Principle Misunderstandings (part 1)

R. David Cummins
Sep 22, 2019 · 5 min read

The following are examples of how the principles behind new ways of work are generally misunderstood and therefore lose their effectiveness or even send us off in a harmful direction. All of these examples derive from my own experiences with individuals at workshops and other events and with people within my own organizations.

Involvement

As I see it, involvement is one of the main Agile Principles. In general, when we think of involving someone, we think we are doing it for his or her benefit — this is not the case in the agile sense. Of course, it certainly helps someone feel committed to a cause, if he or she has had a part in it from the beginning. But involvement is for our own benefit, whether we are the team or the organization. Just as software projects benefit from the expertise of people from different fields (e.g. content creators, designers, developers) being involved from the very beginning, an organization benefits from people with different views (and mental models) being involved in any new project or change process or even in the daily operation of the system.

We assume that no one person can see a whole system and no one person can know everything to be known.

Resistance to involvement doesn’t just come from “those in charge”. I have experienced a case in which software developers have refused to be involved because they didn’t have the time or didn’t want to be distracted. The same developers complained later about ideas and plans that had been put into the project that were unrealistic to implement. Involvement needs the willingness and the commitment of all.


New Work is hard work — but should also be more rewarding.


Rules

Or as they are called in Kanban: policies

One misunderstanding of New Work is that we do not have rules anymore. While it is true that the best rules do not come “top-down” (here we prefer to think of frameworks and structures) at the operating level we need rules. If we have to think through every situation every single time we will be terribly inefficient and also ineffective. Rules make our lives easier so that we don’t have to be thinking and discussing constantly. This write-up of a speech of mine shows how I came to realize this.

What we do want, though, is to regularly check whether our rules are still the best rules we can have, if they allow us to work in the best way, whether they are realistic and whether we still have complete commitment to them.

By the way, Kanban calls for rules to be explicit. Only when rules have been clearly communicated is it possible to agree on them and commit to them.


New Work is not just about “happy” people. While one definition of happy people is: people who are engaged, find meaning in their work and are challenged to go beyond their limits, New Work is about making organizations better and better organizations create more value (also for themselves).


Embracing Change

This is probably the main principle that makes Agile attractive for our current times and it also leads to all kinds of side-effects. I’ve heard that people believe that they no longer are allowed to make plans. I’ve heard people describe their projects as being agile when they meant chaotic. Embracing change doesn’t mean that you just do anything. Of course, you have a goal and you make initial plans to get there — according to experience and in order test the way to the goal. Along the way you will find (by experimenting) that you will need to change the way you are going and by regularly checking you will probably adjust your goal to something more valuable (hopefully not to something that is just more easily attainable).

Remote Work / Home Office

It seems that many organizations believe that in order to do “New Work” you must allow for remote work. Working from anywhere is just a tool that the digital age provides many knowledge- or creative-workers. It is a wonderful tool that allows many of us to work (at all or more effectively) in situations where it would have been hard for us to do so 15 years ago. Whether it is because we need to wait for a delivery at home, or are having to travel or just because it is too damn noisy at the office for the type of work we currently want to do. Whatever the reason, it is the work to be done that is central — the well-being of the worker is part of this but not the reason in itself.

Some types of work can not be done remotely — that’s just the way it is. It makes no sense to try to press the same rules onto all types of work.

I personally believe that remote work should not out-weigh being physically present with my team. Constant remote work brings a social disadvantage and a communication overhead that will cost you in the long run.

Working hours

We have a saying at the Ministry Group: you are paid for your brain, not for your butt. Basically it means, value is not being produced just by sitting around. We encourage people to go out and walk to free their heads or to come up with ideas. We know people will have ideas on weekends and not just at office hours. Creativity doesn’t know 9–5.

This however doesn’t really mean that if I have nothing to do, I can just go home (or to the bar, or whatever). It means that I take on a lot of responsibility for myself — it means always looking for opportunities to learn, use my talents, get ideas and help others. Maybe going home or to the bar is part of that — but not because I have nothing else to do.

Socially, it is not so easy to tolerate fellow colleagues working this way. It takes a lot of trust and trust can be ruined if the team doesn’t see what individuals are contributing.

Some people generally need different working hours. Some work better early in the morning. Others do their best work at night. Allowing for these differences is hard — some common time is necessary and a lot of trust among the team members. And I have to rely on individuals learning about themselves and finding out for themselves when they do their best work. But it is in the best interest of the organization that individuals work at times when they do their best work — so once again it is not just about being nice to people.


To be continued …

All that was in no particular order … I have a few more on the list to come (hierarchy, decisions, and transparency are examples) and would be happy to receive suggestions for more “Principle Misunderstandings” as well as comments on the above.

Illustration: © R. David Cummins

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