The challenge of the traditional hierarchy
Written by Kurt Nielsen. June 14. 2022
This is the first essay in the Statler and Waldorf series.
One of the most frequent challenges people report when introducing Agile, Lean and Scrum is the lack of understanding, engagement and sponsorship of their management.
Gary Hamel researched and found that this is how people downstairs see it; upstairs however they do not see it like that. They see a systemic failure of agile methodologies to provide sufficient economic robustness to back up the claims of improvement.
My observation is that in classic hierarchical organizations, where each level operates the “plan–delegate–monitor–control” model on the level below, the organization will become more and more stratified, power will be concentrated at the top and the skills and natural abilities of those in the lower quarters will be tragically under-used. Furthermore, the different layers in the organization will have great difficulty even reaching common understanding of what is going on. Add to that the greater and greater financial disparity between the levels. In the USA in 1965, CEOs of America’s largest corporations were paid, on average, 20 times the pay of average workers — Now, the ratio is over 300 to 1.
This combination of power and money makes the traditional clamoring for a position in the hierarchy such a fatal attraction because the powerful extrinsic motivation of increased benefits and power by moving up the corporate ladder overrides any intrinsic motivation of doing a good job. None of us can say that we are not affected. As W. Edwards Deming said:
“If your boss becomes the customer, who takes care of the real customer?”
We have for years given people in leadership roles all the evidence that an agile lean organization serves the customer better, increases value for everybody and invokes people’s engagement in the organization. They still ignore it; and despite being prompted by the lower layers, they do not engage, do not ask questions and do not take advice. It is like one Danish politician who managed to say:
“If these are the facts, I deny the facts!”.
The maneuvering in the hierarchy is the dominant force controlling the behavior of the people upstairs, the hierarchy has become an idol. None of us can completely avoid it, the extrinsic motivation is so strong.
Organizations have become stratified micro societies, where downstairs, those who operate in the value stream, work and talk together. Upstairs in the organizational aristocracy, they speak a different language of planning, budgets and steering committees. They rarely interact in any dynamic fashion but are only seen respectively as constraints you have to work with but do not necessarily understand.
In any social setting, if you want power and influence, you have to adopt the value system of the incumbent elite. Without that, you will be a social outcast and suffer. In organizations you have to adopt the value system of the Hierarchy, with capital “H”, otherwise, you are forever relegated to the downstairs compartment. In studies of organizations, it has been concluded that social mobility has fallen considerably since the 1980’ies. The privileges of the classic management aristocracy have to a large extent become hereditary. If your parents were there, you have a better chance than average to be there as well.
An attempt to introduce agile, lean and scrum, beyond the bubble of a single project (sometimes project teams just fly totally under the radar) will by and large be opposed in any organization with more than 3 layers in the Hierarchy. Gary Hamel expresses it like this:
Right now, much of what we invest in education and training gets wasted because at work people find themselves in organizations that institutionalize the distinction between thinkers and doers.*
I have come to believe that this sort of transformation is a lost cause unless you have the real backing of the top people. Furthermore, you will normally only get that, if there is a “trigger”, an event of seismic proportions that has happened or can be seen approaching like a train in a tunnel. Occasionally you come across idealistic individuals that have recently acquired an opportunity to make a difference, they may also produce the “trigger”. Otherwise, as long as people are reasonably comfortable, the aversion to risk will be a much stronger gravitational force than the opportunity of gain.
Business agility is promoted left, right and center today; so everybody wants this label, everybody is selling it. However, it is much easier to hire some communications people to build an image of agility than actually being it. A little outburst of agility may be accepted on the promise of higher productivity at the lower level, but after a little while the Empire strikes back, and SAFe or something similar is introduced to restore the normal as in any good imperial structure.
But it is not all bleak, there are people out there in charge of organizations who share this alternative view of how to lead. Let us find them and help them build remarkable organizations that provide outstanding value, creativity and joy in work, let us really showcase these. When other people then see for real what it does, not just being told all the time, they will gradually want the same. Our solution is a “Network–of–Teams**” approach with the value stream as the backbone, we call this Agile Lean Leadership.
We have a sizable job in front of us: to come up with a trustworthy model for showing the people in the current hierarchy, why a new model of leadership could be beneficial for them as well, why it is a change but not necessarily a loss. We have to come up with and show people how compensation can be done, authority and accountability placed, the delegation of work done and handling of crisis and conflict. This will be the topic of our next article in this series.
In the much-revered Muppet show, Stadler and Waldorf were the unmistakeable curmudgeons, grumpy old geezers, that complain about everything. Of course they were irritated by the unrealistic optimism of Kermit the Frog. Here is a quote from him:
“Here’s some simple advice: Always be yourself. Never take yourself too seriously. And beware of advice from experts, pigs and members of Parliament.”
Finally: “In the end, if people don’t want to be helped, leave them alone.” (Ernesto Sirolli: https://youtu.be/chXsLtHqfdM)
*) Gary Hamel in Forbes here…
**) Stanley McChrystal describes the Network of Teams in his book: https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com/library/team-teams-new-rules-engagement-complex-world/. It is also discussed in a 2016 article in Forbes here…