Getting in Control: Focusing on the Right Things

While I will try my best to resist quoting a popular 80’s song by one Miss Janet Jackson, when embarking on an Agile adoption, we must be aware of what we can and cannot control, focusing our time and energy on the former, rather than the later.

Before getting too far with recommendations of what to do, let me first provide some background from Dr. Stephen Covey’s popular book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. To paraphrase one of the seven habits, Dr. Covey asserts there are two areas, or circles, where challenges and opportunities arise, including:

  1. Circle of Influence: These are areas in which we can do something to directly have an impact, such as our personal health routine, where you live, and the company you work for. This is where highly effective people proactively spend their time; this is where you should invest your energy.
  1. Circle of Concern: These are areas that concern you but in which you generally have little or no control, such as national debt, weather or traffic. This is where reactive people spend too much time worrying about outcomes/actions they cannot do anything about. Don’t waste your time here.

Expanding on Dr. Covey’s work and applying it more directly to a professional environment, I tend to agree with the Wily Managers that there are 3 levels. The Circle of Concern remains the same (don’t invest energy here), but another circle appears deeper within the Circle of Influence as follows:

  1. Circle of Control: These things you have direct control over, such as your actions and your responses to adversity and opportunities.
  1. Circle of Influence (redefined from Covey): These things you have indirect control over, such as other peoples’ reactions, their thoughts. But, unlike the Circle of Concern, you can still influence action or change. For example, you may influence how an employee or team member works or acts, but you can’t directly control them.

Circles of Control, Influence and Concern

What Does This Have to Do With Adopting Agile?


First, let’s focus on you. This fits entirely within the Circle of Control, where you have greatest ability to foster immediate action. For those looking to impart change during an Agile adoption, the best thing you can do is to model the behaviors you expect of others. Think about some of those core Agile principles and the Agile Manifesto. You may ask yourself:

  • Am I being transparent? Collaborative?
  • Do I limit your my own WIP?
  • Do I complete my work items in small batches and ask for feedback along the way?
  • How have I changed either the product or myself, based on feedback? Do I continuously improve?

Actions speak louder than words. Change yourself first. And when things go askew (and they will), don’t forget your reactions and responses: when you encounter adversity, you want your behaviors to likewise be in line with the Agile principles as well.


Next, let’s focus on the Circle of Influence. Who are those folks in your immediate vicinity that can help with the adoption. Whether they literally or figuratively sit next to you, these allies are critical to getting towards the behaviors and eventually outcomes you desire. The old adage of “what’s in it for me” works well in this situation. Ask yourself:

  • Why should they care?
  • What would they reasonably need in order to buy in?
  • What can you do to satisfy those needs?


When it comes to the Circle of Concern, I’d like to offer what may be considered a controversial opinion: not all stakeholders are created equal. It doesn’t mean their opinions are necessarily less valid. I’ve had some “far removed” stakeholders propose or share fantastic ideas and suggestions. But, in my experience, the more stakeholders there are, the more concerns will tend toward negative. This can be overwhelming at times, which can not only fluster the best of anyone, but also derail Agile adoptions. You have to use your judgement and experience to determine where these folks and their opinions lay in your Circles…are they in your Circle of Control, Circle of Influence, or Circle of Concern?

Many of the actions and suggestions for what Teams should do arise during Retrospectives, where teams should be brainstorming ideas on how to continuously improve. (They may appear during iterations, demos, or at other times as well…) My recommendation is for folks to take these ideas and do the following:

  1. Physically write each action/suggestion on a sticky note (one per sticky note).
  2. Just like the children’s game “pin the tail on the donkey”, place the card somewhere within the Circle of Control, Circle of Influence, or Circle of Concern. (You may wish to print out some version of the diagram above. Go on; I’ll wait.)
  3. If the action/suggestion seems to be a good idea and it appears in an outer circle (e.g. in the Circles of Influence or Concern), how would you rewrite or change the action/suggestion so it comes closer to the center of Circle of Control? Conversely, how could you expand your Circle of Control or Influence, so there is greater chance that action would actually make a greater difference?

Overall, in an Agile adoption, demands are high, expectations run rampant and time is limited; there’s only so much you can do. Focus on where you can actually make impact first. Pull that lever. Then, try to expand you Circles of Control and Circles of Influence.

And don’t sweat the Circle of Concern.

About this blog

This posting is a recap from a discussion from our recent sell-out workshop “Reenergize your Agile Adoption” in Boston, where myself and my co-trainer and colleague Tiffany Willis talked about where we should invest our time and efforts while on an Agile journey.

Sources/Further Information:

Covey, Dr. Stephen, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Simon Schuster Ltd Uk, 1990.

The Wily Managers, “Focus on Your Circle of Control”, July 2012.