Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Theoretically Agile is quite simple - as long as the theory is Theory Y

When the whole agile movement started there was a huge amount of success-stories everywhere to be heard. But nowadays, as Agile has entered the mainstream at least partially things have changed. As Michael Sahota points out in his "...Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide" the success rate of agile projects nowadays follows the bell curve pretty much like everything else.
When I run the team building simulation from the Hands-on lean and Agile practices course we very often find that the highest performing teams are in the realm of recreation – and it is my impression that there is a significance in that, that is worthwhile to explore.
Talking about motivation and people's engagement Theory X and Theory Y come to mind. In the 1960s Douglas McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y at MIT. Two theories that have a considerable influence on how people and projects get managed – even though many managers are not aware of those theories. While Theory X assumes employees are unwilling to perform and have to be tightly controlled, Theory Y assumes the complete opposite - that people are highly motivated and just need to be supported.
I don't want to go into which theory is more valid - especially not without discussing Theory U which takes a completely different approach. But what strikes me ever so often is the similarity between the assumptions of Theory Y and the assumptions of most agile methods – and actually this is one of the reasons why the success/failure distribution for agile projects is developing the way it is. In the early days people were attracted to Agile projects by their enthusiasm and willingness to explore new ways of working. Actually the early "war-stories" from those agile teams fit perfectly into Theory Y wording. When – for example – a team hijacks a meeting room as a permanent collaboration space that's pretty much people wanting to excel and create their ideal working environment. But the more Agile is crossing the chasm to widespread adaption the more it gets pulled into the realm of Theory X – largely because most major companies are run based on Theory X. And thus we see a conceptual difference between the assumed environment for Agile (Theory Y environment) and the actual environment for many projects nowadays that run under an agile umbrella (Theory X environment).
This mismatch is – in my humble opinion – one of the main reasons why Agile has lost a lot of it's edge over "classical" management.

Till next time


Kurt Häusler said...

I always thought of "agile" as a bunch of mechanisms to help shift from a theory X to theory Y style of management.

I would say a company that is already theory Y doesn't need it, so it is mostly something for theory X orgs.

Michael Mahlberg said...

Hello Kurt,
that's an interesting point of view. But I think that there actually has to be a kind of existing "Theory Y seed" that can be grown – without that seed all the agile mechanisms won't actually get traction. And especially if an organization is in a "Theory Y" state the power of a lot of agile "tools" can be leveraged efficiently - but of course YMMV.