Recently, I have talked with managers in the organization that uses some of the agile techniques. They were looking for somebody who will supervise and manage their Agile adoption. I was unsure after reading their ad whether to respond or not but decided to talk to them anyway to learn more. Agile is not well defined. I asked them to describe to me what does the word Agile means for them. Then I presented my vision. I have learned over the years that asking for details can prevent misunderstandings. It clarifies the underlying problem and lets us better understand each other. Only then do we start drawing our new journey, how to be and work together.
During the discussion, I observed two different perspectives. In my understanding, the agile organization is a living organism. That is why I started my presentation with a bit of the history and evolution of Agile, its purpose, different types of stakeholders, and their dependencies. I mentioned the importance of the company culture and underlying agile values, including growing people and helping them become proactive and engaged. I described my views on the cultivation of work environment, cross-departmental collaboration, stakeholders, and creating knowledge. Knowledge creation is an essential component for good engineering practices, teams setups, and organization of work. It helps us with removing bureaucracy and politics. It enables delegating decisions making authority to people and eventually supports redesigning the structure and value flow. Agile is about the delivery of value to multiple types of stakeholders. Faster and certainly in parallel, so no stakeholder is ignored or omitted.
On the other hand, their understanding of agile organization is a machine. I have noticed a technocratic view probably formed by one of those big consultancies. Their viewpoint was limited to squads (because they found something called Spotify model somewhere), Scrum, and OKR. No employees, no customers, and nothing that would somehow improve the lives of the stakeholders. No mention of engineering practices and only some general ideas about company culture. The people I was talking with were also much younger than me. It was no surprise then that they never heard about big names of Agile — Gilb, Poppendieck, Cockburn, Snowden, and many more. Their focus was on expansion at all costs to improve valuation and perhaps gain market share. Organization of work is an unnecessary delay that does not contribute to exponential growth.
What is the purpose of the organization?
Is it to maximize money-making and growth at all costs? Is it ok in 2021 to ignore organizational social responsibility? When an organization tries to reach its goals through maintaining chaos, it usually results in stress, fluctuation, and employee disengagement. If the aspirations are fuzzy, aims are high, and nothing else matters, the outcomes often lead to gaming the results and toxicity.
I researched on the Internet to find out whether I can find what their employees say about their company. And I found something. In the ranking of companies as good places to work, their ranking was around 50%. It is significantly below average. The company is full of young people who do not recognize yet bad or illegal managerial practices. I found stories describing the toxic behavior of the superiors. Even if half-true, these would be sufficient for disciplinary action or eventually termination of a work contract. People mentioned wrong processes, financial penalties without explanation, lack of respect, stress, frequent changes, and ad-hoc decisions that prevent them from planning holidays or personal life. I can only speculate here. It seems to me, based on age, that these managers do not have (any) previous managerial formation, life experience, or access to mentoring that would help them to form their thinking and behavior. I am afraid that when an organization runs on steroids, it demands or tolerates such toxic behaviors. And it also produces the people who select shortcuts and cheating as an attitude, which deteriorates their possibilities to succeed.
I help organizations to transform for a decade now. My experience shows that it is rarely sustainable to achieve good performance through constant pushing, threats, aggressive and maliciously proposed incentives, or even illegal practices. We regularly gain many more when we create a safe to fail culture of learning based around values, transparency and crafted to reinforce individual strengths. It is a source of innovation and value delivery. Engineering practices, Scrum, suitable frameworks, and collaboration pop up almost naturally then. Once foundations are cemented and firm, we can speed up. Instead of sprinting, we rather switch to a marathon and tailor its performance to perfection. Similar ideas also propose Eric Ries, a founder of The Lean Startup. Recently he founded LTSE (Long Term Stock Exchange) to promote long-term sustainability, which leads to value creation and breakthrough innovations over short-term focus, which results in hazardous tradeoffs. In my opinion, it is this cherry-picking that misuses Agile.
As you can guess, we haven’t found common ground for collaboration with people in this company. We both see a world a bit differently. They will continue to look for somebody who is more compliant with their version of Agile.
My questions to you and the agile community: What is your version of Agile? Are you closer to one of these perspectives? Living organism addressing people or a machine? Or do you have a view completely different? Is the growth reinforced by the doses of steroids that important for organizational health, sustainability, and value delivery? Do we have dual-speed Agility? The one for long-term sustainable business. And another one that cherry-picks a handful of techniques to be used by extreme hype and doped companies.
About the author:
Michal Vallo dedicates to creating learning organizations as a precondition for Agile adoption. He shares his experience with HR departments and managers who are in desperate need of radical innovation. He has experience from both sides, which led him to create better recruitment practices and the course Agile Recruiter. Michal helps managers to understand agile techniques, benefit from their adoption and consequently radically improve organizational performance. Feel free to contact him if you need help with your HR department or agilization of your organization.