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Agile – A Way of Life and Pragmatic Use of Authority

I published an article in InfoQ a few months back. Although in that article, I used the term ‘authority’ scarcely but some of the readers expressed reservation about ‘authority’. Some of those interesting responses encouraged me to write another article to explain my perspective better. I would start with a few analogies to explain my point. Later in the article, I have mentioned how Agile can be practiced in real life. Towards the end, I have again given some examples from public life and tried to map it with the Agile and self-organizing concept.

Example #1

A heart patient has a goal to get well. He goes to a doctor who suggests following approach.

1. Take 1 hour walk daily and don’t eat oily food, it will strengthen your heart. No medicine is required. (Equivalent to perfect self-organizing)
Many patients follow the above and get recover well.

2. Patient didn’t follow the advice and condition worsens. The doctor says you need to take tablets/medicines, may be even injections. But still you need to walk and avoid fatty food. (Equivalent to Agile coach/facilitator who is trying to fine tune the patient’s heart because patient didn’t follow 1st advice and was not self-organizing at first place)
Many patients recover after this step.

3. Now, patient did take some medicines but not properly and still didn’t follow the 1st advice (walk and good food). Condition deteriorates further. Now to save the patient, every doctor in the world would recommend heart bypass surgery or any kind of surgery otherwise patient would die. (This is equivalent to authority)

Now, how long you continue to teach the patient the benefits of walk and food when he is not following and he is on the verge of dying? Would you throw him out of family, out of society? In my opinion, if you are a well wisher of the patient, you will ask the doctor - whatever it takes – please save the patient. This is exactly my whole point is all about authority.

Example #2

One of my friends runs a software company using Agile as development methodology. He told me the following.

1. His team was very relaxed. They didn’t even follow simple Agile principal of collaborating with the product owner (PO) of the customer. They didn’t call the PO after the demo to check his feedback. The PO said in retro – sprint failed. Requirements were not well understood, more precisely were not discussed in depth. My friend explained the benefits of collaborating with PO and inspired team to take PO’s feedback after demo.

2. Team didn’t listen. Again, didn’t collaborate well with PO neither felt the need of taking his feedback after demo. Again, sprint failed and PO escalated. My friend again tried to inspire the team.

3. Team in the name of freedom, arrogance, trust – still didn’t listen. Sprint failed, 3 times in a row. PO was about to scrap the project.

4. Now my friend said – better you follow my instructions. If next sprint fails – I will fire you. Now, team came out of their comfort zone. Till date, project is doing great! Now the team has also become self-organized to large extent. But someone had to show authority at least once to set things back on track. This is exactly my whole point of pragmatic authority.

Example #3

Another acquaintance of mine was about to invest whole of his money into stocks of a small company. He was fully confident (rather arrogant) that he is going to make a very intelligent investment which will give him very high returns. His father was not convinced; he tried to inspire him and advised not to invest in this company. He didn’t listen on the name of freedom and was over confident of what he was doing. Then his father used his authority to stop him. He sadly followed him as he respects him a lot. Later on we all saw that the same company got shut down and ran away. He thanked to his father’s authority who saved him from a blunder which would have led him bankrupt.

There are certain decisions in life if they go wrong, we can always recover and get 2nd chance to make amendments. But there are certain decisions, where life does not give 2nd chance. If they go wrong, it may irreversibly alter course of your life, your business, your project, your relation with the customer and so on. It is these things where we should fall back on expert judgment and more experienced people. And those seasoned experts may have to use authority in certain situations if their loved ones are doing a blunder in ignorance. This is my idea of pragmatic authority.

Example #4

A little kid held a knife and insisted his father to play with it. No wonder, he would have hurt himself and also his father because he was not mature enough to play with the knife. His father first tried to explain not to play with knife but obviously a kid is a kid, he won’t listen. The father then used his authority of being father and snatched the knife. Although the kid cried for some time but it saved the kid and the father from getting injured. Here crying of the kid was of less importance or less pain as compared to possible injuries.

The example of the kid against the backdrop of Agile may sound a little funny but I believe there is a kid in each of us at every stage, at every age be it in terms of:

  • Lack of knowledge (the kid didn’t have the complete knowledge of knife)
  • Stubborn (kid liked the knife too much that he was not ready to give it up easily)
  • Lack of maturity (of course kid is not mature enough to know pros and cons of playing with the knife)
  • Lack of listening skill (kids hate to follow instructions)
  • Greed (more toys you give, more the kid would want)

Ironically, at various stages of our life (e.g. after school, after university, starting job, after getting promotion etc.) we think that we are not kids any more. In my opinion, all of the above attributes displayed by kids remain inside us and we tend to display the same every now and then but in a polished way and in a different context obviously. Lack of knowledge would always be there. Can anyone claim s/he has all the knowledge of everything? We show little flexibility when it comes to changing style of work, behavior, communication etc. Don’t we want to be stubborn and continue to work in our comfort zone? Who can claim s/he has achieved maximum level of maturity? How many of us want to follow instructions? Are we content with money, freedom, technology or whatever we have? We are grown up kids.

Now, if kids need authority so do adults but of course in a polished way.

