Team leadership in Agile teams

badleader

Yesterday I had two people both of whom I have a lot of respect for, independently say that having a single person in charge of a team ‘works‘.

I was taken aback by this, partly the surprise that two people would say the same thing on the same day, but mostly because this goes against my experience and my opinions on good team leadership. This caused me to step back and reconsider my opinion and my reasons for it. For me there is a great pleasure in being challenged on my opinions especially ones that I was so sure of and so I have given it a lot of thought.

My experience

I have worked for other people directly or indirectly for more than 25 years, and I have managed teams myself, I have also coached quite a few teams – so was able to witness leadership from the sidelines. By a very quick count of those I can remember I would say that 70-80% of them were (in my personal opinion) poor leaders, there were a few that got the job done by force of will, or by leveraging authority, or by imposing death marches on the team. The organisation sometimes saw them as successful but the teams thought them dictators or bullies.

Many team leads simply were unwilling to see any perspective other than their own. Others who were clearly insecure at accepting other people’s ideas.  But there were a few good or even great leaders that didn’t see management as a tool for control but as a scaffold for building the team and achieving things, if only these could be cloned.

david-brent

So I am probably coloured by my experiences but the notion of one person in charge of the team fills me with dread.  and whilst I wholeheartedly agree that the model of a single leader can work with the right person, that does not mean that it will work in most cases or that those qualities are the norm, and it certainly doesn’t mean it will work as a model in every case. What is more I think those great leaders would thrive in an environment where they didn’t have defined authority- but more on that later.

I can only imagine that just as I have been coloured by my experiences my colleagues have equally been coloured by theirs but they have had the good fortune to see better leaders than I have and I would like to (and will) discuss this further with them to see why they feel this is a good approach and whether my instinctive reaction and poor experiences are in contrast to theirs.

“Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.”

David Marquet

oh Captain, my Captain

The military is often used as an example of one named leader, but there is a distinction in the military and that is they have needs that are very different to a software team. Those differences are a need for independence and a desire for expedience in decision making: Military units will often need to operate independently without contact with their parent structure. So it may be necessary for a local arbiter. In a business environment it is rare that a disagreement is so urgent that it could not be referred up if there was a dispute with an impasse. The other aspect of a military organisation is that life and death decisions need to be made very quickly and so there may not be the luxury of time to debate and reach consensus.

However, even in military structures there are examples of leaders who take the view that they are the Product Owners, they will say this is what I want to achieve, you tell me how… and then the suggestions are made and the leader simply endorses the team’s advice (Make it so..). Naturally there is an element of accountability but the trust that this demonstrates in the team is significant in empowering the team and growing them.

This notion is explored more deeply in this book:  Turn this ship around

turn-ship

 

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Agile principle No 5.

We want conflict and debate

In software teams it is often the debate that produces the greatest thinking and ideas so stifling the debate is a negative. Having a single person making decisions stifles debate, it thwarts conversation, and it disempowers the team.  If a team is overruled often enough they will stop making suggestions, if one person becomes so myopic in their opinions it can make the team feel powerless and excluded.  Also where there is a defined leader they have a tendency to not be transparent, information is selectively shared (in both directions) and again lack of information impedes debate.  In short I believe that having a defined leader is in conflict with the Agile principles.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Agile principle No 11.

Merging the what and the how

Having the same person responsible for both the what (vision) and the how (implementation) stifles innovation. Rather than the team determining the best architecture and the best solution it becomes driven by a single individual. Again this is at conflict with the Agile principles, and whilst you may say that a good leader wouldn’t let this happen, experience and evidence is to the contrary. Power corrupts and if someone has the responsibility and authority it becomes hard for them not to use it especially if they perceive the team is making a mistake, and if teams are prevented from making mistakes they will stop experimenting.

We want balance

And this is where my agenda is.  Software development is a balance of content, quality, cost, value, consistency, team growth and a variety of other factors. It is rare or at least uncommon to have a single individual that is able to understand and balance those conflicting elements effectively on their own. More often a single individual prioritises one above the others, driving to a deadline, or gold plating a solution, or any other single aspect usually becomes prioritised at the expense of the rest.

I believe that a model where there is shared leadership and shared management between multiple roles solves many of these problems. Having someone focused on the what and others focused on the how and someone else focused on team improvement and consistency creates conflict (deliberately) but it also creates balance and it becomes a catalyst for debate.

