[The following is an email advisory written this week (9-13) that generated several comments. I've reproduced it here to encourage more interaction.]
I’ve been thinking recently that the term “self-organizing” has outlived its usefulness in the agile community and needs to be replaced. While self-organizing is a good term, it has, unfortunately, become confused with anarchy in the minds of many. Why has this occurred? Because there is a contingent within the agile community that is fundamentally anarchist at heart and it has latched onto the term self-organizing because it sounds better than anarchy. However, putting a duck suit on a chicken doesn’t make a chicken a duck. As larger and larger organizations are implementing agile methods and practices, the core of what it means to be agile — an empowering organizational culture — will be lost because large organizations will reject the cultural piece of agile because they know a chicken when they see one.
So what words do we use to bring the concept of self-organizing back from the brink of anarchy and return it to the realm of empowering, servant leadership rather than no leadership? In my first book, Adaptive Software Development , I used the term Leadership-Collaboration management to replace the concept of Command-Control management. This book went into great depth about the concepts of leaders (as in a person) and leadership (as in any team member can provide situational leadership) as an active part of an agile community and what that leadership model looked like. In his book, Managing Agile Projects , author and Cutter Senior Consultant Sanjiv Augustine also addresses this issue and calls for management to have a “Light-Touch.” The more I think about Augustine’s term, the more I like it, so I’ll offer a combination term to replace self-organizing: Light-Touch Leadership.
First, I’d like to get away from the idea that agile teams are leaderless and that leadership only revolves around the team depending on the situation (this type of situational leadership does occur, and often, it just does not replace a good leader). There is just too much experience and management literature that shows that good leaders make a big difference. The anarchist wants to eliminate leaders and merely go with situational leadership. However, there is also a large contingent in the agile community that think the right approach is to change the style of leadership, not to eliminate leaders. It’s easy to rail against poor managers or leaders and advocate eliminating them. It’s much harder to work with organizations to change their leadership style to one that supports an agile environment.
Some advocates of empowerment have been carried away. They forget that in the management literature empowerment is a fancy new term for delegation — delegation of decision-making authority. Does empowerment mean that project teams get to make all decisions related to their project? What if there are five teams working on a project, does each team get to make architectural or development infrastructure decisions independently? Light-Touch Leadership means that decision making is delegated to the lowest level possible and as many decisions as possible are delegated to the team. However, delegating decisions in an organization isn’t a simple task; it requires tremendous thought and some experimentation. To me, Light-Touch conveys the right mix of delegation of decision making to teams while retaining appropriate decision-making authority with the leader or in other parts of the organization.
While Light-Touch Leadership may be “light” in terms of decision making, it is heavy in articulating goals, facilitating interactions, improving team dynamics, supporting collaboration, and encouraging experimentation and innovation. These characteristics of a leader are more critical to success than delegation of decision-making authority, but decision making is still an important piece of the leader’s role. When a good Light-Touch Leader is working, she or he is nearly invisible. Things seem to happen smoothly and the teams operate seemingly without a leader.
Leading is hard. If it was easy, every company would be “great,” to use Jim Collins’ term ( Good to Great ). Anarchy isn’t the answer; it’s merely a simplistic solution to a very complex problem: managing organizations. What we need are good leaders. What we need is a better leadership style. What we need are managers and leaders who work hard at empowering their teams to the right extent. What we need is Light-Touch Leadership.
For a response to this advisory, see http://agilethinking.net/blog/.