TL; DR: Agile Micromanagement
There are plenty of failure possibilities with Scrum. Indeed, given that Scrum is a framework with a reasonable yet short “manual,” this effect should not surprise anyone. For example, the Scrum Guide clearly states the importance of self-management at the Scrum team level. Nevertheless, the prevailing cause of many messed-up attempts to use Scrum result from what I call agile micromanagement, a pseudo-commitment to agile principles only to be overridden whenever it seems beneficial from a stakeholder’s or manager’s perspective.
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The Scrum Team and the Purpose of Self-Management According to the Scrum Guide
According to the Scrum Guide, the Scrum team is self-managing:
“The fundamental unit of Scrum is a small team of people, a Scrum Team. The Scrum Team consists of one Scrum Master, one Product Owner, and Developers. Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies. It is a cohesive unit of professionals focused on one objective at a time, the Product Goal.
Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.”
Source: Scrum Guide 2020.
Beyond these direct references to the nature of the Scrum team, there are also plenty of other references throughout the Scrum Guide to one of the first principles of Scrum — self-management:
Page 4: Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing.
Page 5: Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies.
Page 5: They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.
Page 5: They are structured and empowered by the organization to manage their own work.
Page 6: The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team in several ways, including coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality.
Page 8: [Sprint Planning: How will the chosen work get done?] How this is done is at the sole discretion of the Developers. No one else tells them how to turn Product Backlog items into Increments of value.
Page 9: The Developers can select whatever structure and techniques they want, as long as their Daily Scrum focuses on progress toward the Sprint Goal and produces an actionable plan for the next day of work. This creates focus and improves self-management.
Source: The aggregation of quotes is taken from the Scrum Guide Reordered.
Allow me to point at the obvious: Self-organization does not mean the absence of management: Why would a Scrum team assume, for example, responsibility for pay-role? Would that help with creating value for the customer? Probably less so. Hence, being a self-organizing team does not mean the absence of management per se. However, it does mean that there is no need for micromanagement comparable to practices at a General Motors assembly plant in 1926.
Reasons for Agile Micromanagement
In my experience, agile turns into micromanagement due to the middle management’s resistance to change. Despite better knowledge, changing an organization into a learning one that embraces experimentation and failure is not in everybody’s best interest. Furthermore, self-organizing, empowered teams often conflict with the middle management’s drive to execute personal agendas, self-preservation being one of them. I have observed three main reasons why organizations revert from agile principles—such as Scrum’s emphasis on the self-management of teams—to agile micromanagement, merely paying lip service to the original principles:
Perceived loss of control: Being trained as the go-to individual for all problems in their departments, managers find it difficult to accept that teams are now self-managing and tasked to come up with solutions themselves. If their subordinates no longer need them, won’t they become obsolete sooner or later?
Encountering a serious problem: The management abandons self-organization the moment a critical problem appears and forms ‘task forces’ instead of supporting the existing Scrum teams in solving the problem.
Assigning tasks: Managers assign specific tasks directly to Developers, thus bypassing the Product Owner and ignoring the Developer’s self-organization prerogative. Alternatively, the manager removes a Developer from a team to work on such a task.
The Consequences: Pretending to honor agile principles has a short life span as many practitioners in the Scrum teams will figure this out very quickly. Losing trust can be devastating as trust is the beginning of everything. Without trust, there is no transparency; without transparency, there is no inspection, and without inspection, there is no adaptation. This brings us back to where we started: Waterfall-ish planning disguising the hope that a guess may work out and provide a career push for the initiator. At the same time, the practitioners try to stay out of the inevitable blame game, collecting their pay cheques at the end of the month: “You pretend we are agile, and we pretend to care for the outcome.”
The Solution: Embrace that in a complex environment, there are no longer experts who can solve any problem they face. Consequently, the management style needs to adapt from telling people what to do when and how to encouraging collective learning, exploring options, and identifying solutions resulting from teamwork. It is the management’s task to create an environment that allows this to happen by including everyone and giving everyone a voice in a psychologically safe place. For the management, it is hence time to abandon Taylorism for servant leadership.
From the conservative middle manager’s point of view, there are many reasons why sticking to a command and control management style looks personally beneficial. Hence there is a temptation to adopt any agile transition to the requirements of their local optimum and personal career planning, resulting in agile micromanagement. Which ultimately contradicts the purpose of empowering self-organizing teams at an organizational level in the first place.
The issue is not that these people try to overcome challenges to their personal agendas by pseudo-commitments to agile principles only to override them whenever it seems beneficial. Instead, the issue is that change agents supporting agile transformations barely prepare for that event. After all, aren’t the four values of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development common sense? So, who would reject them?
Have you encountered organizations reverting back to agile micromanagement? Please share your learnings with us in the comments.
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