicals will hear this and then check with the next team member, and the next, and the next… and so on. They are looking for a weak link in the chain. If they receive the same response, take my word for it, they will go away.


I’ll be the first to admit, Radicals from time to time will have a valid reason for causing an interruption or asking for an exception, etc. When this occurs, we still need to steer them towards a less-chaotic manor of introducing the new work stream. In other words, let’s not just stop what we or everyone is doing just because they are in possession of a valid item of work. As an Agile organization, we need to have a well described process of how we accept work, what details are required before we will evaluate, how long it will take us to respond, how we will respond, etc. Effectively we are sharing the teams working agreement with other parts of the organization. The process of handling exceptions needs to be clear and available to all, so making it part of the working agreement makes sense. The working agreement is a living document that your team visits as part of your retrospectives to see if there are opportunities to modify and strengthen the contents. An example of an obstacle might be the fact that your team will not accept any User Interface (UI) items without prior receipt of PO sign-off against User Experience (UX).


Let me guess, you skipped ahead to this section didn’t you? If you did, it’s alright, but please go back and read Walls and Obstacles first. Ok, welcome back! The first two-thirds of this strategy are highly effective techniques at protecting your Agile deployment and teams from Radicals, they should be employed first and then we move to the last stage of our strategy. It’s time to rid your organization of Radicals. Trust me, it can be done. Here are some simple and proven methods to handle the job:

  • Every month, make it a goal to take a Radical to lunch. At lunch: (a) explain Agile and how your teams have adopted from 10k feet and (b) let them know in no uncertain terms, that the better they follow the process, the more work will get done for them (e.g., bribe them).
  • When a Radical follows the process correctly (listens to Walls, navigates Obstacles), go out of your way to recognize their act and do it in a public forum. Reward positive behavior and discourage Radical behavior. (Yes, the same applies to puppies).
  • Publish a list of work items completed, grouped by Radical in descending order. Display this list in a public location (e.g., Wallboard). Peer pressure will help foster non-Radical behavior.
  • If Scrum, then invite them to join a sprint review / demo, give them a front row seat to view potentially shippable product first.
  • If Kanban, them join your team when reviewing team activity. Demonstrate how the team pulls items through stages of completeness.
  • Offer to help a Radical organize and map their teams chaos into an Agile framework. Maybe show them Scrum or Kanban applied to their world. I’ve converted dozens of Radicals using this simple technique.

In other words, the best way to rid your organization of Radicals is to help them grow their knowledge of the way your teams have elected to work. By doing so, you are helping to retrain them and making their job and others more enjoyable in the process.

Does your organization suffer from Free Radicals?  If so, how are you handling them? We’d like to know, share your perspective in the comments below. Want to learn more about high performing teams? Follow @VelocityCounts for the latest blogs and podcasts.


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