We can’t go on living this way

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


  1. Deming and Systems Thinking had a lot to say on this: ie Local Optimisation doesn’t work on a System 😦 I too am an optimist but have come to the conclusion they’re right. I still wonder about a “distributed change attack” or “effective leverage”…

  2. Hence my focus on non-violence and eg Nonviolent Communication. Indeed we cannot go on living and working in Jackal cultures.

    – Bob

  3. Martin Burns · · Reply

    Every manager wants total honesty and transparency from below, combined with the right to obfuscate upwards. Hence reporting becomes increasingly green as it traverses up the hierarchy.

    Now to slightly defend managers against the charge of sociopathy, better (NB, not ‘good’ on any absolute scale) managers will do this in part to protect their team – and yes, themselves included – from ‘help’ from above, which doesn’t always come with a benevolent hand, and certainly disrupts the work the team is actually trying to do to restore the actual situation to a genuine green.

    But what tends to happen is status reports go green, green, green, green, green, OH SHIT! when the problem just can’t be hidden any more. And when you’ve trained senior management to understand any problem reported to them as a major problem, no wonder they’ll overreact if you start reporting problems early.

    You’re right – it does take senior leadership to declare a problem amnesty, with a truth & reconciliation commission, to enable everyone below them to start being honest about their problems without fear.

  4. Joel Tosi · · Reply

    Does this type of environment – the silo’s, blame, controlling type – that is so prevalent today, is that a function of legacy thinking, size of the organization, some other intrinsic property?

    I’ve seen this environment in organizations as small as 200. And I’ve seen completely open and transparent organizations up to about 100 total staff. But the growth of the organization seems to introduce this more? Is it because silos feels ‘safer’?

    I don’t know, just food for thought.

  5. Sean McLaughlin · · Reply

    Top-down, command-and-control management environments have the hardest time adopting scrum. The executives, in particular the CFO, need to be interviewed and asked if they can accept a new software development framework requiring flexibility in in either scope or delivery date. If the answer is “no”, attempting scrum beyond the individual delivery team level is pointless.
    The more embedded the C&C culture, the more uphill the battle. If your CFO sees software development as an expense rather than an investment, update your resume and pack your bags if you really want to practice scrum – it’ll be much easier elsewhere.

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