On Agile Thinking and Respect

Posted August 17, 2017 | Leadership |
Jens Coldewey

When Agile is introduced into an organization, it completely changes the relationship between managers and staff. While traditional management models utilize the formal power of managers and compliance as the major tools to generate consistent behavior, Agile approaches emphasize self-organization and what the organizational development calls “catalytic leadership.” Though many team members new to Agile (and, unfortunately, some Agile bloggers) think that only management has to change, practice shows that both sides have to adopt new behaviors and models.

Agile is far more than Scrum, but in this particular case, the five Scrum values of respect, courage, focus, openness, and commitment provide good guidance. I find Pete Behrens’s definition of respect particularly helpful in this context: “Respect (lat: look or view again): Curiosity about how others view things, and a willingness to consider their perspective.”

Mutual respect is one of the core attributes an Agile organization needs to develop. It is the foundation to establishing an aligned vision between management and staff, which is the replacement for compliance-driven command-and-control management in an Agile organization.

From a manager’s perspective, respect means to be open and honest with your goals and the responsibility split intended. Using explicit delegation levels (as originally defined by Tannenbaum and Schmidt and made popular by Cutter Senior Consultant Jürgen Appelo) and delegation poker have proven to be very powerful tools to negotiate and clarify boundary conditions and expectations. Managers need to understand that teams need sufficient freedom and empowerment to make fast decisions, and new teams need to learn how to use this freedom.

Team members on the other side need to understand that self-organization does not mean full autonomy on all decisions. Managers still have legal and organizational responsibilities and (should) have a more global perspective than the often localized perspective of a team. This perspective requires active negotiation of responsibilities and delegation levels and the willingness to commit both to the empowerment and the liabilities that come with those responsibilities.

Both parties need to understand that this is a mutual learning effort. So, when your manager makes decisions, your team should have been involved in them as well (at least from your perspective); you should show openness and courage to address this with all due respect. This means not blaming your manager (“Alas, finally I can take revenge on being blamed for 30 years ...”), but finding ways to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.

And when you as a manager think your team fails to live up to its responsibility or it demands more empowerment than you are ready to give, you should demonstrate courage, openness, and respect by working out what information or insight is missing for the team to make better decisions. Mature Agile managers usually challenge their teams by going one or two delegation levels above what the team demands.

Finally, it is important to appreciate that both parties will fail every now and then on this path. Both parties should treat failures as an opportunity to learn together, rather than an opportunity to blame each other. The place to discuss conflicts on responsibilities and find better ways to deal with them in the future is the retrospective (or one of the kanban reviews, if you’re using the seven cadences). And be prepared to have many retrospectives until everybody has completely embarked on Agile thinking.

About The Author
Jens Coldewey
Jens Coldewey, based in Munich, Germany, is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium. For more than 10 years, Mr. Coldewey has worked with numerous top 50 large and medium-sized companies to introduce Agile practices and Agile management, specializing in deploying Agile development in large organizations. He is a founding member of the nonprofit AgileAlliance and has served as board member. Mr. Coldewey is Managing Director of it-agile GmbH,… Read More