Agility and Separation of Powers. Or: What Is the Boss Actually Doing?

In most hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions the spir­it of abso­lutism still pre­vails. All pow­er is with the boss. He or she man­ages and con­trols, impos­es rules, mon­i­tors their com­pli­ance and pun­ish­es mis­con­duct. Even today there are still enough small and big Sun Kings: L’é­tat c’est moi! This is because peo­ple are still sus­cep­ti­ble to exces­sive pow­er on the one hand and on the oth­er because the Enlight­en­ment appar­ent­ly had lit­tle influ­ence on the design of mod­ern orga­ni­za­tions. The advance of knowl­edge work and the increas­ing striv­ing for agili­ty also lead to a new Enlight­en­ment with a more pro­nounced sep­a­ra­tion of powers.

Pow­er tends to cor­rupt and absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolutely.

Lord Acton

Agili­ty is essen­tial­ly based on self-orga­ni­za­tion. The prin­ci­ples behind the agile man­i­festo clear­ly state: “The best archi­tec­tures, require­ments, and designs emerge from self-orga­niz­ing teams.” How­ev­er, it is not only the work con­tent that lies with­in the team’s sov­er­eign­ty, but also and espe­cial­ly the orga­ni­za­tion of their work. As a rein­force­ment of this prin­ci­ple of self-orga­ni­za­tion, the next prin­ci­ple reads: “At reg­u­lar inter­vals, the team reflects on how to become more effec­tive, then tunes and adjusts its behav­ior accordingly.”

The agile manifesto is radically non-hierarchical.

The agile man­i­festo with its prin­ci­ples is rad­i­cal­ly non-hier­ar­chi­cal. Scrum, as the best-known agile frame­work, does not intro­duce a hier­ar­chy either, but gives the role of Prod­uct Own­er as part of the Scrum Team the respon­si­bil­i­ty to max­i­mize the val­ue deliv­ered by the Devel­op­ment team. In oth­er words, the Prod­uct Own­er ensures effec­tive­ness, i.e. work­ing on the right things, while the Devel­op­ment Team retains the free­dom to imple­ment those things appro­pri­ate­ly. So the Prod­uct Own­er deter­mines the WHY and WHAT, the devel­op­ment team the HOW.

The Product-Owner as primus inter pares.

Even if it is occa­sion­al­ly said (not least here) that the Prod­uct Own­er is the CEO of the prod­uct, this is not to be under­stood in an abso­lutist or hier­ar­chi­cal sense (The Prod­uct is Me!). Scrum here­by cre­ates a role of equal val­ue which leads the prod­uct in terms of cus­tomer val­ue. The Prod­uct Own­er may and will do this in close coop­er­a­tion with the Devel­op­ment Team, because in the end this team must have under­stood the WHY and WHAT in order to achieve this desired value.

The Scrum Master is a servant-leader.

In addi­tion to the Prod­uct Own­er, Scrum intro­duces anoth­er role: The Scrum Mas­ter is the ser­vant leader for the Scrum Team. He helps to opti­mize the col­lab­o­ra­tion with­in the team and between the team and the orga­ni­za­tion in order to max­i­mize the val­ue gen­er­at­ed by the Scrum Team. The idea, how­ev­er, is not that the Scrum Mas­ter acts like a project man­ag­er or teacher, but as a coach to sup­port the team in its self-organization.

The boss unleashes human potential.

Despite all self-orga­ni­za­tion and free­dom of hier­ar­chy, aris­es the fol­low­ing ques­tion due to legal require­ments: And who is the line man­ag­er? And what does he or she actu­al­ly do then? Apart from for­mal admin­is­tra­tive top­ics (vaca­tions, ill­ness, etc.) there is only one, but deci­sive task left. A task, which in the pre­vi­ous abso­lutist pow­er was often neglect­ed depend­ing on per­son­al incli­na­tion. And this task is to unleash human poten­tial.

Lead­ing means: serv­ing life, elic­it­ing life in peo­ple, awak­en­ing life in employees.

Anselm Grün

Now it seems straight-for­ward (at least in the pre­vi­ous abso­lutist log­ic) to make the Prod­uct Own­er or option­al­ly the Scrum Mas­ter the boss (or to give the for­mer line man­ag­er one of those roles). Both lead to a clear shift of pow­er in the direc­tion of the respec­tive role. In the most extreme case, not only the team, but also the Scrum Mas­ter is sub­or­di­nat­ed to the Prod­uct Own­er, which would more or less restore the old abso­lutist pow­er. In the sense of a good bal­ance of pow­er, I think it makes more sense to keep dis­ci­pli­nary lead­er­ship in the above-men­tioned human sense sep­a­rate from these roles and thus place a high pri­or­i­ty on it. I would there­fore even rec­om­mend that the mem­bers of one devel­op­ment team should have dif­fer­ent line managers.

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