From Red Tape to No Tape: Maximizing Agile in Your Organization

Part 1

Companies using agile development must recognize that they won’t reap the benefits of agile without the correct organizational philosophy. Companies often don’t even realize that they are following a path that can limit agile adoption. Part one of this article describes two organizational philosophies—one that is adverse to successful agile adoption and one that facilitates the agile processes. Part two will provide guidelines for detecting a philosophy that does not support agile development and offers suggestions to align your organization’s philosophy to match your needs. You’ll have to wait until next month when I present part two of this article on recognizing and correcting organizational mis-alignment with agile principles.

Agile development is more than a collection of techniques; it’s a set of values with a key focus on people over process, team self-organization, and emergent behaviors.  Companies that try to implement agile process without adopting a supporting organizational philosophy can be disappointed with the results.  Engaging people, not just mechanically adopting agile practices and techniques, is one of the most important, difficult, and overlooked aspects of agile development. 

Many companies follow a bureaucratic organizational philosophy, which promotes a strict hierarchy, authoritative power positions, and an emphasis on maintaining conformity to the status quo. The idea is that reducing variability will increase the ability to measure performance, make control easier, and, ultimately, optimize productivity.  This orientation is influenced by McGregor’s Theory X (“The Human Side of Enterprise, Annotated Edition” by Douglas McGregor, McGraw-Hill, 2005) in which management assumes that employees must be controlled and guided by process. Often, an employee’s initiative and creative thinking is forced to fit into strictly prescribed behavioral confines of limiting the possibility of employee innovation in favor of control and predictability.

One of the tenets of agile development is valuing people over process.  By limiting people’s creative thinking, initiative, and ultimately sense of control over their work, some of the major advantages of agile are quashed;  the ability to push decisions to the level of the organization where the work is (and therefore the most is known about the work) and the ability to use many minds to collaborate in ideas.

Many industries, specifically those that practice software development under the name of agile development, have successfully implemented the relatively modern post-industrial organizational philosophy. It emphasizes decentralized and lateral control structures, team orientation, mission-based objectives, and reciprocal power relations, while highlighting employee creativity and initiative. In a post-industrial organization, evolving work routines are not only allowed, they’re encouraged. Post-industrial management subscribes to McGregor’s Theory Y—managers communicating openly, minimizing control differences between superiors and subordinate, and creating a comfortable environment in which subordinates can develop and use their abilities. The lack of formal control allows for greater freedom and creativity for employees. Once formal control is loosened, people feel empowered to make decisions and collaboration increases.  Collaboration is valued over contract negotiation and people are valued over process. 

Organizations adopting agile development often tacitly follow the bureaucratic philosophy and, consciously or not, try to implement agile using a bureaucratic method. Often, it’s the case that the organization does not realize that it is following a bureaucratic philosophy—years of behaving in a command-and-control manner can make it difficult to recognize the behavior.  Agile is practiced simply as a new series of techniques, not as a new approach to engaging their staff.   Indeed, such organizations adopt the mechanical aspects of agile development, only focusing on the simple mechanical techniques such as standups, fixed iterations, backlog, or story cards, while never implementing nor realizing the true potential of fully implementing the cultural aspects of agile methods.  The underlying culture must enable a post-industrial organizational philosophy, something that differs fundamentally from the bureaucratic philosophy.

So, what is the technological-oriented leader to do?  The first step is to recognize that one is practicing a bureaucratic orientation and to understand that such an orientation does not effectively support agility. 

Table 1 compares the bureaucratic orientation to the values of the agile manifesto, which directly support a post-industrial orientation.  The differences are significant:  responsibility and the authority for decisions are in the hands of the workers, the process is defined by those who must follow it, and collaboration is of primary importance.  This difference allows people to be engaged, responsible, and highly empowered.  When people are engaged and empowered, the quality of their work will increase.  When collaboration is higher (particularly in agile teams with pair work, whole team ownership, team estimation, and other collaboration techniques) the ideas of many minds can be brought to bear on the problems at hand and speed to market is increased – there’s less static between people.

Bureaucratic Orientation

Agile Manifesto

Develop processes and tools to standardize our interaction and maximize individual’s productivity.

Values individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Software has comprehensive documentation so that anyone can understand it.

Values working software over comprehensive documentation.

Requires strict signoff without business partners in order to plan and cost a project.

Values customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

Follows a detailed, written plan in order to minimize change and maximize predictability.

Values responding to change over following a plan.

Table 1

If you find yourself following the statements on the left, you are probably emphasizing a bureaucratic philosophy.  It’s time for a change.

The power of successful agile development is truly realized once a company makes the shift from a bureaucratic to a post-industrial organizational philosophy.  Recognizing that you are following a bureaucratic organizational philosophy isn’t always easy, but understanding the values of the agile manifesto and understanding the implications are a good step in the right direction.  Management should focus not only on the techniques of the process, but also the interactions of the team.  Only then can businesses begin to fully experience the high levels of performance afforded by using the fundamental values of agile development. 

At this point, you may be wondering if you are following the wrong philosophy, how you can tell if you’re on the wrong path, and what to do about it.  If this is the case, you’ll have to wait until next month when I present part two of this article on recognizing and correcting organizational misalignment with agile principles.


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