As people and society change at an ever-rapid pace, so do the expectations and abilities of a leader in their team(s). In the software development world, this has been especially felt by the leaders after creation of the Agile Manifesto, which only made it clear that what worked in the past may not be the best way going forward.
Understanding the history
Agile is an innovative approach of the 21st century in the software development industry. Earlier, “Scientific Management” or “Taylorism” was the most preferred management approach, which assumed that improvement of the whole system requires monitoring, repairing, and replacing of the parts.
Taylorism aims at:
(1) achieving maximum job fragmentation to minimize skill requirements and job learning time,
(2) separating execution of work from work planning,
(3) separating direct labor from indirect labor,
(4) replacing rule of thumb productivity estimates with the precise measurements,
(5) introducing time and motion study for optimum job performance, cost accounting, tool and workstation design, and,
(6) making possible payment by results method of wage determination.
Taylorism was the type of management, companies applied (some still follow) where “parts” are considered “individuals” with a specific function, and the system is the way the overall teams organize themselves to deliver the required output. Managers in this approach had responsibilities in regard to planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling of the teams so that they can fulfill the plan that was created.
Taylorism was aimed at improving the overall efficiency of individuals by setting control structures. But in turn, it brought a lot of dissatisfaction and demotivation amongst the employees.
In 2001 what emerged was the Agile “Software Development” Manifesto with 4 values and 12 principles (the complete history, values, and principles can be found here). Values, in my mind, can be described as something we believe in and principles are the behaviors that we enact to reflect those values. However, it is worth taking the time to go through the principles as well.
These two ways of thinking of organizations (Taylorism and agile) have given birth to different leadership styles. In the case of Taylorism, the preferred leadership style was Command & Control, which relies on the underlining principle that improvement of the whole requires monitoring and replacement of parts.
With the agile mindset, the Servant Leadership style has gained popularity. The term first appeared in 1970 and was launched by Robert K Greenleaf. The underlying principle is that “the servant-leader is a servant first.” By that, he meant that that the desire to serve, the "servant's heart," is a fundamental characteristic of a servant-leader. It is not about being servile; it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities.”
Comparison of the different leadership styles
By enacting these “agile” values, we adopt a “Servant Leadership” style which is displayed by a “Gardner” manager whereas “Taylorism” propagates “Command & Control leadership” style portrayed by a “Director” manager.
- Taylorism leadership: characteristics of a “Director” manager
A “Director” manager can be pictured as a movie director who is responsible for every scene, every line, and the output of the movie. Being accountable for every minute detail, he is also involved in critical decision-making. This type of managers worked very well in a waterfall approach where the main goal was following a predesigned plan and making sure no decision impacted the plan in an unwanted way. The roots of this approach are in Taylorism.
- Agile leadership: characteristics of a “Gardner” manager
The “Gardner” manager doesn’t know how things will turn out but is committed to providing all the “Sun” and “care” the team needs to reach its potential. The agile manager is responsible for sowing, watering, weeding, and nurturing the teams and systems that, in the right environment and with the right nutrients, can create an amazing fruit. The Servant Leadership style is required in the new paradigm.
As you can anticipate the best manager in this new context is the “Gardner” manager. They are responsible for assuring the Alignment or “Sowing,” Transparency or “Watering,” Skills or “Nurturing,” and Staffing or “Weeding. ” For organizations to have such kind of people in leadership positions, they should also be willing to work on their organizational design.
What an agile leader or “Gardner Manager” does?
- Establishes and monitors the budget
- Helps the teammates understand their roles and responsibilities inside the company (mission and vision)
- Ensures engagement of all the team members
- Aligns the values of the company to that of the team
- Defines business objectives of the team
- Promotes collaboration
- Creates a feedback-friendly environment
- Provides the needed delegation so that teams are free to innovate, experiment, and learn from their failures
- Communicates openly and authenticates with all the stakeholders
- Values results, quality, and openness over internal politics
- Trusts the team(s)
- Understands the organizational design and creates opportunities for team development
- Guides each team member on team goals
- Implements and supports self-organization
- Supports continual development of the team
- Hires new team members with inputs from the team (Culture fit should also be considered.)
- Fires unproductive team members
- Attracts and holds capable colleagues
- Evaluates performance with the inclusion of the team’s input and provides corrective actions
- Creates a mission and purpose for individuals and teams
- Manages talent in general
- Supports creation of Communities of Practice (CoPs)
Since the last few decades, these two styles have coexisted because not all organizations have embraced the agile way of working. With the popularity of agile and the change in generations that are already happening, the Servant Leadership style will be the one that shows if an organization will still be relevant in the next few decades.
How can organizations promote the Servant Leadership style?
The first step towards promoting the Servant Leadership style is to make the organization as flat as possible. I would also argue to flip the upside down; every leader/manager should ask himself/herself: What should I provide to my team so that they can excel at what they are doing? This question can be asked no matter what the level in the hierarchy is. Of course, this also implies there exists a level of transparency and alignment on what the organization needs to accomplish and how each team can contribute to accomplish the former objective.
Tall vs. Flat Organizational Hierarchy
The second image implies that the weight of the organization is heavier as you advance. How to handle this transformation is very well highlighted by my colleague, Daniel Eder, in his blog: 3 key considerations for success in agile transformations. He makes the case that organizations need to tackle all 3 areas for a successful transformation: strategy, culture, and tactics. Culture is being defined as “sum of explicit and implicit behaviors & rules.” These areas are also influenced by the position(s) that the organization has. Some roles might not fit in the new structure so they might require tweaking or rethinking altogether. An important question that each role must answer is: “Are you there to facilitate the creation of value or just to add another layer of control?”.
As organizations need to become nimbler, it also has an impact on the roles and the organizational design. Although transitioning to organizational agility influences the role of a manager, he/she continues to play an important role in the company. The generalist manager can either agree to specialize and act as a people manager or may shift to a more functional role commonly known in agile methodologies like Scrum Master, Business Analyst, Release Train Engineer, etc. However, the main challenge lies in offering the needed support to the agile managers while they transition into this new role and that’s the exact situation where a Servant Leadership approach on all ladders of the organization will help your managers take care of them and your organization.