Reclaim and proclaim

In the previous articles (#1, #2 and #3) I wrote about how the west was lost to the neo-Taylorist managerial totalitarianism. The latest article ended on a slightly lighter note with a hint of a possibility to reclaim the lost ground. The picture above is the Chestnut-sided warbler claiming its territory.

It is time to follow that up, but let me rephrase the task at hand, it is going to be about how to “Reclaim and Proclaim”. It is not just about reclaiming lost territory or romantically returning to the good old days, they do not exist any more and probably were not all that good anyway. It is also about proclaiming a way to deal with the new and unique conditions of our present time. So this is also a proposed way forward: Agile Lean Leadership (ALL).

The Assessment

Our present time is characterized by a lot of things, that previous generations did not have, or did not have to deal with:

  • The instant and global availability of information and news (fake or otherwise). Anything can potentially be known immediately and without filter.

  • Related to this, markets are always rapidly changing, new competitors can emerge overnight, customer preferences can turn on a dime based on a post on Facebook. Disruption is the new buzzword.

  • Technology is also changing rapidly. The product that was modern yesterday can be outdated today. The knowledge and experience of solutions can also quickly become a ticket to a train that has left.

  • Technology is now mobile and everywhere. Enormous processing tasks can be executed in your palm, a single Apple iPhone 5 has 2.7 times the processing power than the 1985 Cray-2 supercomputer.

  • A frightening 1.4 billion people globally are still without access to electricity and consequently without access to modern information and technology, so the gap between those who have the most and those who have the least is widening.

We are not going to touch on the last point here, apart from realizing that to do something about this challenge will demand the utmost mobilization of our innovative capabilities. The first four bullet points are all creating an environment for our organizations and work life, characterized by extreme, rapid changes and decreased knowability of the future, having only fragmented knowledge.

In fact our whole understanding of reality, also in science, has changed dramatically. We now know in painful detail how little we really know, how fragmented our knowledge is.

That puts us firmly in the complex domain according to Dave Snowden and his Cynefin model (which we still have to cover in detail). To be able to function in a complex environment, we have to operate in a totally different way, than the Obvious and Complicated domains, where the fixed plan driven approach has some validity. We have to:

  • Try something out, see if it works, build up knowledge. We think in terms of small controlled experiments.
  • Create environments and methods to help generate ideas and observations. We constantly need new ideas for adapting to the ever changing circumstances.
  • Increase levels of communication and interaction, open up the discussions.
  • Encourage dissent and diversity. Teams work well when members have different backgrounds and skillsets. They are simply more likely to be able to make sense of the many seemingly conflicting inputs.
  • Tap into people’s cognitive resources, they have to be treated as volunteers, with respect, otherwise they just check out. Snowden says: “Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted!

It follows that the neo-Taylorist expert driven plan and control model is an utterly inadequate tool for the situation at hand, if the analysis above is just the least bit correct. Our organizations will have to go about dealing with customers, employees and society in radically different ways, furthermore the way information and decisions flow will be very different.

The inspiration

Many could and should be mentioned as inspiration of Agile Lean Leadership, but the details will have to wait until another rainy day.

Vanilla Scrum

By far the biggest inspiration is the many years I have worked with Scrum in training, coaching and implementation. Vanilla Scrum is the archetypical Agile Lead Leadership pattern at the team or project level. Originally defined by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber (see the official “Scrum Guide” here… , or our “Scrum a Bird’s eye view” here… ), Scrum gives all the building blocks and the mindset, of what it takes to scale out into the whole organization. Vanilla Scrum is like the basic two by four Lego brick that is a key component in most Lego designs.

We would never have been here without Scrum.

W. Edwards Deming

The most original inspiration according to my understanding is W. Edwards Deming, who lived from 1900 until 1993 and kept teaching and consulting until a few weeks before his death.

Dr. Deming had a profound influence on the war production in the USA from 1941 to 1945. However the US forgot everything they had learned after the war and Deming went on to become a very prominent figure in Japan’s rise to a first class industrial nation up until the seventies. He was re-discovered in the US in 1980 and had a deep impact on some organizations the last 13 years of his life. Deming’s focus was on:

  • Looking at the whole system in an organization, not just local optimization.
  • Constant focus on and a direct line of sight to the customer, creating a feedback loop including the customer.
  • Constantly improving the system, the quality and job satisfaction through constant learning.
  • Using the Scientific method of Plan-Do-Study-Act to build up knowledge.
  • Respect for people and “allowing them pride of workmanship”.

