I have no explanation for why I issued the following tweets a day or so ago. Here they are, thanks to @threadreaderapp.

Most companies today have “Managers”. The companies are organized around an imposed hierarchy of responsibility and (somewhat) associated authority. We might prefer some other structure: we might reflect on other existing structures within those companies.
But that’s the way most companies are: a hierarchy of power, authority, responsibility. The management functions of planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling (Drucker) all pretty much follow that hierarchy.
Manifesto Agile is mostly agnostic to the hierarchy, instead describing how people might best work together. About all it says about organization is “business people” and “developers”, and that’s pretty vague.
Scrum, and XP, go a bit further, specifying a bit of ritual, with iterations and meetings and a few artifacts, working software being primary among the artifacts. They ask for cross-functional teams with the authority and ability to build the thing that’s to be built.
Let’s explore how that could go wrong. If you have a team with the authority and ability to build the thing, and it doesn’t work, then either they’ve chosen the wrong thing somehow, or they couldn’t build it.
Now with Scrum or XP, this problem cannot be hidden for long, because they’re delivering the built thing every week or two! Everyone in the company can see how the team is doing, if they will only look!
So if it goes wrong for long, what’s up? Either no one is looking–and therefore not doing their jobs, or the people looking, WHO HAVE ALL THE AUTHORITY AND RESPONSIBILITY OVER THIS TEAM, are not doing their jobs of directing and controlling.
Now if bad product decisions are being made, “they” need to help the customer/product owner make better decisions. Why do they need to do this? Because organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling IS THEIR JOB.
And if the developers don’t have the ability to build the thing, again “they” need to get those developers trained or replace them with developers who can do the job. Why? Because organizing and staffing IS THEIR JOB.
And if it still isn’t working? Then “they” need to cancel the effort or substantially redirect it. Why? Because planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling IS THEIR JOB.
When “Agile” isn’t working, it’s because the company hierarchy, somewhere, isn’t doing their job. And that’s recursive, all the way to the top.

“And that’s the truth.” – Edith Ann

This gaseous expulsion elicited a plethora of responses from a number of angles. Let me touch on a few.

Management hierarchy shouldn’t exist

A number of people, I don’t know, anarchists or something, argued that hierarchical management is a thing of the past and shouldn’t exist at all. I’m not really qualified to say about that. I confess I have known a lot of individual managers whom I felt shouldn’t exist, though I categorically deny that I had anything to do with their disappearances. But I really don’t know how companies “should” be organized. I do know that the non-hierarchical approach is being tried. So far, definitive results aren’t in, as far as I know, but the partial results at least make one wonder about the idea.

In any case, that’s not our topic. Our topic begins with Most companies today have “Managers”, and that’s what we’re talking about. The thread says, simply: “If a company has managers, they are responsible, by definition, for all the things that go on, right or wrong”.

Hierarchy is the best way to organize

This topic, I guess, is the mirror image of the idea that hierarchy shouldn’t exist: hierarchy should exist because it exists in parents, school, the military, the church, and so on. Well, I still don’t know how things “should” be organized, but I do have to say that I find this argument particularly weak. Just because a thing exists doesn’t make it good, much less ideal.

Nonetheless, our point here remains: in an organization where “management” owns the responsibility for things, well, they’re on the hook when things go wrong.

All managers are [stupid, evil, your pejorative here]

There was a lot of venting about how bad managers are. Well, bad managers are bad, good ones are good, and in between ones are in between. I think managers are just people1, and most of them are doing their best in a bad situation.2

Here again, though, I’m not here to tally managers or cast them into labeled bins. I’m just saying, if an organization has managers, they are, by definition, responsible. If things go wrong, it’s on them.

Stop blaming management

I was taken to task a bit for blaming. Yeah, well, when you have defined where responsibility lies, I don’t see a way out of saying that’s where responsibility lies. That said, it’s still “the system” that’s the real problem, and that may be where the idea that hierarchy is bad comes from. I’m not convinced on that, but more to the point, a hierarchical system can work. We know that because many of them do work.

But, as Diana has taught us, saying that management and managers are responsible isn’t to say that the fix is to get rid of the idea of management, or all managers, or even specific managers. Instead, we need to learn how the “system of Agile” works best in hierarchic situations, and to educate everyone involved in how to behave, and to devise practices, ideas, approaches, that will help people get the job done.

Anyway …

To me, that’s the bottom line. In an organization with managers, managers are responsible and we need to help them learn what’s needed, and do what’s needed, so that when, inevitably, things go off the rails, they’re well-equipped to get them back on. The same will be true for non-hierarchical organizations. My guess is that most of the same things will go wrong, and most of the same ideas and actions will help bring them back into line. Sometimes it’ll be easier. Sometimes it won’t.

Thanks for tuning in.

  1. I wanted to say here “managers are just people who have chosen a bad path”, because I think it’s funny, but surely some people would be hurt or offended. So I didn’t say it. 

  2. Chet Hendrickson likes to say that the meanest thing you can say about someone is “well, they’re doing the best they can”, and that he prefers to think he could do much better if he’d just bear down a bit. I understand that notion but I also agree with Norm Kerth’s “Prime Directive”. And Diana Larsen puts it this way: “I’ve never seen a person be the root cause of a problem”.