This Jan Wischweh piece surveying the recent literature on the the so-called
“agile crisis” is a bit of a slog, but these bits caught my attention:
One striking symptom of the Agile Crisis is the impositions of Agile on
teams, which seems to be a common practice today. If Agile is so great and
really gives more power and autonomy to the developers, why is it commonly
imposed by upper management?
Trust is the basis for any good communication. But Trust cannot be demanded.
It needs to be earned. This Problem is highly related to Agile as trust is
essential for any Agile team. But it can never be imposed.
And the issue of trust cannot be addressed without looking at the problem of
power. Agile, especially Scrum, is more about efficiency than about
empowering developers and it is not a shift away from Taylorism. On closer
inspection, this will be visible in every single conflict within companies
trying to transform towards Agile. Quite the opposite is true: it makes
people more replaceable and controllable and is a modern and competitive form
Indeed, management’s focus on process and reproducibility (as in Taylorism)
often drives the adoption of agile development processes. But truly autonomous
agile teams must be empowered to make their own decisions. That means inviting
them to adopt agile practices, rather than imposing those practices on them, and
it means trusting teams to make decisions.
In other words, unilaterally determining team composition, deciding that they’ll
do “agile” or “scrum” or “kanban”, and reserving the power to override their
decisions perpetuates a traditional focus on repetitive tasks and control,
rather than autonomy and craft. It demonstrates a lack of trust in the team, and
without that trust, the team won’t trust management, either — an untenable,
potentially catastrophic situation. No wonder “Agile” fails so often that we now
have an “agile crisis”.
I keep coming back to the fundamental idea that teams are made out of people,
and management should always support, promote, and empower the people in the
company with the autonomy to excel and to do their best work. People over
#1 rule: No one should ever be surprised with a “you’re fired.” That’s how you
create disgruntled employees, embarrassing Glassdoor reviews, dip in team
morale, etc. An out-of-the-blue firing is a failing on the manager’s part,
not the employees.
So how do you do that? The most important bit:
Give them a fair shot to improve. As a leader, it’s your job to try
to make it work, each employee is owed that.
Practice listening skills. Demonstrate that you believe in them, and you
want to see them improve. Commit to giving a LOT more feedback (specific &
If you have little faith that the employee will be able to improve, taking these
and the other steps Jennifer recommends might feel like a waste of time. But
unless the employee’s actions involve violence, harassment, fraud, etc., you
need to give them every chance possible for not only their benefit, but the
benefit of their coworkers. Of course you don’t mention it to your other
employees, but people talk, they know what’s going on, and they all need to know
that if they step out of line, you’ll support them as much as you can.
In other words, a firing should never come as a surprise to either the employee
getting the sack nor their coworkers. Because worse than negative Glassdoor
reviews is the erosion of trust among the people you continue to work with after
Tone is set from the top, they say. I once started a company and ran it for
10 years, but I rarely thought about leadership, let alone setting the tone. It
mattered little, since I was the sole employee for most of that time. Now I
ponder these topics a lot, as I watch leaders fail to consciously create and
promulgate an ethical organizational culture. I don’t mean they’re unethical,
though some might be. I mean they, like me, never gave it much thought, or
recognized its importance.
This myopia degrades long-term prospects, leaving employees and partners to
invent and impose their own interpretations of the organization’s nature,
motives, and goals. Without a clearly-defined direction, people make their own
way, and despite the best intentions, those ideas surely don’t quite align with
the underpinning ideas and expectations of leadership.
Next time I find myself in the position to shape an organization — found a
company, create a new group, organize a team — I will give careful thought to
these issues, and formalize them in foundational documents that provide focus
and direction for the duration. A sort of Organizational Constitution. And
like any constitution, its articles will both set the tone and encode the
Culture establishes an environment in which members of the organization feel
cared about, respected, valued, and physically and psychologically safe; where
they understand what they’re a part of and fulfilled by their roles. Culture
recognizes what people can contribute, and finds ways to let them do so. It lets
them know there’s a place for them, and that they actively contribute to the
Culture cannot be legislated, of course, but a preamble announces intentions,
sets the tone, and establishes the foundation on which the rest follows.
Article 1. Values
A clear articulation of the organization’s Values — its principals and
beliefs. These comprise both internal-facing expectations for members as well as
global values and beliefs defining the organization’s place and role in the
world. Ideally, they’re the same. Such values inform expectations for partners,
investors, customers, and users. Leadership must demonstrate these values in
their everyday work, and always be mindful of them when making decisions.