A good place to learn more about Deming is to start here…

Tom Gilb

In the 1980s Tom Gilb, an American software consultant living in Norway, came into the software world with the book “Principles of Software Engineering Management” from 1988. In the book Gilb describes, among other things, an iterative development- and delivery principle called Evo, which still remains valid today.

If Deming is the great-grandfather of Scrum as we know it today, Gilb would for sure be the grandfather. He is still active as a coach and consultant today. Read more about Gilb here…

Amy Edmondson

Another great source of inspiration is Amy Edmondson and her work on “The Learning Organization”, how to create an organization that has a significant amount of DNA dedicated to be able to reinvent and reform itself through constant learning. In order to achieve that, we need to:

  • First make it safe for people, give the psychological safety. They should know that nobody is punished for admitting a mistake, asking for help or suggesting a better way of doing things.
  • Have good and clear process guidelines and definitions, but constantly improve them.
  • Collect process data and constantly improve these.
  • Institutionalize disciplined learning

A good place to learn more about Amy Edmondson is to start here…

Dave Snowden

Dave Snowden has been mentioned several times in these articles, his work spreads over many disciplines, but for the purpose of this discussion we concentrate on his work on the understanding and application of the theories of complex adaptive systems. It was described above how these insights influence how we attack solving issues and challenges. Snowden’s big contribution is that he made complexity an actionable item, there are ways of dealing with it – it is not just magic. Learn more about Dave Snowden here…


Niels Pflaeging

Niels Pflaeging was one of the founding fathers of the Beyond Budgeting initiative. He has addressed and described the conditions for organizations in the modern world. He has used the following graphic to illustrate his main point:

We have moved into a time of high dynamics that again – after the industrial age – places the human being not the machine in the center of value creation. According to Pflaeging, we have to:

  • Organize for complexity, use network of interconnected Teams, not a hierarchy.
  • Optimize communication and knowledge creation.
  • Start from the periphery with a direct line of sight to the customer, put as much of the operation here as possible. Create supporting teams and services in the center of the organization.
  • Expect and unleash people’s intrinsic motivation.

Read more about Pflaeging here…

On human nature and behavior

Douglas McGregor and Matthew Stewart

I am linking these two writers together for a rather subjective reason. In my own reading and sensemaking I got good insight by combining the message of these two gentlemen. An important topic in leadership is of course which views are held about human nature, desires, idiosyncrasies and conflicts. A proper organization needs to be able to handle the unpredictable situations that arise out of dealing with human beings.

Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas Mcgregor is primarily known for his “Theory X and Theory Y” introduced in his book “The Human Side of Enterprise” (1960). Overly simplified he states:

  • Management by Theory X assumes that the average employee has little to no ambition, shies away from work or responsibilities, and is individual-goal oriented. Managers believe that all actions should be closely monitored and tracked and the responsible individual rewarded or penalized according to the result of performance. Extrinsic motivation is believed to be what works.
  • Management by theory Y on the other hand believes that people are internally motivated, enjoy working, and work to better themselves. It is also believed that these people thrive on challenges that they may face, they also tend to take full responsibility for their work and do not require the need of constant supervision in order to create quality.

While it is quite common to be told by employees that their organization and superiors are squarely in the Theory X territory; it is rare to find managers that subscribe to such a self-image resembling principles from the Soviet area.

It is one of the great mysteries of present day neo-Taylorist management style, that it on one side is absolutely preoccupied with plans, rules, micromanagement and measurements of KPIs, and on the other side speak warmly of people’s self realization, fulfillment and the need for deep engagement.

It is my take that the earlier crude and brute force control mechanism of Taylorism of old has been replaced with a more Orwellian (1984) and subtle mind-control and double-speak. This psychological terror approach induce shame and guilt in the culprits. This is probably why we have so many today sinking under the load of stress, especially in our Public Sector with its embrace of New Public Management.

