The Four Horsemen

Webster Dictionary defines Transformation as:

To change in composition or structure; to change the outward form or appearance.

This can be a daunting and even challenging endeavor especially for larger organizations that have instituted policies and processes that make change difficult.

When our organization starts down the path of transformation to the new world of clean, Agile, Kanban or Scrum, our tendency is to make our current policies and processes a part of the transformational goal. Change is difficult, so let’s make it easier by not changing how we manage, let’s just transform the teams. Our managers and leaders might change later once Lean or Agile have taken hold. Sound familiar?

The new way of measuring progress and achievements pulls us out of our comfort zone. Instead of the familiar measurement techniques such as Gantt charts, project plans, and other reporting metrics, the organization will now use new “Agile” based tools.

Many organizations live and die by their metrics. They depend upon metrics to guide or inform them as to the state and health of the organization, programs, and projects. This is very typical of organizations where management is not in touch with the teams and the work. In the Scrum world teams and managers learn how to use and interpret a new tool called the burn-down chart. When used appropriately it is a fantastic tool for the team to learn and improve; when used incorrectly such as using the tool as a stick instead of a carrot the burn-down chart can lead to the appearance of one or all of the Four Horsemen.

The Four Horsemen

  1. Blaming
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Stonewalling
  4. Contempt
The Four Horsemen Metric Chart


The first of the four horsemen is Blaming. Blaming typically shows up as contempt. Individuals and teams reactions to the “blaming” tends to lead to contempt on both sides of the relationship. The team feels contempt for being unfairly measured, while management feels contempt for the teams not performing to unclear expectations.

Some organizations have a tendency to use metrics in such a way as to make the teams feel as though justify themselves based upon the metrics. Why didn’t we get this or that done; why aren’t we completing more work? Why does the burn-down chart not burn down? It is more about perspective and context; we are better served to look into the background of the chart.

A key Agile concept is to Inspect & Adapt –Observe what is happening, what is working well, what can be improved and using this information to assist the teams in understanding how to improve the situation. Turn the negative blame into a positive by embracing a change of perspective. Instead of asking why did we not succeed, ask how can we help? Or what can be learned from this chart? Transform from blame to curiosity!

If an organization truly wants to transform to an Agile mindset it needs to change the use of the tools by looking for opportunities for improvements. The impact of “blaming” on the people and teams is destructive; people won’t take risks in order to avoid being blamed for failure. Instead, change the thinking to what can be done to facilitate improving; what can we learn so we can improve.

If we understand how organizations attempt to use metrics to “force” teams to do more, we can understand how teams can get defensive about what is shown on the various metrics tools.

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The second of the horsemen is defensiveness. Defensiveness is typically seen when the relationship between the teams and management is rocky or non-communicative. That is neither the teams nor their management are being truly open and honest.

When teams are questioned as to why didn’t they finish all the stories; or why is the burn-down flat-lining; or why are more stories being pulled into a sprint? The metrics are being used as a tool “against” the teams and not “for” the team.

Again it is about changing perspective and creating curiosity. The truth of the matter is the burn-down chart is a tool for the team to use and for the team to understand where they are at in reference to the work accepted into the sprint. The team should be reading the chart with curiosity: what is the chart showing us as far as the work remaining in the sprint and our commitments for the sprint?

They should seek the truth: We added a new story because the Product Owner discovered something vital but overlooked: We discovered new work that was not understood during sprint planning: We look great, we are on track, but we haven’t been updating the tool on a regular basis. In the end, it is about resolving to discover the truth without placing blame at the team’s feet.


The third of the horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling is typically seen as passive-aggressive behavior by the teams. When push comes to shove the teams will learn how to “use” the metrics or tools to their “advantage”. That is they learn to stonewall or limit the work to their known velocity, no more no less. They will deliver what is expected of them.

Or the teams may procrastinate on getting work done, make excuses for why things are not moving as expected, or as in typical projects have issues with delivering on time or chronic lateness.

Velocity and burn-down charts are tools for comparing day to day and for looking for trends, they are not tools for precise estimation. Burn-down shows a trend, which is more accurate with more data points.

Velocity is a tool for the team to be used by the team that provides the team with the data for estimating the amount of work they may be able to consume or complete within a sprint. It is not a precise data set.


The fourth of the four horsemen is contempt. Contempt can be seen in the communications to/from the team containing barely hidden disrespect. Again why isn’t the burn-down chart showing steady progress, why is there suddenly new work on the chart, why isn’t the chart-burning down?

The organization needs to trust the teams after all the teams are hard working professionals that are trying their best to work in a new way while also delivering a new product. Trust, open and respectful communications are the key steps to addressing contempt.

The teams must be allowed and enabled to learn and grow. Transformation is a difficult task and is only all the more difficult if there is a lack of trust and respect.

This transformation process is a journey to a brave new world, one in which many things are new and different. The Agile Manifesto is a great guide into this new world. Use the Manifesto as a guide or beacon for what to measure and what to value. Embrace Individuals and interactions over process and tools; Working software over comprehensive documentation; Responding to change over following a plan.

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About the Author: Paul Mahoney

Paul Mahoney is an ORSC Certified Coach who uses a Systemic and Holistic approach in guiding the organization and people through the transformation journey. Paul's background includes Lean, Agile and Systemic thinking with experience in Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, and DAD methodologies and processes. Paul has 25+ years facilitating organizations in building continuous improvement processes that enable the client to grow, improve and learn. Specialties: Lean and Agile thinking, Organizational and systemic change processes, Scrum, Kanban, process and performance improvement, product development, product life cycle, Lean and Agile practices, product visioning, release planning, product ownership, incremental and iterative improvements/development, and facilitating organizations from deterministic decision processes to emergent/empirical based decision processes.