One of the four main propositions of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”. And then one principle behind the manifesto say: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” This notion of the customer unfortunately often leads to what Jeff Patton calls the customer-vendor anti-pattern. Especially in large organizations with their own IT departments, this pattern occurs when the Product Owner understands his role as a representative of internal customers and submits requirements to the Development Team for implementation. Understanding customers and their needs is important, but it is only one aspect to make a product successful and exactly that is the task of the product owner. In order to cover all aspects, the Product Owner must not be an ingenious and lonesome decision-maker and not be unilaterally associated with the business, but rather the leader of a team of experts who together take responsibility for the sustainable development of a successful product.
When it comes to agility, most people think of Kanban or Scrum at the team level. And then of course the many scaling frameworks come to mind like LeSS, SAFe, DAD or Nexus. These frameworks primarily address the question of how the work of several or many teams on one or more products can be coordinated and synchronized. Especially in legacy IT landscapes with many dependencies this is a legitimate and frequently asked question, which unfortunately often obscures the far more important question of decoupling, but that is different story. The focus will now be on the question of how to give agile organizations alignment at different flight levels with corresponding planning horizons. And to this end, it is important that strategy remains an empty sphere of action that is filled with content from bottom to top.
Copying Spotify or simply implementing any other blueprint of an agile organization is a fundamental mistake. Not because the models themselves were poor, but because implementing a model of an agile organization that has been chosen or developed by a few managers, experts or consultants from top to bottom contradicts the essential principle of self-organization. Agile organizations are always emergent in the sense that they result from the cooperation of self-organizing teams towards a common vision and are constantly evolving. Therefore, it is crucial for a sustainable agile transformation to withstand the pressure to deliver short-term successes and to empathetically and confidently give people the space and time to learn and grow together. As tempting as blueprints and their large-scale implementation may look, it is precisely this that leads the agile transformation into a dead end.
Change and change management was yesterday. Today we are doing transformations. A digital transformation for business models, because data is the new oil. An agile transformation for the organization and its processes, because flexibility and speed are essential in times of great uncertainty. Unfortunately often only the name has changed and where it is labelled with transformation it actually contains very traditional – and very tayloristic – change management. That’s why panaceas and blueprints are on the rise: simply introduce LeSS or SAFe or copy Spotify and call this your agile transformation. However, this completely ignores the nature of a transformation as a natural development process of a complex system in favor of a pattern that has so far only worked reasonably well, but is at least well-known and appears well manageable: simply transforming the organization and the people in it like a complicated machine. Accompanied, of course, by all kinds of “change theatre”, because somehow you have to win the people. A successful transformation that deserves this name, however, is based on visions instead of blueprints. Ideally, it is supported by all and led with empathy, trust and patience.
Leadership is about making others successful. This is the leadership philosophy of Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google. The founder of the drugstore chain dm, Götz W. Werner, gets even more to the point and states: “Leadership is nowadays only legitimate if it is aimed at the self-leadership of the people entrusted to it”. Leadership is therefore an equal function within and for a group of people and always an encounter of adults on par with each other. In contrast to Taylor’s management, which is still too deeply rooted in our hierarchical organizations, leadership means first and foremost asking (the right) questions rather than giving (the right) answers.