Adding a Dimension

Matthew Stewart introduces another dimension to McGregor in his 2010 article in “Strategy & Business”. Stewart claims that a better understanding of reality can be obtained by adding his “Theory U or Theory T”:

  • Theory U (for Utopian) says that all conflict and undesirable human behavior fundamentally arises out of misunderstandings and false assumptions. If you eliminate those, then the organization or society will revert to its natural state of peace and cooperation.
  • Theory T (for Tragic) on the other hand says that conflict, diverging self-interests and downright destructiveness is embedded in the human condition and will on occasion rear its ugly head.

Please see the graphic below for details:

Most of the arguments being hurled at opponents in discussions about leadership, are typically from the upper left to – and from the lower right. The Theory Y people seem to expect all Theory X people as power hungry dictators and Stalinists in spe. Theory X people on the other hand interpret Theory Y people as having their heads firmly lodged in pink, romantic clouds of delusion.

Intrinsic motivation

There is overwhelming documentation that when dealing with knowledge work in the complex domain, Theory Y and intrinsic motivation produces results. “Knowledge can only be volunteered”, says Snowden ”it cannot be conscripted!”.

Many have studied this. Anders Dysvik and Båard Kuvaas from BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway, published an article in 2012 about this: “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as predictors of work effort “, and the conclusions are clear; intrinsic motivation beats extrinsic motivation for all work which the worker has the slightest interest in.

They are not alone, in New Scientist, we find this

“Economists and workplace consultants regard it as almost unquestioned dogma that people are motivated by rewards, so they don’t feel the need to test this. It has the status more of religious truth than scientific hypothesis. The facts are absolutely clear. There is no question that in virtually all circumstances in which people are doing things in order to get rewards, extrinsic tangible rewards undermine intrinsic motivation”

New Scientist 9th April 2011 pp 40-43

Intrinsic motivation rests on a combination of Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery.


As we have seen in the arguments above, we have a large collection of complex challenges in modern organizations. I am deeply convinced that yesterday’s solutions will not suffice today. Taylorism and its companion Theory X will not create the solutions we need. If we keep heading in the direction, that most Western societies and many organizations currently are going, then crisis will keep following crisis. The demand for more control of this, that and the other keep increasing in order to prevent exploitation and deteriorating living conditions. Soon the deep frustrations will create calls for the strong man, the Imperial leader to come, relieve us of our freedom and save the day.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

I believe we have to focus on the upper right corner in the matrix above. Theory Y shows us the way to go, but there is little evidence to substantiate a utopian or romantic claim about human nature. We will have to be able to deal with conflict and occasional unacceptable behavior. So we have to have a social contract in place in organizations where checks and balances are kept, and unbridled self interest is balanced by responsibilities to the group.

The hard work in Leadership is to introduce enough structure and supervision to prevent the worst side effects of human nature, but not so much that the ability to work in the complex domain and solve challenges evaporates in the process.

What we need to achieve then

We can begin this section with a quote from W. Edwards Deming:

The aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort.

W. Edwards Deming: Out of the Crisis.

In the current situation of our organizations and with the challenges in the 21st century, we need to achieve a number of things to break out of the growing totalitarianism induced by neo-Taylorism:

  • Neo-Taylorism has to be denounced as a solution for complex work:
    • No – we do not have enough insight and knowledge to make the perfect upfront plan or budget.
    • No – we cannot measure individuals honestly through KPI’s and base reviews and compensation on those.
    • No – we do not achieve optimal results by sub-optimizing individual areas.
    • No – we cannot separate work in those who think (plan, delegate, monitor control) and those who work.
  • We need to develop deep convictions in the organization of
    • The need to bind people together by having common values and goals, not rules and regulations.
    • The necessity and beauty of creating balanced value for all, customers, employees and stakeholders
    • The necessity and beauty of allowing people pride of workmanship, intrinsic motivation and growth.
    • The necessity and beauty of constant feedback from customers, employees and stakeholders at large to improve services and products. The same goes for internal operations and ways of working.
  • Organizations that are built to enable work in the complex domain, with structures and communication channels that support:
    • Working in self-organizing teams.
    • Psychological safety without fear as a prerequisite for growing and learning.
    • Learning through thoughtful experimentation, making sense of the ever growing amount of inputs, giving people an opportunity to grow.
    • Clear goals and values, so people can have a real sense of belonging and contributing, not just a motivational poster here and there.
    • Accountability and balancing individual and corporate needs through the closely connected teams, sharing values and goals.
    • Radical transparency in goals, progress, impediments and decisions. This will inspire people, but also reduce the likelihood of destructive behavior.
    • Quick discovery and decisions when encountering threats or opportunities.

