Sep 112012

Dear Agilist,

Everywhere I go I hear the same thing: “Culture and management are the major impediments to enterprise agile adoption.”

Indeed, hundreds of us recently sought out the annual industry conference presentations and panels on how to change management — and culture — to facilitate the agile organization. I propose you and I stop hoping for management to change. Instead, why don’t we become the change we want management to be? That’s right, become a manager! Why the heck not?

Here’s my reasoning. If you are skilled in the disciplines of:

  • Prioritizing based on value, quality, and risk reduction
  • Self-organizing cross-functional teamwork
  • Transparent communication
  • Making work visible
  • Limiting work in process
  • Feedback loops for sensing
  • Empirical-based decision-making
  • And so on …

Then all you lack for being the change you want management to be is the desire to (1) expand your career, (2) have a greater impact, or both. More on that below. First I want to share some context.

The Rise of the Agile Executive

I frequently get the opportunity to tell executives that they are steeped in an obsolete “linear” framework for thinking, planning, and managing in general. While it may not be fair, it is true. I tell them it is simply a byproduct of being schooled in business education and executive practice that stems from the Industrial Revolution. Commerce on the planet moved at a glacial pace back then compared to today, so linear thinking was considered best practice and adequate. And there’s a 50-plus-year lag for proven ideas to be widely adopted in education. Welcome to 1962.

I think what we agilists mean when we say that the management culture needs to change is that when executives learn and adopt iterative and adaptive frameworks, then the organizations they lead can be much more alive, dynamic, and productive. The difference between linear thinking and iterative thinking defines the schism between agile islands of software and traditional siloed management.

Linear Thinking Promotes Iterative Thinking Promotes
Front-loaded planning and analysis Experimentation
Organizational efficiency Organizational effectiveness
Focus on right and wrong Focus on learning
Formality Discipline

I also tell executives that it’s not too late for them to retool. Here’s the kicker: I tell them if they choose not to, there is a coming hoard of extremely disciplined young, business-minded, agilists ready to move into the ranks of management and replace them.

“Be the Change” — What Does that Mean?

First things first. Go to the jobs boards and start applying. Promote your disciplined “integrative” skill set as perfect for the managerial role. If they don’t buy it — and most likely they won’t — move to the next opportunity.

When you get the role — assuming the department is not in emergency condition — don’t change a thing at first. Instead, learn the post and operate it in its current state for a few months — this is smart empirical management. As you do, create your backlog of opportunities and start speculating privately about the highest leverage opportunity for experiments.

Then watch for your opportunity to add more value. That could be developing collaborations with peer managers and adding value to them. Or perhaps it is empowering your team to reorganize the department the way they’ve always known it should be. I can’t say what the opportunity will be. I think you will know it when you see it.

From the beginning, you’ll want to apply extraordinary intention, commitment, and sanity-buffers against going native. The subtle and not-so-subtle messages to give up those wacky lightweight development skills for some “real management tools” will be overwhelming. You’ll probably even have to go to management training. And you will surely be reprimanded for your complete lack of formality. Stay the course.

As you succeed — and you will because the market will eventually reward you even if the politics do not at first — develop relationships with other agile managers up and across the organization so you can do great things together. Find a sponsor as many levels above you as you can and offer to teach them this new-fangled agile thinking in exchange for their wise counsel about how to navigate the executive waters. Then start mentoring, sponsoring, and promoting agile developers into agile managers.

A Bunch of Wishful Thinking?

Is this all a bunch of wishful thinking? I don’t think it is at all. It is the view through the looking glass that I point out to executives all the time: if they don’t want to retool, so be it. An exceptionally disciplined young businessperson will surely unseat them.

It’s just a matter of time.


— Christopher Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

P.S. I hope you will forward this article to those agile friends and colleagues you care about who want to change the world.

Whether you want to avoid being unseated by an agilist, or you are the agilist ready to take your leadership skills to the next level, click here now to discover the secret method for generating performance increases of two, three, or even five times.

Do you have any leadership success or failure experiences to share? Send them along to me at


  3 Responses to “Be the Management You Want to Change — An Open Letter to Agilists”

  1. Christopher,
    a great letter, however it is written a bit like one-sided propaganda for agile against linear thinking. The problem with this letter is that if it falls in the wrong hands aka the people with wacky lightweight development skills you might actually offend people before convincing them. Given today’s attitude of sharing all it will fall in the wrong hands.

    The second far more strange point is that you have written the instructions in this letter in a linear fashion (it reads like a waterfall project plan).

  2. The takeaway for me is as an Agile consultant we should stop asking the customer to change, instead we must lead the by being the example of Agile manager. The Agile consultant should convert to become Agile manager accountable on affecting the change. S/he should reinforce her management skills as the main toolbox.

  3. Christopher, I’m with you. Here’s where I’ve had the most trouble: I have run my life (not just my business) for ten years with a philosophy rooted in throughput accounting, but my clients run their businesses–indeed, learned how to run any business–on the basis of cost accounting. This fundamental difference doesn’t seem to go away. I lead by example, and because I’ve made radical changes in my life, others believe I’m special and that they can’t do the same thing.

    Do you have anything for *this* problem? I love your work, and I use it in mine, and yet I have no idea how to deal with this thorny problem.

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