It is all X or Y management – and why Agile people should read Mintzberg

In the last few years it has become increasingly common to hear Agile supporters talking about Beyond Budgeting, indeed, I was instrumental in inviting Bjarte Bogsnes to deliver at keynotes at Agile on the Beach this year.

Agile and Beyond Budgeting are very different, one is mainly about developing software and other is concerned with budgeting, strategic management and personnel management (I cannot call it human resources.) Agile and Beyond Budgeting are not the same thing but they fit together very nicely – indeed they may share some common roots, I think of them as fellow travellers.

Similarly Lean and Agile fit together nicely, but then many of us – although not all – see them as different versions of the same thing.

Then there is John Seddon and the Systems Thinking crowd, they pop up at Agile conferences regularly but System Thinking is not Agile, nor is it Beyond Budgeting, but again, they do all promote a similar view of the world. Again, fellow travellers. (Although John Seddon will probably object to that, he seems make a point of rubbishing Agile.)

Underlying many of these ideas is organizational learning – something I wrote about myself in Changing Sofware Development – and something which seems to be experiencing renaissance in Agile circles.

And I’ve heard talk of Agile HR. I’m not sure what it is but I guess its also a fellow traveller.

And I’ve been told that some forms of marketing fall into this camp too. Another fellow traveller?

I increasingly see lots of ideas and models which cluster around a similar philosophy, they may not always agree but they generally fit together.

And this philosophy is in contrast with a lot of ideas in that are more generally accepted. For example: budgeting as planning, command and control management, hierarchical organizations, managers as task master and so on. You get the idea? This is another group of fellow travellers.

Some of you might have guessed where this is heading: McGregor.

Back in 1960 an academic by the name of Douglas McGregory published an article entitled “The human side of enterprise”. In it he laid out theories of how organizations work, Theory X and Theory Y. (I just checked and I am amazed to discover this 1961 book is still in print!)

Theory X is predicated on idea that people inherently dislike work – after all, wouldn’t you rather be watching TV? Therefore employees must be controlled and directed, they want security and all but a small elite have little ambition and shun responsibility.

From this theory we get the idea that annual budgets control spending, that bonuses incentivise people, managers control work, responsibility goes with authority and if managers don’t keep an eye on people they will slack off. Project planning and theories like Michael Porter’s view of business strategy all fall under this banner. These are the Theory X fellow travellers of traditional, or at least 20th century management and business.

Theory Y on the other hand is predicated on the belief that work leads to satisfaction and through work people can be more fulfilled and happier. People are naturally motivated and can exercise self-direction – indeed the more autonomy people have the more satisfied and motivated they can be. As a result people seek responsibility, want to feel valued and can be very committed to objectives.

Clearly theory Y would encompass Agile, Beyond Budgeting, self organization, team based working and amoeba management, systems thinking and possibly new forms of “Agile HR” and marketing.

I would like to think that these Theory Y fellow travellers represent the model of business and management in the 21st century. But I can’t prove it.

(By the way, I missed Lean out of that last list, while I argue that Agile is Lean, and Lean does embody much of the same Theory Y philosophy I have reservations about Lean. These concentrate on some overwork practice that have occurred in Lean, particularly Karōshi, death by overwork.

Most definitely I do NOT include 6 Sigma, ever, that is X.)

Little of this will be a new to those who have hung around “agile” for a few years but there is something else, something we’ve missed before….

Business strategy.

Theory X has business strategy sorted. Its about big men with big brains setting out strategies for competitive advantage. Michael Porter is the hero.

In Agile we haven’t really got our thinking sorted here so let me make a suggestion.

Henry Mintzberg

In Mintzberg’s world management, business and strategy are messy. Strategy is part pre-planned (Porter-esque) but it is also about what has happened before. The stories we tell ourselves, our understanding of what happened. Sometimes strategy is backward looking, sense making. Often strategy is messy because it is emergent, it comes from what we have done, what we have learned before. The firm may start off with a destination in mind but it will actually reach a different place. The distinction between strategy and tactics may not clear until long after the event.

The Agile community should be reading more Mintzberg. Fortunately he recently started blogging, http://www.mintzberg.org/blog.

