The customer-oriented enterprise: (2) Scrum in the land of Middle Management

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  Thoughts on empirical management, Business Agility and Enterprise Scrum (part 2/3)   So, Scrum is to be applied for improving the relationship of an organization in a broad, business sense to markets, customers and competitors as part of Business Agility? Scrum is to be seen as more than a development process, as an enabler […]


Thoughts on empirical management, Business Agility and Enterprise Scrum (part 2/3)


So, Scrum is to be applied for improving the relationship of an organization in a broad, business sense to markets, customers and competitors as part of Business Agility? Scrum is to be seen as more than a development process, as an enabler for business to take full advantage of the Power of the Possible Product? To adapt and survive in the land of Extremistan? But at the same time the Scrum framework only describes the 3 mentioned roles that are actively part of Scrum Teams? True, and still you might expect that, when introducing Scrum, Scrum Teams run into issues that impede their self-organization, their ways to improve and build a better product. And these impediments most likely go to what we use to call the middle management.

Ah. Yes. Middle management. The layers of the organization that are generally perceived as a labyrinth of secret chambers, full of dark decision making only driven by status, position and status-quo. They are thought of as black boxes where change, innovation and novel ideas are suffocated with issues, problems, constraints and objections. Or taken out by legal or finance hit-men. And the general justification seems to be ‘the well-being of the enterprise’.

Should middle managers therefore be stigmatized as impediments to Scrum adoption? Because Scrum has no explicit role for them? Well, neither has Scrum descriptions or roles for lots of other interesting and useful tasks or activities within organizations. Although they will be impacted if product development is re-oriented towards Agile by using the Scrum framework. The only ‘demand’ that Scrum obviously launches is to respect the rules of the game, in order to have the full benefits of empirical and adaptive thinking.

Labeling people as “impediment” looks a lot like abusing Lean by labeling people as “waste” before removing them. Bad excuse. Terrible practice. Wrong attitude. At the same level, ‘Agility’ is about improving the way that we work, about delivering better products, making software product development revolve around users and quality, about flexibility, intelligence, creativity and… respecting people. Impediments are structures, processes, waste that… impede or block further improvement. Labeling people as impediments feels twisted from my Agile spirit. Agilists, as change agents for a cultural move to Agile thinking, should take the position of a teacher-coach in servicing the organization outside of a Scrum Team. Make people understand the why of Scrum; listen, think, answer, have a conversation and improve gradually, although consistently and with conviction.

The goal is to keep improving the way we work through a better adoption of Scrum. The focus shouldn’t be on the identification of the who’s. Labeling middle managers as impediments is not going to improve the way we work. Getting people from middle management in the game through a structured, iterative-incremental change program is. Such a program thrives upon an urgency for achieving and improving Business Agility, often by capitalizing on the bottom-up enthusiasm for Scrum. It is an answer to the very real need for upsteam adoption.

The existing organizational domains of “management” and “development” get interconnected via the new temporary domain of “change” through continuous links, communication and interaction. At management level an “Agility Capture Team” (ACT) resolves and improves organizational structures for the Scrum Teams to perform better. ACT works in an iterative-incremental way, with room to continuously adapt to and re-plan upon reality. Scrum qua Scrum, so to speak.

Accept ‘change’ as a highly unpredictable and complex process. That’s why it should be run in an iterative-incremental way and against Prof. John Kotter’s established 8-step program as described in “Leading Change”. ‘Inspect and adapt’ to maneuver for maximization within the space of the highest possible at all times. Drive the change Vision, create frequent results, quick wins and (sometimes) dictate. And continuously communicate. The ACT team, the ‘guiding coalition’, frequently interacts with the Scrum Teams, and all other change stakeholders, including… middle management.

Approaching a change process to introduce Agility from an Agile spirit looks for ways to include middle management, interact with them, teach them, embrace them for taking up another position, for shifting to a new point of view, be it as a product stakeholder (closer connected to the Scrum Teams) or as a line manager (over people working in the Scrum Teams).

Because at a middle management level the top-down driven change Vision should meet and amalgamate with grassroots enthusiasm. The change needs to take root in new line management thinking, procedures and policies. In reforming departmental structures to supporting home-bases for co-workers. But, as should be clear, middle management is expected to move from predictive to empirical management, as part of the change strategy to implement Scrum.

Is it over the course of a Scrum transformation likely that organizations start performing better with less middle management? Maybe, even likely, but that is not the purpose. The purpose is to improve the flexibility, performance, quality, the internal joy and the external perception of the organization by implementing Scrum, which requires respecting the way the game is played. It might lead to former middle managers to enthusiastically take up their new, empirical management role. It might lead to former middle managers to move into Scrum Teams. It might lead to former middle managers to take up product stakeholder responsibility towards Scrum Teams. It might lead to former middle managers to… leave. Don’t know. Can’t know. Can’t predict. Don’t want to predict. Want to act.

Accept that there is no definite, predictable and predefined way to convince middle management. Would you try to point out the ‘Value’ of a Scrum transformation to middle management? Know then that there is simply no generic, all-applicable definition for ‘Value’. Value has only meaning when defined against the concrete mission and vision of a specific enterprise or organization. In general terms however, the indirect value for middle management is a better performance for the enterprise, better products, more profit, higher valuation by markets, customers, shareholders and stock exchange markets. The direct value is a new, possibly more empowered but certainly more engaging and satisfying, while less stressful role, a more enjoyable professional life. There is a real risk for negative value, as perceived by part of the middle management population. Expect a percentage of middle managers to regret the loss of status and position, as in hierarchical position, over enjoying the described possible evolutions in their work.

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