We don’t want a single point of failure or a silo

If we make one person responsible for direction, implementation and team growth, we are putting all our eggs in one basket, if they are on leave or sick or move on then the impact can be significant. There can be so much knowledge tied up in one person they become indispensable.

leadership
Problems with the shared leadership model

First and foremost there is a cost. For small teams it may be difficult to find team members that have a natural affiliation to the balanced leadership model, with part time POs or coaches/scrum masters or where those roles are not named but the responsibilities are shared it can be tricky. But even then I would say that calling one person ‘Lead’ or ‘Manager’ or anything of that sort is destructive.  And the notion of combining Coach, PO and implementation into just one named role can lead to dysfunction. In many respects I wonder if the cost of additional named roles is worth it just to prevent the dysfunction a single leader creates. Or if the team is too small to warrant the explicit roles then get rid of named roles entirely – if a team is that small naming a leader should also be unnecessary, they ought to be able to self-organise within those boundaries.

This may sound hypocritical, after all I have spent a good proportion of my career with leader or manager in my job title.  But my experiences have been an internal conflict in that role. As a Software Development Manager you become the defacto Product Owner, Project Manager, architect and team coach. But there was always pressure from somewhere and normally that pressure was to the detriment of the team, when I challenged it, I did so a personal risk. Customer and senior management pressure to deliver, cuts costs and drive timelines meant that team growth became secondary, team welfare was deprioritised and making a safe place for teams to learn from mistakes was difficult to justify.  Some of that is company culture but I believe much of that comes from the pressure of responsibility and bestowing leadership carries pressure and expectation (sometimes real, sometimes assumed). And speaking as someone that has experienced it, I’d rather share that responsibility.

Conclusion

So after sleeping on the issue I am even more convinced that a named leader – whether it be Team lead, tech lead, manager, senior or nerd wrangler, goes against the principles of Agile, I believe it undermines self organising teams and leads to dysfunction and imbalance.  There absolutely are exceptions and there are some team leads that are effective, but I wonder if they would be just as effective or more so in a self-organising team structure. But there are more examples of ineffective team leads where the power corrupts and they dominate the team, stifle debate and innovation and disrupt or impede team growth.

In my very personal opinion the best leadership model is a balance of What, How and Team Improvement, and the more people those responsibilities are spread amongst the better. In practical terms I’d like to see a team with a PO to determine the What but a PO who actively engages with the team. A coach that is focused on the Team’s improvement and process improvement, and the rest of the team is responsible for the How.  Within the team there is no need to identify a senior or a leader they can work out amongst themselves how best to make decisions and titles get in the way.  This model may come with a cost and it may be difficult to get the balance right but in my experience this balance leads to the best results.

Ironically the examples of leaders that I have seen as being successful (as measured by both results and team morale) have voluntarily and noticeable made themselves servant leaders, stepping back and inviting the team in, choosing to give away authority and creating healthy debate and healthy conflict. So if that is how they lead effectively why not make that the model to start from?

Why I came to adopt an Agile mindset.

Ultimately it was because of seeing poor leaders disempower the team and abuse teams into death marches and drive poor design decisions that I came into Agile in the first place. I saw Agile as a method for empowering the teams and taking away abusive power from lone leaders. The stimulating of constructive conflict and healthy debate are so essential to the process that I object to any impediment to this on principle.

To my delight in most cases Agile has done that and so much more, in a creative environment like software the gains of self organised teams so massively outweigh the losses that result from a lack of a single clear leader that I am more confident in my opinion that the words ‘lead’ or ‘manager’ have no place in job titles on an agile team. I would love to trial and experiment to compare, but as much of this comes down to the personality of the people involved it is hard to do more than make subjective experience based assessments.

 

One thought on “Team leadership in Agile teams

  1. Great post, John. You’ve hit the nail right on the head here, I think. I’ve had the same observations and drawn a lot of the same conclusions. I think this may possibly be the biggest paradigm shift for folks moving from a traditional approach to an agile one. Our culture embraces individual achievement and I think this translates directly into our management approach of wanting one person in charge. Also, as you mentioned, the military has had a huge impact on our way of management thinking. I also think we are prone to appoint just one person due to the rampant disease of short term thinking. Too often, projects are in trouble and a solution is needed NOW. It is much simpler to put one “knowledgeable,” “heroic,” and “willful” person in charge and have them make the calls to achieve success rather than have the patience and faith that a team will self organize in time to find a solution to meet tight deadlines and expectations (especially if that team has little to no experience doing such a thing). Its such an easy trap to fall into. This is a very tough paradigm to overcome.

    Like

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