Addressing “Management Defects”

The momentum of business agility is building, and as it does there will be consequences and side effects. The values and principles of Agile should cause us to completely re-think the ways in which we look at the future of our organizations, and to be prepared to use these lessons to make substantial changes in the way we approach producing value. The greatest of all challenges is making certain that the principles and values we teach so enthusiastically to our development teams also take root in organizational leadership.

Decentralizing Problem Solving and Decision Making

One of the many conundrums we face is what I call the “Somebody Else’s Problem” anti-pattern. It frequently manifests as a leadership behavior when servant leaders at every operational level of an organization think Agility is for “other people” to do. For an Agile transformation to succeed, it must be a complete structural transition where knowledge workers and leadership work together to improve the efficiency of every aspect of value flow. There is no “somebody else” to lay blame on when transformation becomes dysfunctional. The essence of Agile is that collective ownership should be sufficient to give impetus to changing the way we think about “who owns the work.” The phrases “my code” and “my tests” are disappearing from our collective vocabulary, and “the work I manage” should be the next to go.

Agile is not a product – it is a framework of ideas, patterns and techniques to help organizations focus on maximizing value and quality. An Agile organization, therefore, is one where leadership allow the day-to-day decisions to be made by teams and individuals. Maximal value flow cannot be achieved when everyone is mired by the process of getting approval or asking for permission over and over again to do the work a team perceives as routine. After all, who knows best how to get the work done than the knowledge workers closest to the it? Management MUST learn to trust their teams. Management MUST learn to let go. If that does not happen, expect severe difficulties in any transformation.

“Letting go is the lesson. Letting go is always the lesson. Have you ever noticed how much of our agony is all tied up with craving and loss?”

― Susan Gordon Lydon, The Knitting Sutra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice

There is an inherent fundamental flaw built into many organizations – they are using the techniques and mentality that had been developed over the course of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Organizations are still constructed as if they are performing simple, repetitive industrial manufacturing or service tasks. In the pre-computer world, efficiency was easy to scale since information and materials traveled relatively slowly. Now that technology changes so rapidly and volatility has become so impactful, as soon as we check in a line of code, its value seems to immediately begin to decay.

Management as Transformation Impediment

For an organization to transform, all involved parties need to be willing to change. In my experience as an enterprise Agile coach and consultant, the most common cause of transformation dysfunction is that management roles in an enterprise Agile organization are poorly defined and described. People who worked hard for years to attain positions of authority in an organization often have issues with the idea of “servant leadership.” Although a popular phrase to be certain, it does not seem to be embraced at all levels of enterprise Agility.

Fear of change and fear of failure are also important personal drivers. In many organizations, the watchwords are “This is how we always do it” or “This is how things are done here”. These sentiments are also due to cultural nostalgia as well as the sensation that people will be “judged” by the success or failure of the transformation. It is vitally important that management focus on the production of value and quality and not get too deep into the day-to-day activities of teams or over-focus on metrics.

Under New Management

Fortunately, there are many things that managers and leaders can do to create stewardship of an Agile organization so that it is in the hands of servant leaders rather than micro-managers:

  • Management MUST understand and commit to the principles of Agile, Lean, SAFe or whatever is pertinent to a degree that is compatible with expectations on their team force.
  • Commitment is a two-way street and is based on mutual trust, not fear or coercion.
  • Stop being a “boss” – let your knowledge workers do their thing. Teams cannot relax and create awesome work without autonomy, time and space to be reflective and innovative.
  • Don’t focus on process or command-and-control or insist on a sea of team metrics.
  • Treat your team members like they are real people with feelings. Do not refer to people as “resources.” Crude oil and coal, database servers and computers, are resources.
  • Provide an environment of cooperation and learning. Make sure teams are not pressured to work so hard that they miss out on important time for creative and team building activities, or family and personal activities. Do not create a culture where people are expected to work longer hours than is necessary; such a culture and organization are unsustainable long term.
  • Encourage and praise daring thinking, which may even be disruptive. Remember – your competitors are trying to think how to beat you at your own game. Creative solutions are one of the key elements in improving market position and staying ahead.

“Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.”

― Paul Hawken

We must continually remind ourselves that there is no “us” and “them”; we are all in the same boat together. All organizations need management, but it is Agile leadership that makes an Agile organization efficient and enduring.