The Gravy Train Rolls On

The Gravy Train Rolls On

It seems some Agile Consultants are too wedded to their profit margins, too in thrall to their (large, undiscerning) Analytic-minded customer base, or just too fearful of the world-changing scale of the implications, to face up to the truth about Agile and managers.

Simply put:

The traditional role of the manager is inimical to the Agile mindset.

I’ll say that again, in other words:

For as long as organisations expect some folks (managers) to tell other folks (workers) what to do, there will be:

  • no effective engagement of people in their work
  • little sense of ownership of, and therefore pride in, work
  • high cost of quality
  • low customer satisfaction
  • poor morale
  • a paucity of motivation
  • a continuing us-vs-them, managers-vs-workers schism
  • individuals blamed for poor performance (rather than attributing 95% of poor performance to the way the work works)
  • misguided attempts to “manage people” through “fixing” them (rather than e.g. building on their strengths)
  • no change in the ineffectiveness and waste rampant in most organisations today
  • failure to innovate
  • poor decisions, or decisions abdicated, avoided, delayed and arrogated
  • egregious waste of human potential
  • siloism, politicking, tribalism and turf wars
  • stifling bureaucracy

Wow. Can we really attribute all these ills to the simple idea of having managers “in charge”? From my own experience, I’d say yes. But it’s not just me. Other folks like Deming, Drucker and Ackoff say much the same thing. As they’re all dead now, I’d be happy to argue on their behalf.

Can you grasp the magnitude of the change facing the world’s organisations before Agile (and synergistic, chaordic) ideas can really deliver on their promises? Is the scale of the transition so huge as to boggle the mind? Have so many people so little hope in the future that all this seems irrelevant, or mere wishful thinking?

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

Out of the Crisis – Dr W E Deming
Re-creating the Corporation – Professor Russell L Ackoff
MIX : The Management Information Exchange online – Dr Gary P Hamel
Valence Theory – Dr Mark Federman
The Leaders Guide to Radical Management – Steve Denning
Lay Off the Managers – Blog post
Why Feedback Doesn’t Work (and other things) – Charles Jacobs

  1. I am starting to think you are actually from the future 🙂 This seems to tie in a little, with what I was reading recently about Theory X and Theory Y ( – Theory X being assumption that people don’t like to work, therefore have to be coerced/forced in to working. And without generalising too much, I would say that management approach is extremely common. And right there we have anti-Agile from the get-go. Whereas Theory Y is more pro-Agile, which promotes concepts such as empowering and giving responsibility to the staff.

    Management is about dealing with human beings, so it should be advancing a lot further from the authoritarian attitude still prevalent. I have been in some companies that have genuinely tried the Theory Y direction, but it can still fail, if manager skills aren’t up to it. And a weak manager will just let their staff run riot. So of course the staff will most likely be happy in that case (even though it’s a management FAIL). I would also hazard a guess that a smaller company would find such a transition easier, than a corporation with a deeply ingrained culture.

    And good call on Agile consultants – I have been very suspicious of motivations, which is down to fundamental flaw in most consultancies’ approach. Which is to get bodies in a company, and park there for as long as possible; and usually by trying to make the company unnecessarily paranoid. And under the guise of providing valuable service. And they are all “world leaders” in their field, naturally. Approach with caution …

  2. I’m with you Bob. Let’s call on managers to think differently, yes, and let’s keep calling on our colleagues who provide consultation to do the hard thing and stop colluding with anachronistic and inhumane ways of running organisations.

  3. tom said:

    Presuming sanity will prevail and the tide turns, I wonder whether it will be existing organisations that change or whether new ones with the necessary mindset becoming more effective will make them extinct? I wonder if anything needs to change in political arena for more fair minded companies to compete? I like to believe the combination of the tough financial times ahead and the sharing of ideas on the web may well be the seed that sparks the revolution we need.

    p.s. Thanks for the reading list I was going to ask you for one, perhaps they deserve a page of their own?

  4. Hacksaw said:

    I believe the problem people have is a strange idea of what managers are supposed to do. It’s highly informed by our culture, and is a seemingly random mix of authoritarianism, self-help books, lay psychology, and actual consideration for the mission.

    In my mind a good manager is someone whose job it is to remove obstacles from in front of the completion of a mission. A manager is someone who manages to get something done. Think of that use of “manages” as a synonym to *succeeds* as in “Somehow, he managed to ship a popular, stable product.”

    All those things described above are obstacles to great product, and obstacles to maximal profit, a goal of most businesses.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      In my mind there is no good manager in effective knowledge-work businesses. It’s simply impossible. I agree with the characteristics of a good manager as you list them – but why, then, cannot folks (i.e. “workers”) do these things better, and with more engagement, themselves? And why rob the workers of the sense of accomplishment and pride in their work by saying “it was the manager wot dun it”?

      And don’t forget Deming’s First Theorem: “Nobody gives a hoot about profit”.

      – Bob

      • Hacksaw said:

        Differing skill sets. If the obstacle is needing a numerical methods expert, either someone has to become one, or you need to hire one. A manager ought to be better trained to run the hiring process. Budgets are also generally in the hands of managers, and writing *and defending* one is a special skill. There are going to be people better at doing this.

        There’s is no doubt that a manager claiming credit for some accomplishment is less than honest, but in my experience, the best managers point out that’s it’s the team that did it. In my work experience, the arrogating jerks were few and far between. You hear about them a lot because people like negative, sensational stories.

        Now, ought the person with the manager title be getting more pay than the main workers? That’s a different question.

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