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Agile behaviour and culture: dealing with managers losing power

Your current organisational culture may be a blocker to the successful transition to a more agile and adaptive organisation, one that responds more effectively to change.

What in particular in your culture will sabotage your vision of success? In this short article we will explore two factors that need consideration: shifts in power dynamics and change of emphasis in the manager’s role.

So what is culture?

Before I explore these two factors lets look at culture at a high level. I hear many people talking about culture as “the way we do things around here”. While culture may be partly about behaviour it is not the only factor; we also need to consider mindset and emotion as important parts of our transition to “being Agile”. If we go about also engaging people at the level of mind and emotion our chances of making meaningful and lasting change are multiplied. It is with this emphasis, looking at the whole person in our change interventions, that I explore power and the manager role.

Power to the people… every manager’s nightmare?

We may describe an Agile team as one that is autonomous, empowered, dynamic, self-organising, self-managing and so on. So while our teams are doing all this stuff for themselves, what are the managers doing?  Managers see this new way of doing things as a loss of power because they are now relying on their people to be responsible and take ownership. Here is a good example of where mindset is an important factor and why we need to understand the impact that it has on subsequent behaviour. 

Most managers have been trained to do “command and control”.  So they are “programmed” in a certain way and trained to think in a certain way; telling people what to do, when to do it and very often how to do it.  This means that traditional teams rely on the manager to know a lot – the what, why, when and, as I said, quite often the how as well.  Immediately we can see how disempowering this could be to work on a team where the managers do all the thinking. 

If we explore motivation and team performance we understand that teams are willing to give so much more (commitment) if they are given greater autonomy in their role.  This means the manager may set priorities, by identifying the what, but most definitely not involving themselves in the how.   To this end managers need to concentrate on focusing people on “building the right thing”, while trusting the people to “build it right” i.e. to agreed levels of quality.

A call to move from Management to Leadership

John Kotter (see ‘Leading Change’ by John Kotter) is once noted to have remarked that many organisations are over-managed and under-led.  This is a useful way of thinking about the culture shift that needs to take place in many of the organisations who are transforming to more Agile practices.  Very often management and leadership are used as interchangeable terms and they ought not to be.  Again lets look at a mindset: one particular mindset sees leadership as something that resides in the higher-most echelons of the organisation.  This mindset is not useful as what we would like to do is to inspire leadership throughout the organisation.  Leaders can be those people willing to have difficult and authentic conversations; leaders can be those people willing to lead the change in their area; leaders can be those people who serve the team.  Agility in our organisations is a call for more leadership and less management, but lets not translate “less or different type of management” to “NO management”.

A call for Humanism over Mechanism

So we understand that a loss of power and change of emphasis of the manager’s role will bring about a variety of emotional responses which will also impact their mindset and behaviour.  This is where we need to treat people with dignity and respect as they come to terms with new ways of doing things.  We understand that people form attachments (both emotionally and physiologically) to how we have done things in the past.  Having a compassionate mindset that communicates that “old doesn’t mean wrong” it just means different.  We understand that a different time required a different way of being, thinking and doing.  What does the current time require us to be, think or do?

In short if we don’t treat people like machines or cogs in a wheel (who else hates the term human resources???) and we provide the opportunity for reflection, then doing differently will hopefully result in a mindset-shift that makes the ways of doing things the new habit. But we warned this does take time and patience and will require uncomfortable conversations along the way. 

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