Fixing agile failure: collaboration over micro-management

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: “the agile toolset can be used for good or evil”. Tools such as visual work tracking, work breakdown cards and stand-ups are great for helping teams take more control over their own work (self-organization). But in the hands of someone who doesn’t respect the team, or has micro-management tendencies, those same tools can be weaponised against the team.

Put it this way, what evil pointed-headed boss wouldn’t want the whole team standing up at 9am explaining why they should still be employed?

In fact, I’m starting to suspect that the toolset is being used more often as a team disabler than a team enabler. Why do I suspect this?

Reason 1: the increasing number of voices I hear criticising agile working. Look more closely and you find people don’t like being asked to do micro-tasks, or being asked to detail their work at a really fine-grained level, then having it pinned up on a visual board where their work, or lack of, is public.

Reason 2: someone I know well is pulling their hair out because at their office, far away from software development, one of the managers writes new task cards and inserts them on to the tracking board for others to do, hourly. Those on the receiving end know nothing about these cards until they appear with their name on them.

I think this is another case of “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Many of the electronic work management tools originally built for agile are being marketed and deployed more widely now. The managers buying these tools don’t appreciate the philosophy behind agile and see these tools as simply work assignment and tracking mechanisms. Not only do such people not understand how agile meant these tools to be used they don’t even know the word agile or have a very superficial understanding.

When work happens like this I’m not surprised that workers are upset and demoralised. It isn’t meant to be this way. If I was told this was the way we should work, and then told it was called “agile” I would hate agile too.

So whats missing? How do we fix this?

First, simply looking at small tasks is wrong: there needs to be a sense of the bigger thing. Understand the overall objective and the you might come up with a different set of tasks.

Traditionally in agile we want lots of small work items because a) detailed break down shows we understand what needs to be done, b) creating a breakdown with others harnesses many people’s thinking while building shared understanding, c) we can see work flowing through the system and when it gets stuck collectively help.

So having lots of small work items is a good thing, except, when the bigger thing they are building towards is missing and…

Second, it is essential teams members are involved with creating the work items. Having one superior brain create all the small work items for others to do (and then assign them out) might be efficient in terms of creating all the small work items but it undermines collaboration, it demotivates workers and, worst of all, misses the opportunity to bring many minds to bear on the problem and solution.

The third thing which cuts through both of these is simple collaboration. When workers are given small work items, and not given a say in what those items are, then collaboration is undermined. When all workers are involved in designing the work, and understanding the bigger goals, then everyone is enrolled and collaboration is powerful.

Fixing this is relatively easy but it means making time to do it: get everyone together, talk about the goals for the next period (day, week, sprint, whatever) and collectively decide what needs doing and share these work items. Call it a planning meeting.

The problem is: such a meeting takes time, it might also require you to physically get people together. The payback is that your workers will be more motivated, they will understand the work better and are ready to work, they will be primed to collaborate and ready to help unblock one another. It is another case of a taking time upfront to make later work better.

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Is all management bad? Or is it just bad management?

There is an interesting piece in this week’s Economist about the poor quality of management in the UK, “For Britain to grow faster it needs better managers” (paywall). It suggests bad management is a large part of the productivity gap between the UK and other developed nations. Living in the UK, and having seen inside many British companies this rings true with me. I’ve long thought it was less a case of “In search of excellence” and more a case of “In search of mediocracy.”

Now that said, I don’t have an objective point of view: I’ve been involved with many “project rescues” or “turn arounds” (actually I quite enjoy them, call me!) in the UK but my clients abroad are normally more stable. I suspect this is selection bias: because I’m UK based it is easy to ask for help. Flying someone in from abroad is a barrier so only the better managed companies in Europe and the USA would do it. So while I might think UK management is bad it is entirely possible that it is bad everywhere. Indeed, I am sure there is bad management everywhere, and there is good management too; but in the UK the ratio of bad to good is higher.

The international agile movement doesn’t do much to encourage management to improve. All the anti-manager talk (“self managing teams”, “no project managers”, etc.) creates a barrier. It has long been my view that such anti-manager talk is largely a reaction to bad management and it is entirely possible that “no management” is better than “bad management.”

Simultaneously, “good management” can be value adding, people don’t push back on “good management” (even if it gets branded as bad just because it is management). Sometimes, making things better for the many means being unpopular with a few. The few will voice their complaints more loudly than the many will voice their praise, and often it is hard to attribute success to managers anyway.

What we miss

The common agile view of management as “a bad thing” misses two points:

First off: removing the managers will remove some management work but will leave a lot. Removing managers does not remove management work. The work which remains either doesn’t get done (worse still) or is spread around those who remain so everyone’s work gets disrupted. On the whole these people don’t want to be managers, so they are unhappy and don’t have management skills. They do have other skills – business analysis, Java, support desk, whatever – so now they are not using their most productive skills and are unhappy with it.

Second, and more importantly: removing managers does’t do anything to improve the skills of those who do management work. Whether this is managers in place or people who have to step up when managers are fired. In other words, all this talk of “no managers” stops us from improving management skills one way or another.

Yes, I think workers and teams should have a voice in the work they do.

Yes, I think we should make group decisions and take into account diverse opinions.

Yes, managers sometimes need to use authority but good managers spend more time nudging, enthusing, guiding, structuring. Occasional use of authority can help, over use undermines.

Yes, I think people can take more responsibility. Some of what passes for management work is admin that could be dropped, information sharing which could be automated, or managers making work for other managers.

But I happen to think good management recognises all those things and respects the expert workers.

Bad management ignores all those things and subscribes to the “Action Hero model of management”: you do this, you do that, I’ll siege the bridge, if I’m not back in 10 blow it all to kingdom come, move it!

The irony is, those who subscribe strongest to the “no management” meme will say “Let the engineers (or doctors, or designers, or whatever) run things” but when you do that you find a management style cadre arises who are experts in their own field. Being a senior engineer (or whatever profession) often means being a type of manager, they need their original skills but they also need some management skills. If they don’t learn new skills those people become bad managers.

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