Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Guide: Agile Leadership (4) - Support, don't impede

The fourth part in this agile leadership series is the question: "What can I do to increase the effectiveness in my company?" The answer is simple: Clear the way. Here are five anti-patterns for managing in an agile environment, including ways to improve your behaviour.

Controls and Reports

Probably every form of control and report existing in your company has only one objective: Cover someone's behind in case something goes wrong. None of them has the purpose of actually advancing whatever strategy you are pursuing. Likewise, asking people to give you explicit status updates only covers your own ignorance regarding what is going on: What will you do with this information? Will you use that to benefit those doing the work?

There is a better way than reporting: Gemba, a fundamental Lean technique. Without soliciting information that forces people to interrupt their work, start looking around what people are actually doing and asking appropriate questions to learn what is going on.


It's very tempting to ask people to do something that helps whatever goal you currently have in mind, but - as mentioned previously - this disrupts whatever else they are doing. Plus, you need to think of the consequences that the work you are just generating has on the primary objective of your organization. Most of the things that come to your mind are just that: Work, or Non-value adding activity. For example, you want a weekly coordination meeting for your division: These meetings are dreaded by all except those who call for them. You're not helping anyone, much less your organization's profitability by demanding others to do things. There is pretty much nothing a manager can ask from a self-organized team which actually benefits the company.

Get the question "Who can do this..." out of your head. To have any purpose for your existence as a manager in an agile organization, your primary question should be: "How can I help you". However, be aware that you may lack information on the consequences of your actions, so be cautious where you tread.

Fixed Structure

You have proably spent a lot of time setting up the structure in your sphere of control to optimize whatever goals were important in the past. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this structure is still consistent with being agile, i.e. the ability to act easily, fast and cheap on changing circumstances. This might include old hierarchies as well as corresponding roles, meetings and reporting chains. Treating any of these as sacred will result in sub-optimization. Scrum does not consider a "manager" role, and this is no accident. Management structure is not necessary to succeed, although managers always find reasons why their role should exist.

Rather than justifying their existence, try finding reasons why your role and structures under your control should not exist, then work towards making this happen. As a manager, you are most valuable when you tear down any kind of structure which blocks those who actually do productive work.

No-Go areas

The worst kind of impediment a team can face is a no-go area, a red line that can't be crossed even when it's essential to succeed. For example, a no-go area could be BYOD: What is the reason for a no-byod policy? Typically, no-gos are driven by fear, sometimes irrational, sometimes based on anecdotal evidence. But how can you succeed as long as fear of negative things drives your thoughts?

As a manager, you should identify the no-go areas in your company and remove the "Stop" signs, so that people can do what actually makes sense. Lead by example, show courage instead of cowering to suppressing fear.

Prescriptive solutions

Some old-school managers still cling to the concept that somehow, they are smarter, more knowledgable or more intelligent than their subordinates. While that may have been a merited concept a hundred years ago, it most certainly is not a useful premise in the age of creative work. If anything, managers might have focused their education on a different domain than others. Domain specific work that can't be done automated in the 21st century tends to be so intricate that managers who are not actively doing it can barely comprehend it. How would you prescribe an appropriate approach that you can't grasp?

When you feel things are moving in a wrong direction, do not fall for the temptation of prescribing a remedy. Much rather, spend time on educating your staff what the problems are, help them gain a deeper understanding regarding potential approaches - and let them work out their own solutions.


Probably the hardest part in agile management is accepting that you either are superfluous - or you are doing something wrong. Nothing you can do "down the line" will benefit your company.
But what you can do is go "to the side" (into other organizational areas) and "up the line" (higher in the hierarchy) to resolve impediments.

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