Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vive La Revolution!

In the agile revolution, are managers the over privileged aristocracy? And if so, why is nobody shouting “Off with their heads!”

I must confess there is a reason I’m partial to agile software development that might unnerve some people: I like its dark underbelly, that thread of anti-establishment flowing through it. You won't find that much on this explicitly in the Scrum guide or other key agile works. But hang out in the right places and you'll discover it's there.

Much agile thought has an egalitarian, meritocratic theme that recognizes the need for leaders in a team but simultaneously discourages hierarchies, superiority through tenure or job title and rattles the cage of old school authority. I love the shunning of traditional command and control management, the respect for people that do the work as competent individual professionals who can be trusted. And I share the distaste held by many agile practitioners for practices like detailed estimates in hours that are used to berate you later, ridiculously detailed timesheets, performance reviews and meaningless certification. These things have never sat right with me.

I’ve never been very good with rules mind you. I don’t like being told what to do or how to do it. I don’t like speed limits of 35mph when, clearly, it would be OK to go 40mph. I don’t like signs that say the park isn’t open until 6am (what if I want to go hike at 5.45am one summer morning?) I could go on, but you get the idea I’m sure… This is why so much of the thinking emanating from the agile community resonates with me.

All of which sentiment got me thinking about agile as a kind of revolution. And if it’s a revolution, who’s the aristocracy? Shouldn’t heads be rolling for the waterfall mess and soul destroying corporate drivel that preceded this?

Clearly the new nobility is management. But should their heads be on the chopping block? Take a look at this for a moment. It’s a spoof of the original agile manifesto put together by Kerry Buckley.

We have heard about new ways of developing software by
paying consultants and reading Gartner reports. Through
this we have been told to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
and we have mandatory processes and tools to control how those
individuals (we prefer the term ‘resources’) interact

Working software over comprehensive documentation
as long as that software is comprehensively documented

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
within the boundaries of strict contracts, of course, and subject to rigorous change control

Responding to change over following a plan
provided a detailed plan is in place to respond to the change, and it is followed precisely

That is, while the items on the left sound nice
in theory, we’re an enterprise company, and there’s
no way we’re letting go of the items on the right.

It’s funny. Except it’s probably all too real in some organizations. And who makes it real? Managers. Managers drafting and implementing policy. Managers policing those policies. Managers punishing people who fail to adhere to the new policies.

But we know it’s not right. We know it’s not mean to be that way. Moreover, we’re empowered, self-organizing, self-managing teams. Do we need them any more? Can’t we vote these charlatans off the island?

Well, as someone who’s gone back and forth between individual contributor and management roles more than once I can tell you without doubt, the answer is no. Sorry about that. Yes, you really do need some organizational structure in most contemporary organizations. You do still need departmental directors and line managers and so on.

Regrettably there is an extraordinary amount of work to be done that is best suited to those outside a basic agile team. There’s financial stuff: setting budgets, planning growth, managing remuneration, capital expenditure etc. There’s medium and long term planning, setting strategy. There’s market research, marketing and PR for a group, internal and external. There’s HR, pastoral care, career development. There’s departmental coordination, networking, finding internal opportunities, connecting people together to achieve things neither could independently. There’s politics: negotiating for office space, people, budget, processes and practices that are fair and equitable. And there’s more than this too.

Could you turn every group in a large organization into an agile team, with their own backlog? Could you treat them all as peers and dispense with a great deal of hierarchy? Well maybe. But it’s a long time until something like that becomes the norm, and in the interim, even if we are in the midst of an agile revolution, beheading management is not the way to go, even if there are some that deserve it ;-)

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