All in all, we need an organization of checks and balances, that regularly benefits those who contribute positively and keep people from falling into trap of either freeloading or exploiting others – exposing those who try. An organization that allows freedom of thought, sets the mind free to grow and to contribute, but also sets limits and is transparent to head of the dark forces in human nature.

Again we are using language from the territory of ethics, positive and negative, right or wrong. Readers may wonder why such old fashioned concepts exist in business literature in 2017. We are in the Postmodern world, where we have come to accept, that everybody is only accountable to themselves, that there are no grand narratives or absolute truths, absolute individualism reigns.

But by now the cracks are showing, this lack of common values cannot form a basis for personal, corporate life and much less society, we are like fish out of water. It will only lead to utter isolation, every man is his own island.

We need to get the deep sense of value and contributing to a cause that is bigger than ourselves back, if we are to create an environment where people thrive. Several psychological studies have been conducted in this area. There is no common agreement on definitions as many are clamoring for their proposition to be regarded as pure gospel, that can sell books and other merchandise. But in broad terms there seems to be a consensus that what we need as human beings to be fulfilled is:

  • Safety: Some security in life, some order and predictability.
  • Significance: I matter.
  • Challenges: New areas, that I can experience and be skillful in.
  • Belonging: I am fully accepted and at home.
  • Growing: I learn, understand and get stronger.
  • Contribution: I am giving and contributing to others, not just myself.

Agile Lean Leadership, what is it then?

We built the Agile Lean Leadership pattern much the same way as other proclamations such as the Agile Manifesto. ALL is a pattern to use as a guide to navigate, not a checklist to follow. ALL consist of:

  • 4 Values
  • 14 Principles
  • A number of practices or instruments, currently 8

The Bedrock – the Values

Any decent system of thought need some values that its proponents can subscribe to, write on banners, t-shirts and coffee mugs. So does Agile Lean Leadership. Furthermore, we need strong values, as this is the glue, together with a clear vision, that binds people together in the complex domain, not rules and regulations.

We settled on four values to keep it simple. They all have to be kept in mind by everybody and balanced. We also were of the opinion that these values were strong enough to carry the Agile Lean Leadership building, we wanted to erect on this foundation of values.

1. Purpose, clear and worthwhile

An organization must have an aim to work towards. The aim has to be bigger than anyone individual and it has to be more than just making money, if it is going to be useful to bind people together in the long term, its stakeholders must find its purpose worthwhile. The purpose will reveal the organization’s own values.

2. Sustainability in all things

An organization must have a long term view, more or less on all things. It implies removing waste, avoiding draining non-replenishable resources, building up relationships and human capabilities for the long haul.

3. Resilience in all things

An organization must expect change and unpredictability. The structures and communication channels must be capable of responding fast to new challenges and opportunities. Everybody must be on the lookout and disciplined reflection must be in place to make sense of things.

4. Respect for people

An organization is not just a machine, it exists to serve the stakeholders. That includes allowing people to grow and develop and help build up joy and pride of contribution.

The Guides – the Principles

The Principles are then a set of guides, that the leaders of the organization can look to as road signs that indicate direction. Following the principles implements the values.

Radical transparency regarding value and purpose

1. Always, at every level, be very clear about the purpose, values and constraints

Proactive value visibility is a powerful tool, the purpose and value system of the organization is a true north for everybody, it is the compass that difficult decisions are made after. Constraints also need to be visible, people need to know their options.

2. Always balance the value for the client, the employees, society and shareholders

Balanced value for all stakeholders is essential. Focusing on only one aspect will skew the purpose and open the door for all sorts of unpleasant side effects. The customer has to be served first and foremost, without him no organization. Next the employees have to see value, without them there is no one to serve the client, then society and finally shareholders.

3. Always hold and display the moral high-ground with integrity

Values and purpose are powerful if clients and staff trust that they are sincere, the slightest attempt to manipulate people with fake values can backfire catastrophically. Trust is earned over time and with consistence of behavior, it can be lost in a split second.

4. Always sustain an unrestricted flow of information up, down and sideways

Information must be available immediately, the organization must foster a culture where sharing of information is encouraged. No one must be afraid of bringing bad news, if there is fear in the organization the leaders will not know about challenges in time. Timely, reliable information is a foundation for resilience.

