For years I’ve assumed that when Agile principles succeeded at a team level they would naturally spread to other teams in the organisation until eventually the whole organisation would embrace openness and failing fast. I’ve naively been surprised when this doesn’t happen. I’ve probably been a bit slow, or perhaps my bias for optimism has lead me to ignore the signs, but today the penny dropped. The reason bottom-up Agile doesn’t spread beyond the team is a consequence of the blame and punish culture that dominates traditional hierarchical management.
Failing early and openness are at the foundation of agility. Our practices make problems visible as early as possible so that we can fix them whilst the cost of doing so is relatively small. We test our code to reveal its problems before it’s written. We pair program so that we are more likely to spot problems as soon as they appear. We integrate our code as soon as it is committed. We deliver our code to customers early before we waste time doing the wrong thing. Most importantly we stick our problems on a big board visible to everyone often marked with a fat red post-it that nobody can ignore. We try to work as close to reality as we can.
Traditional Management is not so accepting of failure whether it’s early or late. Culture dictates that failure is the bedfellow of blame and embarrassment, and defensive reactions to embarrassment are typically violent . Problems are best swept under the carpet if internal, or attributed to somebody else if external. Failure that cannot be attributed is just plain bad luck. It’s safest and most advantageous for a managers career progression to keep his head firmly buried in the underfloor network conduits.
But here’s the rub, it’s not enough for managers just to hide their own problems. Hierarchy dictates that, as a manager, you are also responsible for all your team’s failures. It’s fine if they keep it to themselves, but if they start sharing their problems with other departments it’s going to make you look incompetent. The safest course of action is to ensure that there are no channels of communication to other departments (except via you) by creating a Silo and sticking a fat stop sign in front of any inter-departmental collaboration. It also pays to keep teams so busy that they don’t have time to explore how others can help with their problems or how they can help others.
To an Agile team a silo is an impediment that restricts cross-functional collaboration. To a traditional manager a Silo is a necessity for survival and the tighter it is the safer he feels. If this type of culture exists in an organisation the change seems unlikely to happen without a credible top-down effort to change the mindset that creates this culture. The cause of the fear of failure is blame. Blame comes from fear of punishment. We must replace blame with empathy. What would happen if the CEO of your organisation abolished blame and started encouraging failure to be treated in a more healthy way? What would happen if you asked her to?
We can’t go on living this way