Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why senior management will never "get" agile...

When I'm discussing "agile" or "management 3.0" etc with colleagues someone inevitably voices their frustration that, despite these ideas having been around for decades, senior managers still don't "get" agile values. And this apparent lack of understanding can indeed be extremely frustrating. However, I am of the opinion that it is somehow inevitable, and here's why...

Senior managers live in a hierarchy and as such they have "risen through the ranks" to get to their current position. Their world view is that they have achieved this higher status and larger salary due to their abilities and experience; that they are somehow in possession of some higher level or better quality of "talent". 

However, research tells us that this is not so. Agile and non-tayloristic management values are built on decades of evidence that it is team performance that is crucial, not individual performance. Team maturity models show us that the performance of teams increases with time (up to some limits). We have many maturity models but all have in common that mature teams out perform new ones. New research in collective or group intelligence gives us a hint as to why this is so. Group IQ seems dependent upon the average EQ of a group and the equality of the groups communication patterns. While I know of no research testing the relationship between these two I think it is reasonable to assume that mature teams are more open and vulnerable which will raise their internal EQ scores, and that they communicate more openly and equally. If I am correct these two effects will lead to an increase in Group IQ over time as the team matures, thus explaining the observed performance increase. It will also explain why problem teams (which in my experience almost inevitably suffer from communication problems) will inevitably perform poorly, regardless of the talented individuals in the teams.

So, how does this relate to senior managers? In order for them to understand and accept this view they must also come to understand that their own success is a product of the environments they were in as much as it is their own abilities. They must also accept that they are not necessarily especially talented. There are few individuals that can easily make this leap given that it involves them giving up their positive self image for a more complex explanation. Who wants to admit that they may not be as talented as they thought they were?

For this reason I believe that most of todays senior managers will not "convert" and will in fact struggle against the adoption of agile values within their workplace.


  1. Very well written!
    From my experience: senior managers usually are where they are not because of their talents or accomplishments but by accident. They were in right place at the right time and knew the right people (probably these people went the same way before). The are not the best fit but just happened to be around. They cannot admit that and what is worse they refuse any change because they fear that the change might uncover that.

  2. Wow, this is a pretty sad statement. I don't know every "senior manager" out there, but I suspect they are a diverse group. I am sure there are many who feel as though they have earned their role through "harder" work or "better" ideas than the staff they manage: indeed I know many of those as well.

    However as a former Director of Technology, CIO and now CTO, I have worked to introduce and advocate for agile methods in three organizations, and I have found resistance at all levels and in a variety of departments: marketing folks who feel new product development is best managed--from concept to creation--by traditional market and business analysis to identify niche segments for exploitation, versus iterative approaches where enhancements to products emerge through incremental changes led by self-organizing teams; budget and finance offices accustomed to longterm planning that yields annual budgets cycles, not three month time boxes, and, formal procurement processes with RFP's (complete with full feature lists, set costs, and fixed timelines), as opposed to acquisition models that allow for "just enough;" and yes even development staff who, for many, have built--and have pride in--reputations as "the hero," being that "go to guy" or "guru" who everyone relies on to "get the job done right," so may not want to participate in a retrospective about how the last project, or even the way they worked.

    No one is perfect and we all have our foibles. Rather than writing off all "senior managers" who will never get it, maybe it would be helpful and reflect why the managers we're working with don't get it.

    Patrick Masson
    Chief Technology Officer,
    University of Massachusetts, Office of the President

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I agree completely that many groups can oppose agile adoption. However I was mainly discussing agile management values e.g. Theory Y, delegation, trust, leadership vs management, emergence & complexity etc. I also purposefully limited the discussion to senior managers who, in my experience, are a group that despite decades of research have failed to take on board basic facts about human motivation and group behaviours.

      Of course managers are a diverse group and any generalisation cannot apply to everyone. However, I do believe that this mechanism of having to in a sense give up one's ego in order to understand agile is real. I also believe this is especially hard for many senior managers because of their success and the resulting self-image they have.

      And my point was in fact to state a theory about WHY senior managers don't get it.

  3. Hi Hass,

    I think that's the main reason why senior management will never get Agile is because they cannot see how it can be associated to a timeline, and thus payments from the customer.

    The real problem is that those who practice Agile have problems explaining what Agile is, how it works, and most importantly how and when the work is billed to the customer.

    In any case, I would really like to republish your post on PM Hut under the Agile Management category ( ). Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you're OK with this.

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