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Adopting Agile When Your Management Style is Mostly Command and Control

by Ben Linders on Oct 17, 2013 |

There are organizations where command and control is the most dominant management style that is used. Agile adoption in such organizations can be tricky, and there have been situations where an agile transition didn’t deliver the expected improvements, or even failed and was stopped. 

Several authors suggested ways to deal with organizations that have a command and control management style, for example by assessing if an organization is ready for agile, assuring executive sponsorship, addressing management issues in agile transitions and by using different change approaches for agile adoption.

In the blog post is your organization ready for agile?, Suzanne Miller from the Software Engineering Institute writes about the readiness and fit analysis of organizations that are considering agile adoption. She suggests six categories that could be investigated, where one of them is the “organizational climate”: 

Organizational culture is one of hardest [readiness and fit] categories to assess when considering agile adoption readiness. Culture encompasses assumptions about appropriate or inappropriate behavior and the values held by the members of an organization. For example, in DoD organizations, culture is typically plan-driven and hierarchical, with strict command-and-control structures for communication and leadership. Organizations that are “fit” to adopt agile generally need to be empirical, collaborative, self-organizing, and cross-functional.

She provides a list of factors that can be considered when assessing the readiness and fit of the organizational climate for agile adoption:

  • User and customer focus. Organization supports early and frequent delivery of potentially shippable software to customers.
  • Positive change history. Organization's change history for introducing new engineering and management approaches is recently positive.
  • Environment that embraces requirements changes. Organization provides mechanisms that support accommodation of inevitably changing requirements.
  • Agile-supportive environment. Physical and social environments needed for agile team success are provided by the organization.
  • Trusting environment. Organization supports a climate of trust between acquirers and developers.
  • Fail/learn fast. A “fail early, fail fast, and learn” philosophy is supported by the organization in which development occurs.

A readiness and fit assessment will provide insight into the risks of an agile adoption. Suzanne states that “Identifying these risks is an important first step in planning and executing mitigation strategies to address them.”

The blog post organizational adoption of agile by Robert Boyd starts by quoting Larman's laws of organizational behavior. Robert explains using the law “culture follows structure” that to adopt agile, a change in the way that responsibilities and authorities are structured in an organization is often needed:

I think that those who believe Agile and Scrum are the way forward will be at odds with most businesses that have a deep institutionalized Command & Control structures that rests responsibility, but usually not accountability, within groups/committees while diverting responsibility away from individuals. In Scrum we rest most responsibility on the Product Owner and hold this person accountable for the business value delivered at the end of each and every sprint. It is often this simplicity Scrum provides that is in direct conflict with the ‘status quo’. So how to begin changes to the existing structures?

He states that for a full agile adoption you need an executive sponsor with sufficient influence in the organization, who “commands” the changes that are needed:

Agile is a movement that requires top-down leadership to say ‘this is going to happen, here is why it is good and we should all start rowing in that direction.’ The Executive Sponsor, along with possibly one or more Agile Coach specifically trained and experienced in agile adoption at the executive level, will be handing out the oars.

Earlier this year InfoQ published the article bridging the management gap from Tiago Garcez. He wrote about resistance from management to change, and explains how a command and control management style is one of the root causes of it:

While organizational leaders recognized the shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, they failed to see that they also needed to re-think their internal structure to be successful. As a result, they simply accepted the same command & control management model without second thought. And this, in essence, is the root cause of the current friction between Agile change initiatives and organizational leaders - we're operating in a knowledge economy while using command & control management principles from the industrial revolution.

He suggests 2 actions that change agents can do to bridge the management gap when adopting agile:

  • Understanding the Change Initiative’s Context
  • Sharing Results, Experiences and Learnings

Machiel Groeneveld wrote a blog post about preparing for an agile transition. He explains that a command and control management style can be a reason why an organization is not ready to adopt agile:

If Agile is introduced by management, they often think that it means management is not the problem and that can hinder the transition. Management really does need to change, otherwise you didn’t need Agile. It can also increase scinisim amongst the people because they feel it all needs to come from them. The biggest problem is management has a tendency to use command & control to implement Agile, which makes Agile a set of tricks not an organizational change.

He gives two tips for addressing issues with managers when adopting agile:

  • Make it explicit that managers will not lose their job after the Agile transition.
  • Discuss with management what they want to change in their own behavior before or as part of the Agile transition. If they say ‘nothing’, try again or give back the assignment.

Brian Søgaard wrote about using an agile approach for organizational change in is your change process agile or fragile? An organizational transformation is a never-ending journey with constant change towards a moving target. and that is why different change approach is needed:

An organizational transformation process, towards Agile or anything else, is to a great extent about cultural change and effective change management. You cannot enforce a cultural change by use of a command-and-control approach, with no cost to employee satisfaction or motivation. The key to success is involving empowered stakeholders who – with the appropriate training – are engaged to collaborate to achieve an easily understood and clearly communicated purpose and goal. Thus, due to the nature of the Agile mindset, an Agile approach to the transformation process itself can be highly effective.

In stead of kicking of change in large meetings, using burning platforms and fear as is often done, Brian proposes a other way of dealing with change:

What you must do instead, is to create the understanding of the purpose of the change, a clear picture of why to change to what. Your task as the manager is to engage your organization to define how you get there. That’s the tricky part.

A fluid, network-like structure with volunteers across the organization who continually formulate and implement the strategy. Dear fellows, this is Agile – and a huge change of what earlier was seen as the single right approach to change management.

He describes four principles that can help to increase the chance of success of a change initiative:

  1. Define the goal: Communicate an easily-understood purpose to create a common vision
  2. Create ownership: Continuously involve and engage all stakeholders at every level to ensure shared ownership
  3. Prioritize training: Train and educate all affected participants to meet the new expectations
  4. Delegate power: Delegate real decisions to the organization to motivate for support and engagement

What did you do to address the command and control management style when adopting agile? And how did that help your organization to transition to agile?

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