Management and leadership in an Agile world

A dimension that is not very often discussed in all the buzz regarding
the ongoing agile transformations in the world of systems and software
development, is the dimension of *management paradigm* (for lack of a
better expression), i.e. the “philosophy” and practices of the
management roles in the organization.  I have not seen very many
articles or presentations on what a transition to agile ways of
working implies for the management roles, e.g. how those roles, and
the practices within those roles,  will and must change.

Traditional organizations are to a high degree based on a traditional
hierarchical organizational structure, with “command & control” type
of communication and decision making: information about customers,
markets etc is supposed to flow upwards in the hierarchy, where the
almighty powers with the necessary knowledge and processing power use
this information to craft plans and decisions, and then the plans,
decisions, commands and actions etc flow downwards in the hierarchy,
where ultimately the “organizational leafs” – the human automations in
the trenches – are responsible for executing the plan. The nodes in
between the top node and the leafs are mostly there to “police” the
execution, i.e. to ensure that all the plans, decisions and commands
are executed as decided at the top, and to provide frequent reporting

Now, when organizations transform themselves to the world of agility,
they will be forced to change not only their processes, methods, ways-
of-working,facilities or tools,  but even more importantly – for the
transformation to succeed – they will have to change their
organizational structures, communication patterns and not least their
management philosophy.

To go agile means going from the traditional command & control deep
hierarchy type of organization, to a tightly connected network type of
org.structure, very much like social networks and communities such as
Open Source projects, Facebook etc, which are governed under the rule
of “maximum six degrees of separation”, i.e. the hop count from any
node to any other node in the new organization will have a maximum
number of six steps, regardless of the size of the organization.

To me, it’s obvious that one of the most fundamental changes that will
have to happen when organizations now “go agile”, is within the role
of management, and it will be very interesting to see whether the
current generation of managers, particularly those who have grown up
and made a career  in traditional (non-agile) organizations, will be
able to cope with the changes now being demanded.

For instance, one thing I expect we will be seeing in this new world
of flat, networked agile organizations, is that today’s frequent
occurrences of “context free management”, i.e. managers and management
roles whose prime purpose is to control (monitor) execution of
predefined practices, tasks and processes, but without possessing any
deeper knowledge or insights of either the domain in which the
organization operates, nor about the various “crafts” (workflow
contents) involved in the production of the organizations products,
will eventually disappear.  Future management will to a much higher
degree be a true meritocracy, where the merit that counts is not  just
the ability to execute against a predefined plan, but instead requires
a deep understanding and knowledge about the business the organization
operates in, of  business matters as well as the technical matters
involved, as well as an ability to make snap decisions in a rapidly
changing world.

An other thing that will be expected from managers in these new
organizations is to cope with uncertainty: in traditional
organizations, managers were given the illusion of control by frequent
and detailed reporting. In an agile world, where much of the decision
making occurs in realtime in a highly shared common context (F2F)
between peers, there is no time nor value in producing these detailed
reports anymore, which will result in many managers feeling lost and
out of control.

Finally, I believe we will see much more demands on true “leadership”
for the managers of these agile organizations. To me, the difference
between “being a leader” and “being a manager” in most of today’s
organizations is unfortunately huge. I have met and interacted  with
literally thousands of managers over the years, but only a handful of
these managers have also been what I’d call “leaders”.  The
traditional managerial role stems from the early industrialization,
and is fundamentally based on the Tayloristic principles of division
of labor into the smallest and most trivial chunks possible. The
fundamental role of management in these Tayloristic organizations was
to monitor execution to ensure that the “machine” executed according
to the grand plan. While this approach might have been successful in
the early industries, I personally doubt this will work in a modern
knowledge industry with high demands on innovation and continuous
learning.  The people in these new industries don’t need to be
monitored, the role of mgmt has become one of facilitator and
motivator instead of a controller.

Machines need controllers to monitor and correct their execution, but
machines do not need leaders, because machines relentlessly do what
they are told to do anyway,  until they eventually break.
Professional humans, on the other hand, do not need controllers, but
they need leaders to provide the means and inspiration for getting the
job done.

For a while ago, I received this “definition” of the difference
between (traditional) management and true leadership:

“A manager is someone who tells me to do something he wants to have
done. A leader is someone who makes me want to do something he wants
to have done”.


About swdevperestroika

High tech industry veteran, avid hacker reluctantly transformed to mgmt consultant.
This entry was posted in Management, Organization and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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