The 12 enemies of adaptability

And weapons how to kill them…. Enemy 1: Hierarchy

Marty de Jonge
Jul 11 · 6 min read

In “ the 12 enemies of adaptability” series different angles that influence adaptability within organisations are discussed. All articles have this theme but can also be read on their own.

One of the main reason for organisations to start an Agile transformation is to (re)organise the organisation in order to improve their ability to respond to a fast changing environment. Like the famous quote says

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself”. — disputable , Charles Darwin —

So out of necessity for survival, organizations are looking for ways to do so. One of the most used framework to support this adaptability objective is Scrum. Looking at what the Scrum guide tells us about this, it tells us:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.- Scrum guide -

Apart from this the pillars that Scrum is build on are transparency, inspection and adaptation and looking at the values, commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect, this looks like a usable framework to me…

OK, Great! So we have a strong motivation to make adaptability one of our most important goals and we have a suitable framework to do so! Let’s Do It!

One problem though, to become (or stay) a successful adaptable organization. It’s not a free lunch! It also requires a fertile environment within the organisation (culture) to grow on.

To often the attention on these adaptability topics go towards the outside adaptability and to little towards the inside one. In this serie of articles I will describe 12 enemies of this internal adaptability. Kill these inside enemies and you will smoothen the way to reach your objective towards the external adaptability as an organization.

Enemy 1. Hierarchy

Top-down control based hierarchies discourage individual initiative, lead to slower reaction times and diverts energy to “managing up to the management”

I like Dan Pink’s point. In the context of knowledge work, in order to create an environment where people are motivated we need autonomy, mastery, and purpose. There’s a strong correlation between the first two. ( Purpose will be touched in another edition of this serie)

Given that we give enough autonomy in how teams organize their work and how that work gets done, they most likely can pursue mastery as well. Of course there are exceptions and not every team member will reach the same degree of mastery at the same time, but in general I certainly believe in this connection.

Most of the times in “ established organizations” we see a strict hierarchy. An employee has a manager, that middle manager has his own senior manager, and so on until you reach the C-level floor with the corner offices and best views. This hierarchy on itself does not have to be a problem. Far more a problem could be how the power that comes with it is distributed within the hierarchy. Powers are usually connected to a specific domain. vertically or horizontal. Each manager is a ruler of their own kingdom.

This hierarchical model has (or had?..) its advantages. Risks, decisions and accountability are all neatly and transparent structured documented. Given that power is clearly distributed across the hierarchy we always know who is supposed to make a decision and thus who should be kept accountable for it.(We all know this does not always say so much about who has the real ‘informal’ power, but it looks nice in an organizational chart)

That’s great. Unfortunately, at the same time it discourages attempts to distribute decision-making. And can you blame that poor manager? When she is still kept accountable for the output and outcomes of decisions made in her team, she better double-checks of she is OK with what the team decides and delivers.. This in return means that normally there’s very little autonomy in hierarchical organizations.

It brings me to a sad observation. The most common organizational structures that have been build for decades discourage autonomy and with that probably mastery too.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to! — Karen Ferris

How to kill hierarchy?

There is no easy way to bring this. The complete paradigm of how organisations are to be “managed” has to go overboard!

Not that we won’t be needing people managing anymore.. Just the opposite! We need, now more than ever, strong leaders to manage and safeguard the objectives and the course of the organization. The playing field, dependencies and preconditions must be managed with a firm hand. However, what organizations have to stop doing is maintaining a structure in which people are managed. Implementing the Scrum framework alone will not automatically stop people from being managed though. Like described in one of my earlier articles Cargo Culting does not help to change mindset and behaviour. However, the framework can help to structure self organisation as part of adopting an Agile mindset and living up to these values within an organisation.

Don’t you think that people who, in their private situation, are able to decide on very complex matters such as mortgages, raising children and maintain marriages are also perfectly capable of organizing their work together as a team for the coming few weeks? As long as they have a clear, challenging and attractive goal and enough space and trust to get the job done, they will be able to decide for themselves how this goal is obtainable.

Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work. The resulting synergy optimizes the Development Team’s overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Development Teams have the following characteristics:

They are self-organizing. No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Development Team how to turn Product Backlog into Increments of potentially releasable functionality; — Scrum guide -

Or, like Karen Ferris stated in her publications; “ This elevates the level of responsibility of front-line employees and eliminates unnecessary layers of management, resulting in comments and feedback reaching all of the personnel involved in decision-making more quickly.”

Of course the management of any organisation must be open to it and dedicated to start changing the structure in order to make this work, but since so many of them are eager to start working Scrum, this is also part of the package. At least the Scrum guide gives you insights and ammunition for a good way how to handle the enemy of hierarchy.

It’s time all organizational leaders start eating their own dogfood.

One way we could convince them in doing so, is to start small. Create room, openness and trust to run an experiment with a few teams to show that it works.

Acknowledgements to Pawel Brodzinski and Karen Ferris for inspiration and backgrounds.

In this series of articles I will discuss all 12 enemies, so stay tuned and let me know if you want a notification when the next one comes online …

Did you like the article? I am very keen to learn what you think about this topic.

My twitter profile is

All discussed enemies of adaptation in this series:

1. Hierarchy

2. Fear

3. Decision Bias

4. Habit

5. Centralization

6. Inflexible business practices

7. Rigid Structures

8. Short-term thinking

9. Lack of diversity

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Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Thanks to Paddy Corry, Daniel Westermayr, and Sjoerd Nijland

Marty de Jonge

Written by

As an agnostic change agent I am a descriptor of what is happening on the various business monkey rocks. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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