Agile is a way of life

I always relate what we do in our office with what we do in our public life. Our behavior in office cannot be isolated. In fact how we work and behave in office, our soft skills at work place are a mirror of our personality in public life. In my opinion, it is impossible to look upon personal and professional character in isolation. I have seen split personality only in a few Hollywood movies J.

I would love to extend the concept of empowerment, freedom (given by Agile) to the common man in social life. In my opinion, laws and policies should not be made in parliament or senate but people at grass root level should be empowered to govern the country. Not only this, common men should decide the salaries of politicians and bureaucrats – should also decide if their performance is eligible to draw the salary or not. There should be dedicated inspirational persons (equivalent to agile coach) who continuously mentor people/communities on good habits, strong character and all those holy preaching that we learnt in schools. I sincerely believe it is realistic and possible provided the mankind has will power to do this. But even then, it does not rule out the existence of cops. Human mind is the most complex and the most unpredictable thing in this universe. Like technology cannot solve all the problems, medical science cannot manufacture drugs to treat all kind of diseases (some of the diseases are still incurable)- similarly you cannot inspire every person and make every person truly self-organizing. If this is true, what will you do to those persons who are off track, not Agile by nature which means self-disorganized? Those people are also human beings - carry the life which must be respected and saved. They should be handled differently so that they should not impact other lives. One of the best and historical ways to handle these off track people is to control the incompetency of these people using authority but using it professionally.

All of the concepts of Agile are really beautiful. I am a big fan of everything written in Agile. And if we apply those concepts in public life, we can change the world.

Real life versus Agile concepts

  • Every country and culture has inspirational leaders, preachers of peace and humanity, saints (much bigger in scope and influence than Agile coach/facilitator) – still why crime is on the rise?
  • Every country has cops. Cops have authority. If someone thinks inspiring people solves every problem – may I ask why every country has cops?
  • To monitor traffic, we have cameras to catch speeding vehicles. Even though almost everybody follows traffic rules but it does not make cameras redundant. Why don’t we trust people and remove this overhead of cameras?
  • Similarly there are traffic lights to tell when to go and when to stop. Why don’t we remove all lights because self organizing people will also drive in a self-organizing manner, isn’t it?
  • Whenever there is a crime be it of low severity or as a big as a bomb attack, the Government sends police and army to diffuse the situation. If we go by idealistic way, then the Government should send only priests and saints to inspire criminals. I guess this is not practical.

It may sound a little strange that I am comparing acts of public life against backdrop of Agile in IT. Actually I am comparing humans with humans. Those people with evil intentions exist in the same world where we all belong to. It is the same set of people for whom we need traffic lights, cameras, cops to manage in public life, how can same people don’t need anyone to monitor and manage when they step into office? Agile is an excellent way of software development but in my opinion, it is not a magic pill with divine powers that will transform people into a perfect human being the moment they enter into the office.

People infected with corporate evils (e.g. back-biting, jealousy, showing off work with shouting, holding the knowledge, sycophancy etc.) are equivalent to corporate defaulters who needs to be handled differently. And one of those different and historical ways is using authority. This is what I call “Realistic idealism”. I believe “Blind idealism” is not going to work in all (rather any) situations.

We have read in schools – “Always speak truth, never tell a lie”. At the same time, we have also read that telling a lie to save someone’s life is not bad. Saving the life is of supreme importance. Similarly, authority may be bad but sometimes it becomes inevitable to save either a person, business or project or sprint as illustrated in above examples.

In my opinion, the problem is misusing the authority and using it unnecessarily. It should be used to protect the business, protect the customer, protect the projects which indirectly would protect and help people only. Agile is not only a set of rules but it is much bigger. It requires paradigm shift in the mindset and attitude the way we work. And it cannot be adopted completely simply by couple of days of classroom training. It requires a minimum basic level of maturity, ability to change and evolve, self-motivation, honest intentions to excel as a team and constant mentoring.


I feel freedom and authority are kin. I found some of the Agile practitioners are very allergic to the word “authority”. I think, problem is not with authority but problem is people often misuse it. Some people consider authority as luxury, power, and status symbol. This is really bad. These kinds of people will surely misuse authority and must not be given authority. Freedom has same attribute as authority. If people misuse freedom, it is equally terrible. Some people consider freedom as luxury, no accountability, irresponsibility and license to kill or in other words license to do anything. Those people should never be given freedom rather controlled freedom. Firing someone from a company is the ultimate use of authority and even Agile companies fire people. I think if we use authority diligently and mildly on need basis during the normal course of project or business – we may not have to reach the highest use of authority which is firing. Bottom-line is, freedom and authority – both are bad if misused and both are good if used in right spirit for a noble cause.

About the Author

Vinay Aggarwal is ‘head of delivery’ with Xebia IT Architects, India. He has 11.5 years of experience in IT industry. He holds bachelor’s degree in Engineering. He is a PMI certified project manager (PMP) and Certified Scrum Master (SCM) also. He has worked in companies like IBM and Accenture in the past. He has a very good experience in both waterfall as well as Agile (Scrum) methodologies. He believes in lateral thinking and applies management concepts to handle various delivery challenges.

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