The Whipping Boy-Czar

The hottest topic in agile transformation right now seems to be, “What about the managers?”
In his book entitled, “Large-Scale Scrum: More with Less” Craig Larman is very plain about his views on this topic.
“In LeSS, Managers are optional.  Organizations that have managers don’t have to get rid of them -they can perform a useful role – but you don’t have to add managers for your LeSS adoption.”

It seems to me that there is a choice for both the organization and for the people who have been career managers to make a choice about what to do to address problems that arise in the everyday operations of the enterprise.  This is the place where the rubber hits the road in terms of how we think about things: rational vs. mystical?  Maybe a little of both.  People are going take a variety of approaches to their work-life and the construct they have of what it means to be agile.  In other words, this is the fork in the road where one can make a conscious choice to be intentional about learning what agile is or isn’t, why the organization is considering an agile path, and how to apply agile principles and values to the business context the organization is currently facing.

Up to now, there have been many organizations and individuals, perhaps most of them, who settle for a superficial, cursory glance at the benefits of agile in large organizations, and then lull themselves into a tranquil trance of cargo cult level cognition about agile.  When agile does not solve all of their problems immediately as they expected agile to, in some cases those who were originally most zealous about adopting agile can grow jaded in a stern rejection of either agile or certain individuals in the organization.  In fact, agile witch hunts can emerge, targeting anyone skeptical of the value of agile practices, by branding them as a “resistor” to the agile  transformation.  Middle level managers can be easy targets because they are frequently marginalized by agile zealots, and they can be skeptical of the motives and benefits associated with an agile transformation.

As Craig Larman puts it, companies are stuffed with managers “because of the organizational problem-solving technique they adopted:
1. Discover the problem – the blah, blah, blah problem
2. Create the new role – the blah, blah, blah manager
3. Assign problem to new role

As I look at the political history of the United States government, I believe I’ve seen this pattern.  We discover a drug problem exists in our society.  (Laws prohibiting substance abuse have been around for a long time.)  POTUS creates a Drug Czar assigned to enforce laws to resolve it.  Then nothing changes.  So, czars are the new managers.  The role sure sounds powerful, even despotic.  In the agile community, for some people, managers are despotic by definition.  But, not in my experience.

I was a manager once.  I felt more like a whipping boy for the team, than a czar.  If there was a quality problem, executive leadership wanted to see my detailed plan for how I would fix the problem, stay in my job, and be held to account for that problem never recurring.  I went begging for ideas and help from the people doing the work, to try to improve the situation.  That was my motivation for becoming a self-taught process and continuous improvement expert.  I learned the format and facilitation of that piece of the puzzle.  Some teams had empathy for me.  <Thank you team!  I love you folks forever!>  Some teams were only irritated with my pleas for help.  <I still love you folks too!>  People should not be shamed, nagged or guilted into doing the right thing.  They must not be terrorized into it either.  Czars, whipping boys, and witch hunts don’t work.

If we can find the inner strength not to succumb to our tribalistic tendencies of forming “us” and “them” factions, and stay curious about what it looks like for agile to take hold in an entire organization’s culture, learning can continue and pay off in the long run.  In future blog entries I will be writing about an expanded set of value-adding activities I can imagine managers taking on, that would reasonably fit with an agile work system.  I hope it will be a springboard for ideas and improvement over the story so far in this area.

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