Empowerment is the Heart of the Agile Transformation

The often heated discussion about the proper agile method or the right framework for scaling obscures the view of what is essential: the empowerment of employees to organize themselves.

The ‘e’ in Agile and Lean stands for empow­er­ment. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, both philoso­phies — which are close­ly relat­ed — were and still are often reduced to the evi­dent prac­tices, meth­ods, and tools. But any­one who intro­duces these with­out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly work­ing on the foun­da­tion of the con­cept of peo­ple and the lead­er­ship mind­set is build­ing on sand. Richard Feyn­man apt­ly describes the result of this reduc­tion as car­go cult: the ele­gant imi­ta­tion (in his case of sci­en­tif­ic works) with­out a deep­er under­stand­ing of the pur­pose and the inte­gra­tion into the big­ger picture:

In the South Seas there is a car­go cult of peo­ple. Dur­ing the war they saw air­planes land with lots of good mate­ri­als, and they want the same thing to hap­pen now. So they’ve arranged to imi­tate things like run­ways, to put fires along the sides of the run­ways, to make a wood­en hut for a man to sit in, with two wood­en pieces on his head like head­phones and bars of bam­boo stick­ing out like anten­nas — he’s the con­troller — and they wait for the air­planes to land. They’re doing every­thing right. The form is per­fect. It looks exact­ly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No air­planes land. So I call these things car­go cult sci­ence, because they fol­low all the appar­ent pre­cepts and forms of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, but they’re miss­ing some­thing essen­tial, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feyn­man, 1974

One pil­lar of the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem — and thus of Lean Man­age­ment as its gen­er­al­iza­tion — was and still is respect for the peo­ple. As a result, the eighth type of waste was lat­er added to the orig­i­nal sev­en types: unused human poten­tial. A very deci­sive con­tri­bu­tion of Tai­ichi Ohno was the real­iza­tion that, through train­ing and coach­ing, the for­mer­ly “ordi­nary” work­ers could improve their work­ing meth­ods and process­es autonomous­ly and con­tin­u­ous­ly. In the Tay­lorist world­view that had pre­vailed until then, this was the task of man­age­ment, and pro­ce­dures were there­fore only as good as the abil­i­ty and capac­i­ty of the respec­tive man­ag­er allowed. By empow­er­ing work­ers to take charge of their process­es, Tai­ichi Ohno har­nessed this unused cre­ativ­i­ty and, at the same time, increased employ­ee loyalty. 

At the heart of Agile is the self-orga­nized team. It is explic­it­ly called for in the prin­ci­ples behind the Man­i­festo for Agile Soft­ware Devel­op­ment: “The best archi­tec­tures, require­ments, and designs emerge from self-orga­niz­ing teams.” And lest there be any doubt about the lead­er­ship mind­set that goes with it, it also says, “Build projects around moti­vat­ed indi­vid­u­als. Give them the envi­ron­ment and sup­port they need, and trust them to get the job done.” Agile with­out self-orga­ni­za­tion and empow­er­ment does­n’t exist, even if frame­works or blue­prints have been copied and rolled out in exem­plary fash­ion and the process­es are cel­e­brat­ed metic­u­lous­ly. As long as Agile is imposed on peo­ple from the out­side — or rather from above — with­out the nec­es­sary empow­er­ment and the accom­pa­ny­ing change in lead­er­ship atti­tude from chess mas­ter to gar­den­er, it will remain a soul­less car­go cult.

There­fore, the key to a suc­cess­ful agile trans­for­ma­tion lies less in the ques­tions sur­round­ing the right frame­works, process­es, meth­ods, or tools, which are so appeal­ing to man­agers and con­sul­tants, and more in empow­er­ment and self-orga­ni­za­tion. Employ­ees must become active­ly shap­ing sub­jects of the trans­for­ma­tion and their orga­ni­za­tion instead of being degrad­ed to pas­sive objects and mere tar­get groups of change man­age­ment measures.

Peo­ple don’t resist change – they resist being changed.

Peter Sen­ge

Pho­to by Tim Mar­shall on Unsplash

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