Words matter. Language matters. Single words can evoke a whole set of connotations and feelings. In the Agile space, the word “waterfall” certainly does that. Every language domain, such as an organization or field of practice, has these words or phrases that have a very specific meaning understood by everyone who’s part of that group. Sometimes they’re neutral, sometimes positive and sometimes they’re just taboo — words you better avoid due to the bad aftertaste or overwhelmingly negative connotations. In a different context or domain, the same word may be completely innocent and neutral — just ask hikers about waterfalls. (In one organization I worked for, you should never mention “productivity”; otherwise, you’d immediately be confronted with visceral reactions and backlash!)
During conversations with various individuals about Agile organizations, I realized that, more often than not, there are two main ways they seem to think about them:
The Mechanistic View
When people take a mechanistic view of an organization, they believe it can successfully and exhaustively be described through its structure and processes. There are clear inputs and outputs that can and should be measured (and shown on dashboards). Clear correlations and relationships exist and metrics are driven through use of known “levers”. Order is created by following consistent processes and best practices. The people that make up these organizations are “resources” and certainly play an important role, but at end of the day it’s about hiring, training, retaining and measuring engagement. This world has clear rules and could be described by a good deterministic model with underlying predictable formulas and mechanisms. At its foundation, this view of organizations is rooted in Taylorism and management principles from the industrial revolution.
The Humanistic View
On the other side of the spectrum, we find individuals thinking of an organization in humanistic terms. Organizations are organic and the sum of the individuals and teams they are made up of. These “cells” form an organism that often doesn’t follow predictable rules but functions through complex interactions and relationships that often escape the attempt of description via simple mathematical models. While org charts and processes do exist, the humanistic view accepts that these are solely simplistic attempts at describing how such an organization really works. This thinking is more in line with the theory of complex adaptive systems. Complex human beings are the building blocks of these organizations who deserve to be motivated and communicated to, their potential should be unlocked and they should be allowed to organize around problems and solve them. Instead of processes, we find emphasis on culture, values and principles. At its core, this point of view evolved from more recent research and thinking about how organizations, which are nowadays occupied predominantly by knowledge workers, function.
Which of these views is “right”? As Agilists we certainly gravitate more towards the humanistic view. Nonetheless, both views are valid and valuable models describing organizations knowing that a model is itself defined as a (over-) simplified representation of an entity, so it can never be fully accurate. At the end of the day, both these views can prove useful given the right circumstances as long as we deliberately choose which one to use and understand its potential shortcomings. I do believe, though, that the humanistic view pays better tribute to the complexity of today’s world. What gets us in trouble is when, based on traditional management training, we are hard-wired to only take the mechanistic view without being able to acknowledge the complex inner workings of today’s businesses and that in the end we need to trust and rely on people to make our organizations successful.
You might be familiar with Conway’s Law, which basically states that applications in their structure mirror the (communication) structure of the organization they were developed in. This law in itself is quite fascinating in and of itself.
During a recent Agile Open conference, I came to a realization related to scaling Agile that reminded me of Conway’s law. I venture to postulate that an organization’s Agile scaling method is the reflection of its culture and management style. (Maybe this shall be known as “Rosendahl’s Law” going forward, but I digress.)
What do I mean by this theory? If the organizational culture is that of command and control, it will choose an Agile scaling model which directly or indirectly embodies those values. In this case, an organization may choose SAFe since it – at least on the surface – seems to be more prescriptive and appears to provide more control.
If an organization’s culture is more characterized by empowerment and trust, it is more likely to choose a different scaling model, maybe just Scrum of Scrums or the Spotify model. As an extension of this theory, one might also predict that a command and control culture may lean more towards Scrum due to its (perceived) high predictability vs. Kanban which provides less clarity on roles, “process” and delivery dates.
What do you think, am I off here or have you seen this “law” in action?
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.
Thank you for subscribing.
Something went wrong.
We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously.