Leaders, The Problem Is Not Your Agile Teams — It’s You.

Sam McAfee
Jun 15 · 6 min read
Photo by on

I should have realized something was wrong when the Engineering leader said something to the effect of “I just want you to get them to ship code faster. We have quarterly objectives we need to meet.”

I ignored that little voice in my head that was screaming, “Run away! Get up, walk out, and don’t look back! This guy’s only concerned with his own ego!”

I should have listened. Instead, I stayed on for eight grueling months, trying desperately to help a small group of dedicated Agile coaches to transform a rigid top-down authoritarian culture in a 100-year old $20B company into a modern, liberated startup-like environment. Predictably, we failed.

But I learned a lot, and here is some of that learning.

You see, I’ve been a consultant for a long time. I tried my hand at longer term roles in product companies for a while, but I am just not built for grinding it out day after day in a single company. I am a consultant because my superpower is helping people overcome limitations they didn’t know were there, by flexing strengths they didn’t know they had, to get them unstuck enough for them to continue working on their own. That ability is perfect for consulting.

But while I love helping people, I have to admit that consultants can sometimes be used as a battering ram, or a bludgeon, or even a hitman. Managers will sometimes hire a consultant to do the dirty work of “cleaning house,” whether that means saying something they want said but won’t risk the political capital to say themselves, or helping bring the evidence together necessary to weed out weaker players on their team. Consultants make a great political weapon in a modern dysfunctional organization.

Enter Agile.

Usually, Agile consultants are brought into organizations through the Engineering team (or “IT” as it’s called in enterprise, a hideous term that I just wish would curl up and die). These Agile consultants think they are hired to help develop self-organized efficient teams, and to help the team develop the skills necessary to ship great software. Every year, droves churn through the training process to become certified Scrum Masters and the like, with the hopes that they will be recruited to fight the good fight.

But actually, they are there to be the patsy in a political Game of Thrones among the leadership team. Agile is just a buzzword at that level, a term some VP read in a magazine on an airplane. They don’t really take it seriously. They don’t even know what it really means and they don’t care. It’s just another weapon in the arsenal to be fired at the enemy in an eternal struggle over resources and power.

The Enterprise Is Fundamentally Broken

The modern corporate structure is based on ideals from a bygone era. Frederick W. Taylor started it, if we want to name names, through his widely lauded and yet poorly researched and even more poorly written treatise, “Principles of Scientific Management.” Hardened into leadership and management theory in the days of “Just in Case” mass production, the structure of the modern corporation remains top-down and largely optimized for precision production at scale. It is not optimized for the kind of creativity and flexibility demanded by the modern global digital economy.

Further, the revolution in software and automation that has been underway since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s has matured into an unstoppable force that strips away the relevance of 80% of corporate managerial positions. This crisis was recognized by Peter Drucker in his provocative and yet rarely-mentioned 1993 book, Post-Capitalist Society, in which he pointed out that managers in the knowledge age will become more or less obsolete.

That fear of management obsolescence is, explicitly or implicitly, on the minds of every leader in large traditional organizations. And Agile actually presents at least part of an opportunity for these leaders, if they are open enough to see it. Through a transition to more flexible, self-organizing teams, teams with more autonomy and creativity at their disposal, managers could learn to embrace new and exciting ways of leading organizations. They could learn to rebuild their teams into formidable competitors in the global economy.

But most leaders are too trapped by their own fear to recognize this opportunity and capitalize on it.

Agile Is A Mindset Not A Process

Agile originated from a way of thinking about software development that is fundamentally anti-hierarchical, collaborative, flexible — and fast. It’s everything the traditional corporate machine, based on large scale standardization and long term predictability, is designed to remove from the system. So, naturally, large organizations exert a kind of organ rejection spasm against any attempts to introduce flexibility, creativity, and, especially, autonomy, into the process.

And unfortunately, the flavors of Agile that have gained the most ground in the modern corporation are focused primarily on getting Agile to work in an environment that is fundamentally designed to stop creativity from happening in the first place. So, paradoxically, the way to get Agile to work in a traditional organization is to remove all the Agile from it. No wonder so many Agile initiatives fail!

Good Leadership Is In Short Supply

It will take enormous courage and brave risk-taking of modern leaders in order to solve this problem. Sadly, most leaders are not up to the task.

True leadership, the kind that inspires organizations to pull together and accomplish daunting feats by working together, requires a level of self-awareness that is incredibly rare in our modern business culture. Leaders in enterprise are traditionally incentivized to build empires and to protect them, not to encourage their people to think creatively to solve problems.

If a leader were to truly embrace the possibility for transformation and the ethos that Agile presents (“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” as the Agile Manifesto so succinctly puts it), they would need to have the courage to reject decades of strongly held beliefs. Beliefs such as “leaders are supposed to have all the answers,” or “decision making comes only from the top,” or “teams need a strong hand to perform to expectations,” would need to be left rotting by the side of the road.

Leaders must be prepared to look beyond just “shipping code faster” and “quarterly objectives” and into why their group of competent, educated humans isn’t producing together as a team. They must be prepared to look deeply within themselves: to wrestle with their own fears of failure, their own ego, have the courage of conviction to admit their mistakes, ask questions more than they answer them, and delegate decision-making to their teams. Only then will their organization have a chance of survival in a very dynamic new world.


Be a better technology leader

Learn to apply these skills in the context of your organization. Check out the Startup Patterns . Every quarter, I lead a small group of emerging technology leaders through a structured process of professional growth and development in leadership. We cover topics like how to discover and pursue your professional direction, how to have difficult conversations with peers, how to manage up to executives, and how to lead change in an organization using influence rather than authority.

Registration is now open. .

Startup Patterns

We help develop better technology leaders and build high-performing product development teams. Learn more at startuppatterns.com

Sam McAfee

Written by

I train, coach, and develop technology leadership in startups, small business, and enterprise. More at StartupPatterns.com

Startup Patterns

We help develop better technology leaders and build high-performing product development teams. Learn more at startuppatterns.com