A clear line of sight to the client

5. Always remember that the final judge of the product or service is the client

Whatever the product or service delivered, in the end it is the customer’s opinion that matters, does it give him the value he is after. Everyone need to understand this and be exposed to real customers as much as practically possible.

6. Always be in dialog with the client to fully understand how to benefit and serve him as situations develop

Organizations must develop a system of continuous dialog and interaction with customers to find better ways of creating products and services plus uncover new needs that potentially can be fulfilled. The overall organization-wide learning loop must include the customer.

7. Always shorten the distance of understanding between client and the organization

Organizations must develop communication forms and activities that ensures maximum understanding between the customer and the organization. Go visit the customer to see his unspoken needs. This makes the organization resilient in periods of changing customer needs.

8. Always create optimal visualization of status, progress and impediments

Organizations need to work on showing goals, prioritization, progress and impediments as openly and self-documenting as possible. It has to be simple, people have get the gist immediately, but they cannot react to what they cannot see. This includes the customer.

The organization as one system

9. Always strive to see and understand the facts in their full context

Important facts are seldom simple numbers, it is important to get the full context and to reach common understanding in dialogue. Often those who have to make decisions have to go to “gemba” (the real place) and talk to people directly involved to get proper knowledge.

10. Always build up and sustain commitment to constant improvement

There is no final perfect solution, there are always flaws in any system and there is always changing circumstances. The organization has to commit itself to always be navigating to improve product, services, processes and relationships.

11. Always strive for collegiate decisions, pushing responsibility as far out as people can carry it

The best decisions are usually those validated by several people and taken by those people closest to the point of impact of the decision. In the complex domain every good input need to be taken into account to make sense of things before committing a decision.

12. Always balance the need for structure and standards with the need for adaptability and innovation

The organization is a system, there must be order, it must drive out variability to some extent to be able to function. However there is a balance. It must not be overly structured, removing too much variability and slack, as this removes the capability of experimenting and generating ideas.

Build up people and relations

13. Always allow people pride of workmanship, build them up to their maximum potential

The people are the primary resource of the organization, it needs their commitment and full mental capacity. This only occurs if they are intrinsically motivated, they need to be able to be proud of what they do. People also need to experience growth and progress, the organization must back this up so they reach their maximum potential.

14. Always be willing to serve colleagues, subordinates, clients and suppliers

The organization need to institute an attitude of vocation, every job is service to someone, externally or internally. Leaders need to display and practice this attitude. Many problems do not exist if people’s fundamental orientation is to serve their customer.

15. Always keep the long perspective

Working with people has its ups and downs, relationships get challenged from time to time, people may encounter difficulties that affect their ability to contribute and function in the organization, customers can go through hard times. The primary objective of the organization is help make these relationships sustainable over time, to work proactively to adapt and find solutions.

16. Always suppress fear as a leadership instrument, as it leads to distortion of data or systems

It requires constant work to keep the instrument of fear out of an organization. It is unfortunately a very natural thing for human beings to start wielding brute power over others. Carrot and stick methods inject fear and fear triggers people’s deepest instinct of self-preservation. They will game the system to stay out of harm’s way.

The practices – the Instruments

The practices or the instruments to use is very much an ongoing area of work. Currently we refer to the following set. In this article we will only mention the practices at the headline level. Later articles will deal with each practice in detail.

1. Transparency

Making goals and progress visible, working agreements and impediments. Product Backlog, Story Maps, Kanban.

2. Establishing routine and recognizability

Exemplified by the activities in Scrum.

3. The use of self-organizing Teams

What is a team, how to establish, develop and sustain.

4. The extension of the Team concept to Circles

One person may be in a primary Circle (his Team) delivering, but also in a secondary team (a Community of Practice) for example.

5. The dual leadership concept

Exemplified by the CEO and COO or the Product Owner and ScrumMaster in Scrum.

6. Sustained learning and constant improvement

Making it “safe”, capturing exceptions, disciplined retrospectives, daily stand-ups.

7. Organizational Mapping

Relations between circles, circle manifests, relationship manifests, decision making, escalation.

8. Handling Interrupts, impediments, opportunities and crisis

Working agreements dealing with interrupts to protect Teams and performance, training crews, re-teaming in crisis.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email