Examples of values meaningful to me include:
Diversity & Inclusivity
Empowering the disempowered
Making the world a better place
Advancing social justice
Doing the right thing
Making people happy/productive/empowered/independent/delighted
Article 2. Vision
The Vision lays out how the organization wants to make its dent in the
universe. It focuses on the future, and what the organization ultimately seeks
to become. It should align closely with the Values, bringing them to bear to
define the organization’s purpose, and describe the long-term, measurable goal.
The Vision answers questions such as:
What are our hopes and dreams?
What problem are we solving for the greater good?
Who and what are we inspiring to change?
Article 3. Mission
The Mission focuses on the now, and defines how the organization goes about
achieving its Vision. It must never contradict the Vision or Values; indeed,
they shape the Mission. It’s the core of the business, and from the Mission
come Strategy and Execution. A mission statement embodies the Mission by
answering questions such as:
What do we do?
Whom do we serve?
How do we serve them?
Article 4. Brand
Closely aligned with Values, the Brand defines the organization. The brand
commits to the Values, Vision, and Mission, recognized both internally and
externally, so that anyone can say what the organization stands for and how it
goes about achieving its goals. Decisions that might erode the Brand or violate
its underpinning Values must be avoided.
Article 5. Strategy
The Mission is the “what”; the Strategy is the “how”. The Strategy describes
how the organization intends to execute on its Mission to achieve its Vision. It
should be high-level but practical, goal-focused but not methodologically
imperative. It defines objectives that clearly demonstrate value for existing
and prospective constituents (customers, users, etc.) while adhering to — and
never corroding — the organization’s Values and Vision.
Article 6. Execution
Everyone in the organization should be aware of what the Strategy is, what its
objectives are, and how it furthers the Mission while adhering to its Values.
Recognition of and continual reinforcement of the Strategy and objectives
creates focus, providing a guide for decision-making. Ultimately, Execution
means delivery. It requires meaningful goals to fulfill the Strategy and the
achievement of its objectives: shipping product, meeting deadlines, effectively
promoting products and solutions, and acquiring happy constituents who enjoy the
fruits of the organizations, who derive benefit and value from them.
Article 7. Structure
The organization Structure must enable it to effectively execute the Strategy.
That means cohesive teams with with clear mandates and the focus and autonomy to
effectively execute. Strong coupling of deliverables across teams ought to be
minimized, but expert consultation should be provided where needed. Everyone in
the organization should be aware of the Structure, and understand their roles
and the roles of other teams.
Article 8. Communication
Leadership must be aware of all of the above tenets and invoke them them
regularly. Speak every day about what the organization believes in (Values),
what it wants to see in the world (Vision, Mission), and how it contributes to
making that world (Strategy, Execution). Communicate consistently and constantly
within the context of the products made and services provided — toward the
output of the Strategy, the organization’s deliverables. Demonstration of the
alignment of the Strategy to the Values of the organization must be continuous,
and always consulted when making decisions.
This Communication must be verbal, but also written. Guiding documents must
outline all of these aspects, and tie all the pieces together. So in addition to
the constitutional articles that define the Values, Vision, Mission, there must
be living documents that articulate the Strategy for achieving the Vision and
Mission. These includes road maps, planning documents, specifications,
promotional plans and materials, organizational structure, team and role
Pursuit of Happiness
Inconsistency of these articles abounds in the business world, since companies
seldom convene a constitutional convention to create them — but sometimes
because internal- and external-facing messaging varies. It need not be the case.
Perhaps working through these topics with a team will help constitute the
grounds on which the organization functions and presents itself to its members
and the world. Even if some members disagree with or are indifferent to some of
its tenets, all will appreciate the clarity and focus they engender. And an
organization with purpose gives its members purpose, meaning to their work, and
satisfaction in the furthering of the mission.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what creative professionals want and expect out
of their jobs. We require certain base features of a job, the absolute minimum
for even considering employment:
Fair, livable compensation for the work
Comprehensive, low maintenance, effective benefits (especially health care)
Equitable work hours and conditions (vacation time, work/life balance)
Safe work environment
Employers attempting to skimp on any of these items devalue the people they
employ and the work they do. Don’t do that.