One of his shorter strategy books would make a good start. But if you want a real read the Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is brilliant. The parallels with software development, the rise and fall of waterfall, are striking. Indeed, only by understanding how the corporate world fell for strategic planning can one understand where waterfall really came from (hint: it isn’t Royce.)

Rise and Fall is a great book that is work reading but it isn’t a quick read and it requires thought. Try Strategy Bites Back if you want a shorter read.

More recently, and more relevantly for Agile folk are his recent works on management.

Managing (2009) – or the shorter version Simply Managing – should be required reading for anyone who wants to argue that Agile teams don’t need managers – and equally they should be required reading for anyone who blindly believes managers are needed. To have or not to have managers: it is not an easy question and both sides should be better informed.

(After reading both Managing and Simply Managing I thought I would write a article, or at least a blog, setting out the case for managers but its a lot to take on. Better to just read someone else’s book.)

Our world is complex, sometime the Theory X people may be right, and sometimes the Theory Y people. In the part of the world I live in Theory Y is the one I find most useful.

Does Agile require cultural change?

If Wood Allen was an Agile Coach Consultant he might say:

“#Agile without culture change is an empty experience; but as empty experience go its one of the best”

I sit in Agile conferences (and I include Lean and Kanban here) and I hear people say “To really become Agile you need culture change.” And I agree with them.

Yes, if you really want to be Agile, and get the greatest benefit from Agile you need to change the culture of the organization to embrace the Agile way. I agree.

And I also know that every speaker on this topic – and myself – warn again “doing Agile” without being Agile in culture and mindset. Heck, I kind of wrote a book about this once upon a time. For me “Agile culture” is a “Learning Organization Culture.”

But…

But Agile is a toolkit, you can pick out and use many of those tool without adopting others and without adopting an Agile mindset. For example, you can do Test Driven Development without the need to adopt an Agile culture in your organization. And even without culture change Test Driven Development (TDD) will make you better.

True, if you have to force march your programmers through TDD it isn’t going to be as beneficial as it will be if your programmers embrace TDD and want to do it and make it part of their life.

Given this we – and I include myself – build an argument for undertaking cultural change.

But, big BUT….

TDD is not alone, there are lots of tools in the Agile toolkit that you can pick up and use individually, or with a couple of others, which will help you improve. But if you want the full benefit, well, you are going to have to pick up more tools and change that culture!

Culture change is a far bigger effort than introducing any Agile tool – or even an Agile method.

And most of the people who go by the title “Agile coach” or “Agile consultant” or similar are – in my opinion – drawn from the technology side and aren’t necessarily equipped to undertake culture change initiatives. To be fair, I don’t think many people are equipped (training, experience, knowledge, etc) to undertake culture change.

Please don’t take offence Agile consultants/coaches, I include myself here. On paper I have more qualification to change culture than the vast majority of Agile consultants/coaches I meet and I’m wary of trying to change culture.

Certainly, if we believe folk-law (or the updated version “wisdom of crowds”) culture change is hard and often fails.

Let me say something some people will disagree with:

Culture Change is not necessary to introduce Agile. Culture change is not an enabler.

Rather culture change may be the result of adopting Agile.

I hope it is the result but I also recognise that organizations have the cultures they have and we mess with it at our peril, culture may look bad but embedded in there is a lot of knowledge and norms. Company culture is makes a company what it is, change it and you risk destroying the company. Messing with culture is likely to bring out the corporate antibodies.

Anyone who wants to change an organization, particularly anyone wanting to change tools, methods of working and culture in an organization is well advised to go and study the history of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). BPR was an 1990’s attempt to change the ways companies work, through the use of technology, or make them more efficient. Agile has a lot in common with BPR but BPR is an example of how not to do it.

I am prepared to take people through Agile tools, practices, methods, I encourage them to adopt these approaches, and I don’t really work, directly, to change culture. I believe that if people start to live and Agile lifestyle then the culture will follow. I believe that Agile-Lean is good, I believe that if we pick tools which will make peoples work better in a way they appreciate it then I believe that in time the culture will change.

In short, I believe culture follows tools, the tools we choose to use – whether that be stand-up meetings, Jira, Rally or paper and pen – influence our culture and lead somewhere. Its not a one way street, its not that simple, but tools are a lot easier to change than culture.

Change come first, culture follows.