Is it Time for Agile Management?
When I was first exposed to Agile software development process in 2007 there was a debate about whether it was the right direction to take your software development team. Agile methods help teams build software through incremental, iterative work cadences, known as sprints. Agile methodologies are an alternative to waterfall, or traditional sequential software development.
Scrum is the most popular form of Agile and emphasizes empirical feedback, team self-management, and striving to build properly tested product increments within short iterations.
Today, there is no debate. Scrum-Agile is the accepted best practice for iterative software development.
So what about Agile for Management?
Why doesn’t the business drivers for improving the speed and quality of software development also apply to general and executive management?
First, let’s take Agile core principles, as written by Kelly Waters in 2007:
1. Active user involvement is imperative
2. The team must be empowered to make decisions
3. Requirements evolve but the timescale is fixed
4. Capture requirements at a high level; lightweight & visual
5. Develop small, incremental releases and iterate
6. Focus on frequent delivery of products
7. Complete each feature before moving on to the next
8. Apply the 80/20 rule
9. Testing is integrated throughout the project lifecycle – test early and often
10. A collaborative & cooperative approach between all stakeholders is essential
The Agile Management core principles could look something like this:
- Core purpose is to delight customers
- Focus is on continuous innovation by enabling teams to collaborate rather than controlling them.
- Transparency of business strategy, objectives and establishing unfiltered feedback loops directly from teams.
- Support the team(s) with the freedom to bend the rules, take risks, go around channels, launch experiments, and pursue their passions.
- Bottom-up Innovation cycles are iterative with a core that is passionate about customer centric scenarios
- Provide communication to coordinate team efforts in a unifying manner with distributed and decentralized decision making.
- Be customer focused. Provide political air cover for the team to stay focused on the customer. Encourage direct consumer collaboration.
- Inspire teams to encourage the growth of the full talents and capabilities of those doing the work
- Peer interactions and accountability is preferred over down top leader control and evaluations.
- Servant leadership styles enable employees to challenge the status quo, bring new ideas forward and allow authority to be decentralized.
Can traditional management keep up with the rate of change enabled by Agile Software teams?
Does it seem that Management likes to mandate change and then exempt themselves from the same set of principles?
Contrast these principles to traditional management structures where strategic goals are determined at the top with a formal top down approach to authorize and control to the authorization. To manage is to control.
Consider what happens when power and control is concentrated with a small group of individuals and pay corresponds to rank. Creativity within the organization is focused on ascending the ranks to move closer to the power circle in order to be rewarded and/or avoid being viewed as unsupportive. Promotions tend to go to those with the most political allies instead of those that are the most persistent and productive.
What results from top down structures is a culture of compliance to the structure and those in power.
Leaders at the top get highly filtered status and reports to reinforce the perception of alignment to the strategy. Rewards are given to those that get their teams to comply. Control trumps creativity. Clashes emerge to avoid being blamed when desired results are delayed or not achieved.
Should Traditional Management be challenged?
Traditional Management focus is on creating shareholder value, building profits and increasing sales. Customers are only a factor in the equation to grow revenue. Top business schools teach this approach as well. It seems right, doesn’t it? It has been this way for 100 years.
The digital revolution brings a new mindset and is disrupting traditional business models.
What if, success with profit and growth could come with sustainability by serving the customer in ways where your product or business services are essential to making life better—and long-term customer loyalty is desired over next quarter’s earnings report?
Is it any wonder that organizations embracing Agile Management concepts are amassing mind blogging levels of net income with fanatic customer loyalty and CEO’s celebrated as the 21st century rock stars?
At organizations where leaders treat employees like their most valued asset and insist their product must make life better for others, like Amazon, has more customers than the population of China; and Apple has more cash than the US Treasury.
If you examine how companies that disrupt an industry manage–common traits emerge:
- The company won’t rest until it solves a problem; and that truly makes life better.
- The company’s sole focus is on the customer.
- Willing to forego short term gains in order to invest for long term success.
- Employees are included in equity grants, empowered to bring new ideas forward and supported when they are challenging the status quo.
- Employees are passionate about the vision and see themselves as making it happen; engagement is very high.
Traditional managed companies pale in comparison. Without a fundamental shift—traditional managed companies will be fighting for the scraps. You can’t endorse a top-down authority structure and be serious about being passionate for your customer, enhancing adaptability, driving innovation, or increasing employee engagement.
21st Century companies are putting more pressure on their competition by disrupting traditional business models. Idea-intensive companies like Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft and Google plow profits into new products, and markets, see their stock prices raising.
We are in the midst of a paradigm change in management.
For Tech companies that are disrupting industries–Agile concepts are a natural extension of their management philosophies from successful software development programs.
Tech companies born in the last 20 years are not tied to the old management structures of the past 100 years. The innovation solutions were accompanied new management paradigms that have roots in their most successful software development projects.
Most organizations have pockets of managers attempting to implement the new paradigm of Agile Management. They do so in the face of “that’s not how we do things around here”. With established processes, routines and attitudes come “politics” and those values shape the culture. In a traditional organization the transition Agile Management can be difficult.
I know first-hand the challenges and rewards that come with leading as an Agile Manager in a traditional management structure. What gave me the greatest hope was the overwhelming positive response from my teams to be lead in an agile way. Once you start leading in an authentic way you won’t want to lead any other way.
If you want to push for change in your organization—find those pockets of authentic leaders using agile management principles and give them your full support.