Agility Starts with the Assumptions about Human Nature

Agili­ty hinges on the pre­vail­ing assump­tions about human nature in the orga­ni­za­tion. Wher­ev­er peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly dis­trust­ed and where the belief pre­vails that peo­ple must be moti­vat­ed to per­form, agili­ty will not thrive, but only fear, car­go cult and label fraud. The prob­lem is not peo­ple, but demo­ti­vat­ing and dehu­man­iz­ing struc­tures and processes.

Agili­ty is about “indi­vid­u­als and inter­ac­tions over process­es and tools”, as the Agile Man­i­festo says right at the start. The mes­sage from the Prin­ci­ples behind the Man­i­festo is there­fore unequiv­o­cal: “Build projects around moti­vat­ed indi­vid­u­als. Give them the envi­ron­ment and sup­port they need, and trust them to get the job done.” I con­sid­er this a suit­able prin­ci­ple for build­ing humane orga­ni­za­tions in the age of knowl­edge work. 

Agili­ty is clear­ly based on The­o­ry Y, i.e. the assump­tion that peo­ple are intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed and will­ing to per­form. Dou­glas McGre­gor described this already in 1960 in his book “The Human Side of Enter­prise”, which received far too lit­tle atten­tion, as a con­trast to the pre­vi­ous­ly undis­put­ed The­o­ry X, accord­ing to which humans are lazy by prin­ci­ple, avoid work where pos­si­ble and must there­fore be con­tin­u­ous­ly con­trolled and motivated. 

In the con­text of dehu­man­iz­ing assem­bly line work, of which Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor him­self said that a trained goril­la could also do it this obser­va­tion may even have been true. The expla­na­tion that man is like that in prin­ci­ple is cer­tain­ly not true. The only valid con­clu­sion is that peo­ple behave this way in the con­text of the orga­ni­za­tion. So it is not the indi­vid­ual who has a deficit, but the orga­ni­za­tion, because it does not enable peo­ple to engage and grow in a moti­vat­ed way.

Gallup Engagement Index Deutschland 2001-2018
Gallup Engage­ment Index for Ger­many (Source: Gallup)

The Gallup Engage­ment Index shows this very sober­ing­ly year after year. In 2018, 71% of the employ­ees in Ger­man com­pa­nies worked by the rule, 14% even had already resigned men­tal­ly and only 15% real­ly put their heart and soul into their work. To read this as con­fir­ma­tion of The­o­ry X, how­ev­er, would be a fatal fal­la­cy. It sim­ply shows that the way orga­ni­za­tions are struc­tured today demo­ti­vates peo­ple. Or to put it anoth­er way: Any­one who builds orga­ni­za­tions like machines and uses (and wears out) peo­ple like cogs can only expect work by the rule. Nei­ther moti­va­tion nor finan­cial incen­tives (which, by the way, are demon­stra­bly harm­ful) will help. The prob­lem is deep­er (or higher?). 

The answer to the ques­tion man­agers so often ask of behav­ioral sci­en­tists “How do you moti­vate peo­ple?” is, “You don’t.”

Dou­glas McGregor

Agili­ty means first and fore­most work­ing on the sys­tem and these dehu­man­iz­ing con­di­tions. The focus changes from roles (cogs) and process­es (machines) con­trolled by a man­ag­er to self-orga­niz­ing team­work with an end-to-end respon­si­bil­i­ty for a hope­ful­ly moti­vat­ing prod­uct. This cre­ates iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and offers the indi­vid­ual more oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­tribute and devel­op his or her abil­i­ties. If you are seri­ous about agili­ty, you have to first get rid of the pre­dom­i­nant assump­tion of human nature of The­o­ry X, i.e. the basi­cal­ly unwill­ing human being who has to be moti­vat­ed. The prime direc­tive by Nor­man L. Kerth, which should dec­o­rate every office and every meet­ing room, pro­vides a won­der­ful guide­line for this:

Regard­less of what we dis­cov­er, we must under­stand and tru­ly believe that every­one did the best job they could, giv­en what they knew at the time, their skills and abil­i­ties, the resources avail­able, and the sit­u­a­tion at hand.

Nor­man L. Kerth, Project Ret­ro­spec­tives: A Hand­book for Team Review

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.


Absolute­ly bril­liant Mar­cus, one of the best that you have writ­ten, in my hum­ble opin­ion. Thank you.

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