People Must Be Told What To Do

“We have to tell our teams what to do or they just won’t do it.”

How many times have you thought this? How many times have you had a conversation like this?

People in general are great at externalizing blame. When something goes wrong, we look at the people involved, and push blame outwards.

When something goes wrong and we’re involved, we blame some weird, random circumstance that was un-expected.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in an organization where someone, usually a manager or higher, team lead or someone in a position of authority says “I have to tell them what to do…they have to be told what to do.”

I recently ran a workshop with mostly Agile folks who were trying to figure out how to get others in their organization to be more Agile.

When I arrived, the room was setup classroom style: long tables with a pulpit at the front for me to talk at people for a day.

When half the people were in the room, I told them that 70% of the day would be doing work in small groups. I also told them this on the pre-workshop survey.

Then I asked if they thought the room setup was good for them to do group work. A few pairs of un-caffeinated eyes looked up, looked around, and went back to checking their email.


Then the workshop started. I had the group write down the change challenges they hoped they’d get an answer to. I asked them to form groups of no more than 5 people based on having similar challenges.

I gave them 15 minutes to do this. After 8 or 9 minutes, someone started clustering the stickies and eventually they formed groups. Once group asked if they could have 6 people instead of 5, I said that was ok.

Then they were stuck.

“are we supposed to go back to our seats now?”

“should we switch seats with others so we’re closer to our group members?”

People were randomly walking around the room and one person suggested they re-arrange the tables.

No one listened.

I echoed back his statement because I wasn’t sure everyone heard him.


“Maybe we can sit in rows, then move into our groups for the work, then move back to our seats”

“Can we go do our work in the cafeteria?”

“Is it ok if we re-arrange the tables?”

My brain said. “What the fuck is wrong with these people??? It’s been almost 30 minutes, somebody DO SOMETHING!!!”

Luckily my outside voice said, “It’s your groups, you can organize however you feel is the most effective.”

Then they re-arranged the room and the energy level went through the roof.

The tables, they're a movin'
The tables, they’re a movin’

I asked them what the process of writing their change challenges, forming groups and re-arranging the room was like.


Then someone said, “I thought it was interesting that we assume people in our organizations have to be told what to do, but that’s exactly what happened here. We were waiting for you to tell us how to organize. We thought you’d know best how to organize since it’s your workshop.

There is some truth to that. I’ve done a number of these workshops. I know that a classroom setup sucks. We end up with a question of who’s responsible for what.

Was it the organizers responsibility to setup the room the way I asked? Was it my responsibility to re-organize the room when I got there to setup? Who’s workshop was it? Mine? Theirs?

My stance was, it’s their workshop. They’ll get out of it what they put into it. I can’t force people to learn anything. The best I can do is create conditions for them to have an ‘aha!’ moment.

The discussion from there evolved into how sometimes change is a wait-and see proposition. The people who want to push the change get impatient when they don’t see action. When they don’t see action, they interject. The more they interject, the more other people will wait until they’re instructed to do something because it’s learned behaviour. It is not, in any way shape or form, related to the competence or motivation of the people. There’s always another underlaying reason.

Another possible answer could be that this group didn’t have a strong bias towards action. During the workshop we explore what our own natural preferences are through a brief survey that helps us figure out what our temperament is:


A = Guardian (Values structure)

B = Rationalist (Values logic and ideas)

C = Idealist (Values people)

D = Artisan (Values action)

This is by no means a scientific measure! This is simply a quick check to see what our group dynamic is.Our dynamic showed that this group was biased towards logic and ideas. In this dynamic, it’s typical for more conversation, more ideas and less action. Combine that with the bias towards people, it’s possible there’s a dynamic of making sure everyone has a voice and we agree without conflict.

By contrast, a previous workshop was comprised of a group of people who were more biased towards action:


Any instructions for an exercise were immediately acted upon. Any suggestion by a participant was immediately acted upon.

Of course there is more going on than this. Culture, experience and learned behaviour plays a role in the perception that people have to be told what to do.

Every group is different but I’ve never encountered a group that didn’t take action eventually. Some simply started more slowly than others for whatever reason.

During a shift to Agile, this effect is magnified because the people responsible for making Agile work end up pushing when they should be waiting. They’re pushing because they’re measured by getting Agile to work, not because they’re ‘bad people’. Then when they don’t see progress, they blame the people for having to be told what to do.

What are some options for dealing with this problem?

  • wait
  • ask people, “It seems to me nothing is happening, what’s going on?”
  • observe and gain insights into what is going on before acting
  • make your change work visible and use a red sticky note to ‘block’ the change where you’re not seeing any progress. When some asks “why is this blocked?” tell them you haven’t seen any tangible outcome yet. Maybe that will spark the team to take action on it.
  • be explicit at the start of a change experiment that you want to review it in two weeks to see how it’s going
  • wait
  • There’s no magic in creating urgency for change (hint: asking people “what’s the urgency?” is a bad question). Change will happen when the pain of not changing exceeds the perceived pain of working through the change.

That said, people rarely (if ever) need to be told what to do. Sometimes they might need a nudge, but really, they need to care about the change before they’ll act on it.

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