It is unlikely that General Washington had his orders questioned while crossing the Delaware the way many Agile leaders do. Agile / News

Agile Leadership Can Lead To Conflict In The Office.

No one will admit to being against change or an enemy of progress, especially at a high tech company. If only this were true. Unfortunately it does not take massive societal movements to bring out the worst in people as even the smallest changes can lead to some really bad behavior in the workplace. This week on The Guardian Podcast, Ryn Melberg describes in detail some of the best practices for leaders who are incorporating Agile and Scrum as part of their management and project leadership style and some of the brutish and aberrant behavior that she has experienced while introducing it.

It is unlikely that General Washington had his orders questioned while crossing the Delaware the way many Agile leaders do.

It is unlikely that General Washington had his orders questioned while crossing the Delaware the way many Agile leaders do.

The Agile Team

Under Agile and Scrum the team is the team and its members are the center of all activity. Each team in Agile is self directed and self motivated. This is far different than what traditional managers are accustomed to. Most leadership in the workplace relies on the manager to organize, prioritize and assign all the work to be done. On an Agile team individual members have responsibilities that they must perform as part of an integrated approach to accomplishing well defined objectives in a defined period of time with accountability to the other team members, not just a single manager. “This type of approach is so different than what most middle managers are used to that it makes them very uncomfortable,” Ryn told her podcast audience. “Most of these ‘command and control’ leaders believe that without them leading and directing the work will not get done when the opposite is true.”

To illustrate the point, Ryn described the difference in atmosphere and expectations that come from an Agile team to one led using command and control. “The best knowledge workers do not want to be micro-managed because it removes any creative problem solving and replaces it with rote task accomplishment,” she said. “The best and brightest knowledge workers will leave because of this industrial approach to doing high tech work.” Ryn also explained that the best knowledge workers are motivated by purpose.

Start With Why

Everyone needs a sense of purpose. Knowing ‘why’ is an important motivator for the best knowledge worker. “When knowledge workers know why they are working on something, who it is for, how it is better than what is currently available, and how the customer and end users will benefit, it is very motivating,” Ryn said. “On the other hand, when these same people are told to simply ‘follow orders’ they become disenchanted very quickly.”  The results of an Agile team  led by command and control are typically sub-par compared to others who enjoy the independence that comes with the Agile approach.

The Servant Leader

Ryn believes that in place of the old fashioned ‘command and control’ model of leadership, that the servant leader model is the one that provides the best possibility for teams using Agile, Scrum or even more traditional Waterfall approaches. “The servant leader is one who is motivated by fulfilling the needs of others first rather than exercising some type of power or authority over them,” Ryn said. “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. This is a far different approach and it makes some really uncomfortable.”

Undermining The Agile Team

Middle managers will often undermine an Agile team by asking for status reports or re-assigning Agile team members to different work. “In Agile, we should report on the value we deliver and not on what we are doing,” Ryn stated. “Similarly, the team members have very specific roles. When an outside manager changes those assignments it not impacts his direct report but causes the entire team to be re-formed and re-assigned. The only way to avoid this kind of meddling is to make certain that executives in the organization are committed to the Agile approach enough to prevent outside interference.”

Name Calling

Ryn also described some of the horrific behavior she has been subjected to and undermining of Agile teams by insecure middle managers who were only motivated by preserving their influence. “Think of the worst things a female can be called and I have been called them, all because middle level leaders felt threatened by Agile,” she said. “The truth was that if these folks had allowed the Agile process to work, they would have received credit for performing above expectations. But they settled for what was familiar and comfortable instead of opting for more efficient and profitable.”


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