The Truth About Agile Management, And How It Can Help You

Laurens Bonnema

The truth about agile management is that there's too little of it. So little in fact, that there are those who believe it does not exist. Or worse, that it should not exist.

Many companies are switching to an agile approach. As a result, wave upon wave of agile transformations strike at the heart of classic reductionism. Some are absorbed, others just dissipated or reflected.

When an organization absorbs agile, it truly groks the concept of continuous improvement. Of striving for perfection in order to find ways to improve ever more. For these companies, the question is never “how agile are we?” They ask themselves “what's next?” They structure and restructure themselves accordingly. Depending on the experiment at hand, they adopt a set of practices to maximize the chance of a positive outcome. Sometimes this requires less management, sometimes more.

Examples of truly agile organizations are Semco, Google and Toyota. They differ widely in their specific approach to management, ranging from practically non-existent to incredibly pervasive. But they have one thing in common. All three companies unapologetically strive for perfection in everything they do, believing firmly that the people that work for them are crucial to their success.

Most organizations though, don't absorb agile, but rather dissipate it. They start doing agile, in stead of becoming it. This is where Scrum-but rules supreme. There's always a reason to tweak your process. Sometimes it's even a good one. There's never a good reason to set your process in stone though. And that's what happens in most organizations that adopt agile by dissipation. They adopt the practices, not the philosophy. And it's the philosophy that leads to the practices, not the other way around.

Some organizations even reflect, or rather deflect, agile. Sometimes, they point out the fact that in their opinion there's little scientific evidence supporting the contention that agile works better than the alternatives. I've fallen into that trap many times. I've sent scores of scientific reports supporting small, multidisciplinary teams, no multitasking, whole-team estimation and planning, and iterative development to nay-sayers. All to no avail. It's not about the evidence. It's about belief. When key executives don't believe agile can work for the organization, it won't.

In my experience, for an organization to effectively leverage agile, executive support is essential.

For Semco to become the communalist company it is today, it took a lot of effort from the Chief Executive, Ricardo Semler, to make it so. To grow Google into the internet behemoth it is today, its founders hired an experienced manager to guide the company. Similarly, to become the epitome of continuous improvement it is today, Toyota invested heavily in more effective management practices and continues to do so.

Like it or not, we need management. And we need management to be able to absorb agile in stead of dissipating or deflecting it. To do so, managers need to embrace complexity and non-linear thinking.

Organizations are essentially collections of structures and strategies. They are dynamic networks of interactions that tend to self-organize or mutate based on events. As such, they can be categorized as complex adaptive systems. To understand them, one must be able to think in a non-linear fashion, because in these kind of systems cause and effect are not self-evident, nor are results inherently repeatable. In other words, in most organizations one could do exactly the same thing twice, and get a different result. For old-school managers, this is frustrating. They try to change this by willing the organization to be not a complex system, but an ordered one. For agile managers, this is obvious. They work with the organization as a complex system, probing, sensing, and responding their way to success.

In order for management to effectively surf the waves of agile transformation, managers will have to become more agile themselves.

To become more agile themselves, managers must bridge the chasm of cognitive dissonance between classic reductionism and modern holism in management thinking. When hierarchical managers embrace complexity and non-linear thinking, they effectively become agile managers.

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