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On Agile Thinking and Respect


When Agile is introduced into an organization it completely changes the relationship between managers and staff. While traditional management models utilize the formal power of managers and compliance as the major tool to generate consistent behavior, Agile approaches emphasize self-organization and what the Organizational Development calls “Catalytic Leadership”. Though many team members new to Agile (and unfortunately also some Agile bloggers) think that only management has to change, practice shows that both sides have to adopt new behaviors and models.
Agile is way more than Scrum, but in this particular case the five Scrum values of Respect Courage, Focus, Openness and Commitment provide good guidance. I particularly found Pete Behrens’ definition of Respect helpful in this context: “Respect (lat: Look or view again): Curiosity about how others view things, and a willingness to consider their perspective.”
Mutual respect is one of the core attributes an Agile organization needs to develop. It is the foundation to establish an aligned vision between management and staff, which is the replacement for compliance-driven command & control management in an Agile organization.
From a manager’s perspective respect means to be open and honest with your goals and the responsibility split intended. Using explicit delegation levels (as originally defined by Tannenbaum and Schmidt and made popular by Jürgen Appelo) and delegation poker have proven to be very powerful tools to negotiate and clarify boundary conditions and expectations. Managers need to understand that teams need sufficient freedom and empowerment to make fast decisions and new teams first need to learn how to use this freedom.
Team members on the other side need to understand that self-organization does not mean full autonomy on all decisions. Managers still have legal and organizational responsibilities and (should) have a more global perspective than the often localized perspective of a team. This needs active negotiation of responsibilities and delegation levels and the willingness to commit both to the empowerment and the liabilities that come with responsibilities.
Both parties need to understand that this is a mutual learning effort. So when your manager makes decisions your team should have been involved into (at least from your perspective), you should show Openness and Courage to address this with all due Respect – not to blame your manager (“Alas, finally I can take revenge on being blamed for 30 years…”), but to find ways to avoid these type of conflicts in the future.
And when you as a manager think your team doesn’t live up to their responsibility or demands more empowerment than you are ready to give, you should demonstrate Courage, Openness and Respect by working out what information or insight is missing for the team to make better decisions. Mature Agile managers usually challenge their teams by going on one or two delegation levels above what the team demands for.
Finally it is important to appreciate that both parties shall fail every now and then on this path. So both parties should treat failures as an opportunity to learn together, rather than an opportunity to blame each other. The place to discuss conflicts on responsibilities and find better ways to deal with them in the future is the Retrospective (or one of the Kanban Reviews if you’re using the Seven Cadences). And be prepared to have many Retrospectives until everybody has completely embarked on Agile Thinking.

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