Why Agile leaders need to ask themselves new questions

steampunk

We know that organisational culture can be shaped by the worst behaviours leaders are willing to tolerate, but can culture be shaped by the best behaviours that leaders are willing to amplify? This was a question I asked myself after hearing Dipesh Pala, IBM Agile Capability Leader for Asia Pacific, speak at Agile Australia 2016.

Last year’s VersionOne State of Agile Survey identified that four of the five top impediments for Agile adoption relate to management. Over a third of respondents cited:

  • Lack of management support
  • Company philosophy or culture at odds with core Agile values
  • External pressure to follow traditional Waterfall processes
  • Lack of support for cultural transition

The first impediment, lack of management support, needs no further comment, but when you think about it, managers also have accountability for company philosophy, pressure to follow Waterfall processes and lack of support for cultural transition.

Let’s start at the beginning, and the beginning is the most dominant style of management today, commonly described as command and control, or traditional.

Command and control was considered effective because our understanding of organisations was that they work something like the picture in this blog post.

Jurgen Appelo, author of Management 3.0 would describe this as complicated. There are many moving parts in this machine. There is also cause and effect. If one part isn’t working, it affects another part of the machine.  It almost certainly takes some time to learn all there is to learn about this machine, but, ultimately it is knowable.

Command and control was considered a way for managers to keep the machine in working order. So complicated means not simple, but ultimately knowable.

Appelo, on the other hand, describes what we know to be true of organisations today – that rather than them being complicated, they are in fact complex.

What is the difference between complicated and complex? Well, picture a rainforest and you can imagine complex.

A good friend of mine’s parents had a holiday house smack bang in the middle of a forest east of Melbourne. I found it a restful place – the river, the bird life and the amazing towering trees. This couple found it less so. So relentless was their weekend activity of cleaning bird poop off the veranda and sweeping the forest floor free of leaves, that they eventually sold the property.

A forest is a complex system. Complex systems exhibit:

  • Feedback loops – part of an output is used for new input
  • Spontaneous order
  • Hierarchical organisation
  • Emergent organisation
  • Numerosity – or an indefinite quantity of individuals

Other examples of complex systems are ecosystems, the universe, Earth’s global climate, the human brain, the stock market, a living cell and even organisations. Appelo describes complex as not simple and never fully knowable, given that too many variables interact.

The current thinking on organisations is that they are in fact complex adaptive systems. A complex adaptive system is a dynamic network of interactions. It is a system in which individual and collective behaviour mutates and self-organises, corresponding to a change-initiating event or collection of events.

Steve Denning also regards organisations as complex systems, but he remarks that it is the shift from semi-skilled to knowledge work, that means we need to re-examine the “unspoken assumptions…of the inevitability of … the practices of traditional management” such as command and control.

The management expert Peter Drucker notes that “Workers throughout history could be ‘supervised’. They could be told what to do, how to do it, how fast to do it and so on. Knowledge workers cannot, in effect, be supervised”

Perhaps the relentless bird poop cleaners and forest floor sweepers were a bit like command and control managers trying in vain to control an ever changing complex adaptive system.

How then can leaders of today enable self-organising teams to contribute and thrive within such an ecosystem? This introduction is the first of an eight part blog that tackles leadership for an Agile organisation.

Read on to understand the new four-fold role of Agile Leaders.

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