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Agile leaders, time to loosen your grip

Anthony Crain Delivery Manager, Agile Transformation, Cprime

Agile asks leaders to allow teams to self-organize. It asks them to let go of command-and-control behaviors, where you tell teams what to do, when to do it, and even how to do it. This is the hardest mindset change in most agile transformations.

But why is it so hard? Why can't leaders sit back and let the teams direct themselves? And how do you let go?

To understand all this, you need to take a step back.

Command and control vs. self-organizing teams

Which is more efficient: command and control, or allowing teams to self-organize?

Imagine your team is trying to find a solution, and a leader already sees what the solution should be. Telling the team what to do is always faster than waiting for them to find their way to the solution, of course—in the short term. Now add an impending deadline, and the desire to command and control becomes a strong impulse.

Leaders who command and control teams also get fast, successful results. And they get promotions! Other leaders tend to promote people like themselves, which means they watch for other successful command-and-controllers. Soon, the entire organization is stacked with command-and-control leaders who have been promoted for that very skill.

When the agile proponents then waltz in and ask those leaders to give up the time-honored command-and-control approaches that have served them so well throughout their careers, it is little wonder that a huge culture collision results. It's surprising that more agilists aren’t bounced right out of the office. (Actually, I've seen that happen plenty of times.)

But keep this in mind: In the long term, the command-and-control approach creates bottlenecks and thwarts business agility because workers avoid making even quick decisions until they can ask a manager.

So how do you achieve this critical mindset change? If you want command-and-control leaders to make this difficult shift, you must help them understand why giving up command and control is a smart thing to do.

[ More from Anthony Crain: Why agile leaders should stop demanding consistency from teams ]

Take this first step toward changing the culture

Teach your leaders the definition of the term "knowledge worker." It is one of my favorite terms to use when trying to change a command-and-control culture to a self-organizing one. Knowledge workers are the people who know more about doing the job than their managers do.

At a fast-food eatery, it is normal for managers to know more about every station and job than the new hires they oversee, and employees are rarely highly motivated. Using a command-and-control approach in that setting is practical.

But in companies that are adopting agile, knowledge workers usually know more about doing the job than the managers. In these organizations, creating self-organizing teams is the better path. Just the term "knowledge worker" can help leaders laugh at themselves and say: "Well, yeah, they really are knowledgeable! Maybe I do need to loosen the reins a bit."

Long-term vs. short-term efficiency

One goal of agile adoption is to create lean enterprises that can pivot quickly when circumstances warrant it. Every decision that must be escalated to a higher level injects delays into the process.

That's why, when companies map their flow of concept-to-cash, 80% or more of the time is wait time. Only a small remainder is active working time.

Command-and-control managers increase overall wait time, even if they shorten a single, active step, because the knowledge workers who work for them don't feel empowered to figure things out for themselves.

When I worked in a lab, people came to me with questions. It was fun to give them the answers they needed. But I soon realized that when I wasn't able to answer the questions quickly enough, perhaps because I was helping another student, they usually figured it out for themselves. When I went to check on them, they would say, "Never mind, I figured it out."

By answering their questions I was doing them a disservice. It was far more effective when I changed my approach to asking them to explain what they tried so far, which led them to the answer.

My other response was: "Find someone else in the room who is struggling with this and collaborate. If you are still stuck, call me over." They rarely asked me to intervene, and the process created new networks. And if they did call me over, I would again ask what they had tried so far. About 90% of the time, that did the trick.

[ More from Anthony Crain: Why real agile leaders embrace failure ]

Strengthen the team

Everyone loves being the hero with all the answers. That will never go away. But that is the fundamental culture shift we are facing. At times we need to be the ones with the bright ideas. But teams are strongest when everyone is sharing ideas, rather than looking to a lone, genius leader.

Agile allows companies to react to change quickly and efficiently, and knowledge workers who can make good decisions quickly are the advantage you need to achieve that goal. In other words, self-organization is the critical skill to faster pivots.

When managers command and control a team, they rob that team of the opportunity to grow into high-performing group. Companies can become overly dependent on individual managers' success, instead of tapping the full talents of all their knowledge workers.

How to fight your command-and-control instinct

If managers care about the future of their companies, they will fight their command-and-control instinct and allow their teams to grow through self-organization. This is hard, but here are two things to remember that can help you on this journey:

  • Every time you use command and control, you're robbing your teams of a chance to grow.
  • Self-organizing teams are better for the company in the long term.

I myself have been on this journey for many years. Breaking the command-and-control habit is a bit like trying to quit smoking: The temptation never completely goes away. But I fight it. And I rely on my teams and peers to remind me when I stray back to those old habits.

Watch for backsliding

Another favorite culture-changing technique of mine is to ask leaders and executives to do a Big Visible Agile Thing (BVAT). (And yes, I’m riffing on the Big Visible Information Radiator term.)

The BVAT asks leaders and executives to embrace an idea from the Agile Manifesto or lean theory and do something big and visible to show their support for the change to agile. And the more culturally challenging, the better.

One executive chose as his BVAT to embrace an agile portfolio management technique. This technique was to dissolve all the teams in his area and allow them to self-organize into new teams based on the backlog of initiatives that needed to be worked over the next nine months.

Someone asked, "What if everyone wants to work on the same initiative?"

My answer was, "Let's just make a list of guidelines that will help them navigate potential collisions, such as years with the company, seniority, etc."

My client grinned at me and said, "Anthony, shouldn't we let them come up with that list if they find they need one?"

The student had become the master. Of course the teams should own that list and create it only if they need it. I had slid back into command-and-control thinking when I suggested that we create the list in advance.

I was telling them the rules, rather than letting the knowledge workers decide them. And I was thrilled to my core when those whom I was mentoring saw it faster than I did.

How have you broken the command-and-control habit? Post your suggestions below.

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