The Power of Humane Relationships

The Power of Humane Relationships

“Agile works, when it works, by offering an environment in which people can relate to each other in new and more meaningful, humane ways.”

It seems like agile software development now has the attention of some folks in C-suites around the world. It’s no longer just a local issue for developers, development teams or IT departments.

Executives are hearing, and increasingly, believing all the hype about how agility can bring business benefits like improved quality, faster delivery, increased levels of innovation, reduced costs and the like (all more myth than reality, btw).

Most folks see Agile as “just” another kind of methodology, with the same set of issues in making it happen (training, tools, processes, and so on). And like other methodologies, most folks – even those directly involved – attribute its power to increased clarity, common standards, discipline, process, reduced uncertainty, etc.

Few have even an inkling that the power of agile comes from a different source entirely. One very alien to most people and most organisations. It’s the power of human – and humane – relationships. The kind of relationships that we very rarely see manifest in traditional businesses.

Mistaking the nature of Agile, most – upwards of 75% – of all agile adoptions fail to deliver on expectations. Few organisations that commit to adopting Agile even begin to realise the implications of such a commitment. Few anticipate the sweeping upheavals in all aspects of their business – HR, finance, sales, marketing, and above all, general management – that absolutely have to happen to see agile work well, and an adoption succeed (long-term).

The core of agile depends utterly on seeing the world of work in a fundamentally different light. A light which illuminates the significance of things like:

  • Intrinsic motivation (McGregor – cf Theory Y in The Human Side of Enterprise)
  • Autonomy (Dan Pink – Drive)
  • Growth Mindset (Carol Dweck – Mindset)
  • A Thinking Environment (Nancy Kline – More TIme to Think)
  • Continual learning (Peter Senge – The Fifth Disciple)
  • Systems Thinking (Ackoff, Deming, Senge)
  • Group Dynamics (e.g. Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team)
  • Alignment on Shared Purpose
  • Skilled dialogue (William Isaacs – Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together)
  • Improved cognitive function and the necessary environment thereto
  • Ba (cf Nonaka)
  • People that care about what they’re doing

But all of the above are, essentially, just characteristics of a workplace where folks relate effectively to one another as fellows, sharing the journey together.

I have the conviction that it’s the quality – some may say health – of relationships that makes for effective software development. And for effective business, too. And that’s why these days I focus on organisational therapy as the means to improve the quality of such relationships.

Woud you be willing to share your view on this conviction?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Concept of Ba ~ Nonaka and Konno (pdf)
The Human Side of Enterprise ~ Douglas Mcgregor

  1. Bob, thank you so much for this post. I agree absolutely. Rachel Davies and I have run (and are continuing with) a series of workshops on trust in particular. This stemmed from working together some years ago at a client where trust was very low. I see a trustful and trusting environment as so core to organisational health and indeed to success with agile. Your blog post challenges me to widen that view and consider other human/humane aspects. Thanks, Sal.

  2. inspiring post! thnx for sharing! it is the agile transformation that revealed a hidden need for healthy relationship in every organization!..

  3. Hi Bob, in my own work I keep talking about the “agile heart” (I stopped using an upper case ‘A’ a while back). As in, you need the “why” and you need to want to engage with others in the “how” and “what”. The “what” is the outer form, where you can slavishly copy other people’s practices and still not have what they’ve got, because the people, the system and the culture will be completely different – so you can’t copy, you have to start where you are. This is where toolsets fall down – lots of what, but no why or how. I’ve been reading some of Taiichi Ohno’s work, and he always engaged at the sharp end of whatever needed to be done, never from afar, and there was no fixed way that came down from the centre. This is another problem with having a bag of tools the assumptions they force on you, you won’t see things that are really obvious.

    What you describe is also a community of _adults_ who are trying to achieve something, often traditional management tries to treat everyone like children at a badly performing school, the old type X organisation. To me this means taking responsibility – which is not the same as being held “accountable” for things outside your control – and genuinely trying to make things happen in a way that is aligned with the common purpose. These transformations could be horribly painful for some people, but they are part of growing up.

    It also just occurred to me that in a traditional analytical organisation where everything is departmentalised and broken into pieces the kinds of ways of working we both think are needed are probably almost impossible to achieve without a lot of heart searching and habit reforming, very hard to get people to do when all they had to do was turn up and act like automata.

    Have you read Seddon’s “I want you to cheat”? I’ve been re-reading, lots of simple but profound guidelines in there, well worth a read.

    Keep it up, one day we will look back at the crazy pathological way of organising and laugh, saying “did we really used to do that?”.

  4. Ben said:

    Yes! In 2011 I started doing agile brand development sprints for startups (, assembling ad hoc creative teams to perform soup-to-nuts branding for a new venture in a single 8-hour sprint. The most fascinating thing for me was the opportunity to reformat the relationships in such a project. I became not a director but a coordinator/enabler, and satisfaction sky-rocketed, on both sides of the relationship (client and creative). Now I’m working on Human Experience, where I teach and coach these frameworks. Ben

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