Agile management

A friend at work posted a link to the following article:

I’m Sorry, But Agile Won’t Fix Your Products

and I started to write a quick note but thought it deserved a bigger response


Okay, so, I agree with pretty much all of the article.

As is often the case, I went and wrote some analysis, didn’t like it, tried to make it better, and ended up abandoning it to write something else. I agree with the comments in the article about command-and-control, but I think there is another aspect that is worth discussing. I’ll note that some of this is observational rather than experiential.

Collectively, management tends to value conformity pretty highly. If, for example, your larger group creates two-year products plans, you will be asked about your two-year product plans and – even if you have a great reason for only doing three-month plans that your manager agrees with – you will become an outlier. Being an outlier puts you at risk; if, for example, things don’t go as well as expected for you, there is now an obvious cause for the problem – your nonconformity. Or, your manager get promoted, and the new manager wants two-year plans.

This effect was immortalized in a saying dating back to the days of mainframes:

Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM…

Because of this effect, you end up with what I call a “Group Monoculture”, where process is mostly fixed, and inefficiency and lack of progress are fine as long as they are the status quo.

It is a truism that, whatever skills they might also possess, there is one commonality amongst all the managers; they possess the ability to be hired and/or promoted in the existing corporate culture. That generally means that they are good at following the existing process and good at conformity. This reinforces and cements the monoculture. Any changes that happen are driven from high up the chain and just switch the group to a different monoculture.

Different is bad, which, last time I checked, was not one of the statements in the Agile Manifesto…

How can agility happen in such an org? Well, it happens due to the actions of what I call process adapters. A process adapter adapts the process that exists above a group in the organization to be closer to the process that the team wants to have. For example, the adapter might keep that two-year plan up to date but allow the team below to work as if short planning cycles were the norm. Or an adapter might adapt the team’s one-week iteration cycle to the overall group’s 12-week cycle.

Adaptation is not a panacea. The adaptation is always imperfect and some of the process from above leaks down, and it can be pretty stressful to the adapter; they are usually hiding some details from their manager, fighting battles so that they can be different, and running a very real career risk. As their team gets more agile and self-guided, the adaptation gets more leaky, and the adapter runs more risks; the whole thing can be derailed by investing time in reducing technical debt which slows them down, some unexpected questions by the agile team members to management, or the adapter getting a new manager.

I’ve seen quite a few first-level (aka “lead”) adapters; leads tend to be focused more down at their team than up and out and can usually get away with more non-conformity; leads are viewed as less experienced and there’s often a feeling that they should have a lot of latitude in how they run their teams. Leads are also more likely to be senior and technically astute, which gives them more options to “explore different opportunities” both inside and outside the company.

I haven’t seen any second-level adapters be successful for more than a year or so, though I have seen a few try really hard.

Sometimes, adapters get promoted into the middle of the hierarchy or are hired from outside. This is often a frustrating position for the adapter. As Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty wrote back in 1972:

Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right,
Here I am
Stuck in the middle…

One of two things tend to happen.

Either the adapter gets frustrated with the challenges of adapting and trying to drive broader change and decide to do something else, or the adapter gets promoted higher. Further promotion often doesn’t have the hoped-for effect; as the adapter moves up they get broader scope, and the layers underneath them are managed by – you guessed it – the rank and file managers who are devoted to the existing monoculture. Not to mention that the agile “teams are self-organizing and drive their own approach” tenet means that adapters tend to give less direction to their reports.