Update from the Agile Business Conference
Deciding when to intervene on projects

Agile Methods as a Replacement for Fossil Fuels

(Well, a replacement to non-sustainable work practices at least)Alternative_fuels_2

Command-and-control management is not appropriate for workers who need to collaborate and solve problems. These knowledge workers need work environments where experimentation is rewarded, people are encouraged to pursue their interests, and shared leadership is the preferred model.

Command-and-control organizations are in fact toxic to knowledge workers. They stifle creativity and problem solving by eliminating effective ways for people to communicate improvements back up the chain of command. They demotivate workers with the frustrations of bureaucracy and compliance to standards that divert effort from the true goals. These conditions are harmful to creative teams and people will either leave or have the passion and creativity squashed out of them until they become unproductive drones who rarely create exceptional value.


For organizations to compete globally and be successful over the long term they need to better protect their worker assets. Operating with toxic command-and-control work environments is like an inefficient car engine burning through precious resources (people) and creating a noxious environment that no one else wants to be in.

It does not have to be this way; increasingly organizations are realizing that far more can be achieved from their existing workers by effectively tapping into their wisdom and unleashing creativity and a commitment to results that was always there. To do this however requires ditching the old, inefficient command-and-control engine of management and replacing it with a new, sustaining agile model based on shared leadership.

A famous success story for this type of turn around is the Fremont General Motors plant which was one of GM’s worst sites and due to be shut down because of low productivity, poor quality and nasty labour relations. Toyota took over the plant, putting the same workers in charge of production and local planning and then reopened the plant as the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) which became the poster child for productivity, quality and the inspiration for the movie “Gung Ho”.

Workers are capable of amazing innovation and productivity if they are motivated correctly, given the tools and environment to be successful, and the leeway to make the occasional mistakes without being jumped on. Team member contribution to a project varies on a spectrum from at its worst, undermining a project and being a net drain, through passive compliance, all the way to passionate innovation.


Obviously we want to draw people to the right of this diagram where they contribute orders of magnitude more than just turning up for work and half-heartedly contributing. Unfortunately many of the work practices used today keep people on the left side of this spectrum and expecting people to contribute just because they are highly paid or “professionals” will not guarantee contribution.

In fact all that paying people does is guarantee that they will show up (usually), but once there their contribution will vary. Instead of expecting people to work hard because they are paid to, by treating people as if they were volunteers where the reward structures are saying “thank you”, taking a personal interest, and seeking consensus, we are actually on the right track towards achieving the passionate contribution on the right hand side of the spectrum.

The replacement model for command-and-control is simple describe, but hard for most companies to implement. It starts with getting the right people doing work they want to do; or as Jim Collins puts it “get the right people in the rights seats on the bus”. Companies should find out what their employees have a passion for, what they are best at, and how this supports the organizational goals.


At the intersection of these interests lies the start of hyper productivity. Once we have smart people working on things they care about and are good at, we then need to create an environment where they will thrive. This involves the following Environmental Factors, Work Practices and Leadership Roles:

Environmental Factors
Proximity to co-workers – knowledge workers need to be close to their peers to confirm meaning and solve problems. Don Reinertsen in “Managing the Design Factory” cites collocation as “the closest thing to fairy dust for improving communications on the development team.”
No blame culture – People need to know it is OK to make mistakes. With a no blame culture experimentation and the associated breakthroughs can be made more efficiently than in an overly failure sensitive organization.
Time for Creativity – People should be given time to innovate and explore. Companies such as Semco, 3M, and Google do not purposefully set aside time for creativity out of pure benevolence; instead they understand the economic value created by innovation and are prepared to invest in it.

Work Practices
Teams self organize – wherever possible the team should undertake local planning and task scheduling. Team members should volunteer for work items and then be held accountable for their results.
Challenge the process – by using mid projects retrospectives and techniques such as Appreciative Inquiry to reflect, reconsider and redefine work practices for the better.
Meaningful metrics – track progress via business relevant metrics such as features delivered, customer satisfaction and team confidence.

Leaders’ Roles
Create a Vision – envision an appealing view of the future and rally the team members around this shared positive view.
Remove rocks – remove obstacles to the team’s progress. Ask them what is getting in their way and make the resolution of these issues your to-do list.
Carry water - provide resources in the form of tools, compensation and encouragement to keep the team nourished and productive.
Resist meddling – Allow the team members to organize their own work activities, self select tasks, and resolve as many conflicts internally as they can. This can be hard and the temptation is to try and “help”.
Recognition – offer sincere thanks where it is due. Recognize contributions even when they were not successful.
Grow the team – find out how people want to develop and find ways (wherever practical) to incorporate this work into the project. Treat people as you want them to be not how you might currently see them.

Obviously the full picture is more complicated than this; Agile methods and Shared Leadership do not represent the whole solution for how any company operates. There will always be domain specific project startup work, governance activities, and specialized roles required for project success. However, at the heart of a company there resides a set of work norms (the work engine) that governs how things get done. Organizations can either employ a toxic command-and-control engine that limits performance or a fertile agile engine that promotes high performance.


As seen from the methodology scope diagram above, most agile methods focus on the development portion of the project lifecycle for the core team roles. This provides great execution guidance for the project team, but usually reside within a framework of additional governance.


My point (finally) is that Agile Methods and Shared Leadership models create an efficient work engine for organizations. Unlike the non-sustainable, toxic Command-and-control practices of yesteryear (the fossil fuels of knowledge worker management), Agile / shared leadership approaches are sustaining to workers, create positive environments and are emerging as the organizational fuels of the future.


By better harnessing the knowledge and skills of the team members and providing an environment for success; knowledge workers are free to unleash the creativity and productivity they typically entered the workforce with, but slowly have squeezed out of them.


While we may not have the influence to turn around entire organizations, leading projects by these principles will have a tremendous impact on local performance and satisfaction.


Christopher Avery

Mike, I love your lever diagram. It's a wonderful illustration of responsible leadership versus controlling management.

What I've always loved about agile methods, principles, and approaches is the inherent humanity. You know, most approaches to increasing humanity, i.e., humanness, to an organization are threats to productivity and performance. And most approaches to increasing productivity and performance are threats to humanity. I've spend my career as an applied organization scientist looking for the congruence of productivity and humanity, and that congruence flourishes in the agile mindset and principles.

Thanks for your wonderful blog. Very nicely done!

Mishkin Berteig


This is a great insight and it is one that I have been also trying to encourage organizations to adopt. Actually, as you point out, there are many references to this method of work. Another great one is "The Wisdom of Teams" which is a highly readable book about how to make high performance self-organizing teams. I would also encourage you to check out my blog: Agile Advice (www.agileadvice.com) which is focused on agile methods without being burdened by the specifics of software development.


Hasith Yaggahavita

Well written and very valid. One important thing is that we need to place a good monitoring process during the transition period. Few sabotages can misuse the situation and the things really miserable during this period. The point regarding the measuring the business value is important. It should be convinced to the employees that the measures are not to pin point, but to improve our selves.


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