Assuming an organization meets these fundamentals, what else gets people
excited to go to work? What makes employees happy, committed, and productive
members of the team? Fortunately, I’m far from the first to explore this topic.
Paloma Medina reduces the literature to the muscular acronym BICEPS:
There are six core needs researchers find are most important for humans at
work. Not all are equally important to everyone. You might find that equity
and belonging are most important to you, but choice and status are most
important to your employee. Getting to know them and coaching to them is a
shortcut to making others feel understood and valued (aka inclusivity).
The BICEPS core needs:
Beyond the utility of having these needs enumerated to think about collectively
— with obvious implications — I find it useful to examine them from varying
frames of references. To that end, consider each from the perspective not of
rewards and perks, certificates and foosball tables. Ponder them with the goal
of creating a virtuous cycle, where the work improves the company, engendering
greater satisfaction in the work, and encouraging more of the same.
Organizations serious about encouraging friendships and closeness often
highlight social gatherings, team-building exercises, and outings. But don’t
underestimate the motivation of the work. Small teams given the space to
collaborate and accomplish their goals might be the best structure to create a
sense of belonging to a tight-knit group — and for employees to find joy in
Then reward those accomplishments. Not just with compensation or perks. No. Put
the full force of the business behind them. If a team finished work on a feature
or shipped a product, don’t limit recognition to a cocktail hour and a raised
toast. Promote the hell out of it through all available channels: marketing,
sales, blogging, support, community forums, whatever. The surest road to
satisfaction and a sense of belonging is to turn that work into a palpable
success for the organization.
Funds for conferences, training, and formal education clearly help employees
make progress in their careers, or to sipmly improve themselves. But people
also get satisfaction from work that helps the company to execute its
strategies and meet its goals. Assuming the vision aligns with an employee’s
values,1 contributing to the material achievement of
that vision becomes the employee’s achievement, too.
So be sure to create opportunities for all employees to grow, both in their
careers and contributions to the company mission. Avoid artificial divides
between those who make the execute and those who support them. Not everyone
will participate; still, encourage ideas and suggestions from all quarters and,
where possible, adopt them. Beyond the old canard to “act like an owner”,
clearly link organizational success to the ideas and work that created it, and
give everyone the chance to make a difference. They improve as the business
improves, and that’s progress.
Typically, “choice” means different healthcare plans, Mac or PC, sitting or
standing desk. Such perks are nice, but not materially meaningful.2
The choices that warm the creative worker’s heart have much more to do with
autonomy and decision-making than fringe benefits. Let teams choose their
projects, decide on technologies, self-organize, make the plans to execute.
People empowered to take initiative and make decisions without micromanagement
or post-hoc undermining find motivation and reward in the work itself. Let them
Yes, grant employees equal access to resources, to management, to the
decision-making process, and any other information necessary for their work,
benefits, etc. That only stands to reason. But give them equal access to
interesting work, too. Where possible, avoid unilaterally appointing people to
teams or projects: let them organically organize and pick their collaborators
and projects. Such decisions mustn’t be made in isolation; it wouldn’t be fair.
Rather, you’ll need to hold regular get-togethers of all relevant teams to make
such decisions collectively, PI Planning-style. Give everyone a voice, leave
no one out, and they will mostly work out the optimal distribution of tasks.
In addition to paying employees on time, every two weeks, make the work cycle
predictable, too. Everyone should have a good idea when things happen, what the
iteration cycle looks like, what the steps are and when they get slotted into
the schedule, when projects complete and products ship. Just as importantly,
make it clear what will they be working on next – or at least what’s in the
pipeline for the teams to choose and plan for in the next iteration of the
development process. A predictable cadence for the work lets people understand
where they are at any given time, what’s next, and what successful execution
Titles and industry recognition, obviously, but this item brings my commentary
full circle. Make sure that the work employees do gets seen not only by
immediate managers, not simply lauded at the weekly dessert social. Make it a
part of the success of the company. Promote the hell out of it, let customers
and users know that it exists and solves their problems — no, show them —
and shout it from the rooftops so the entire world know about all the stuff
made by your super valuable team of humans.
They’ll be happier, more satisfied, and ready to make the next success.
A very big assumption indeed. I expect to write a
bit about company strategies and alignment to employee values soon. ↩
Okay, sometimes a choice is no choice at all. Mac or nothing
for me! ↩