September 6, 2016
Empowered Teams Can Make Decisions The Boss Disagrees WithComing into contact, as I do, with many software development teams across a wide range of industries, you begin to recognise patterns.
One such pattern that - once I noticed it - I realised is very prevalent in Agile Software Development is what I call the Empowered Straightjacket. Teams are "empowered" to make their own decisions, but when the boss doesn't like a decision they've made, he or she overrules it.
Those who remember their set theory will know that if the set of all possible decisions a team is allowed to make can only include decisions the boss agrees with, then they are effectively working in the same set (or a subset) of the boss's rules.
That is not empowerment. Just in case you were wondering.
To have truly empowered development teams, bosses have to recognise that just being the boss doesn't necessarily make them right, and disagreeing with a decision doesn't necessarily make it a bad decision.
Unfortunately, the notion that decisions are made from above by more enlightened individuals has an iron grip on corporate culture.
Moving away from that means that managers have to reshape their role from someone who makes decisions to someone who facilitates the decision-making process (and then accepts the outcome graciously and with energy and enthusiasm.)
Once we recognise that there are other - more democratic and more objective - ways of making decisions, and that the decisions are just as likely to be right (if not more likely) than our own, then we have a golden opportunity to scale decision-making far beyond what traditional command-and-control hierarchies are capable of.
To scale Agile, you must learn to let go and let teams be the masters of their own destinies. You have no superhuman ability to make better decisions than a team full of highly-educated professionals.
The flipside of this is that developers and teams have to allow themselves to be empowered. With great empowerment comes great responsibility. And developers who've been cushioned from the responsibility of making decisions for a long time can run a mile when it comes a'knocking. Like prisoners who can't cope on the outside after a long stretch of regimented days doing exactly what they tell exactly when they tell you, devs who are used to management "taking care of all that" can panic when someone hands them a company credit card and says "if you need anything, use this". It reminds me of how my grandmother's hands used to shake when she had to write a cheque. Granddad took care of all that sort of thing.
This can lead to developers lacking confidence, which leads to them being afraid to take initiative. They may have learned their craft in environments where failure is not tolerated, and learned a survival strategy of not being responsible for anything that matters.
In this situation, developers rise up through the ranks - usually by length of service - and perpetuate the cycle by micromanaging their teams.
Based on my own subjective experiences leading dev teams (and being led): ultimately, developers empower themselves. The maxim "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" applies here.
Now, t'was ever thus. But the rise of Agile Software Development has forced many managers to at least pretend to empower their teams. (And, let's face it, the majority are just pretending. Scrum Masters are not project managers, BTW.)
That's your cue to seize the day. They may not like it. But they'll have to pretend they do.
Posted 3 years, 6 months ago on September 6, 2016