November 18, 2014

Is it Time for an Agile Leadership Management Model?

Goodbye Leader Manager, Hello Owner Manager

Agile and lean approaches to developing 'things' are more popular now than ever, as leaders see that an iterative and incremental approach gives them greater flexibility, quality and productivity at a lower cost. Increased happiness is a bonus too - it's lovely to be with people who really enjoy their work. So where are the text books and guidance for agile leadership and agile management?

Is the Traditional Model of Management Broken?

The management models familiar to the architects of the world’s largest enterprises and organisations are largely hierarchical. Their org charts reveal pyramid-like structures which reflect the way the organisation operates. Strategy is formulated by leaders at the top, who direct and equip layers of managers, who ensure the work is carried-out by the workforce beneath them.


The main problem with this model is that it depends on leadership. Not from above, that’s relatively easy, most of the time, but from managers in the middle layer. W Edwards Deming exhorted his clients to develop managers who could lead:

“To manage one must lead. To lead, one must understand the work that he and his people are responsible for”

(Deming, Out of the Crisis. 1982)

When managers don’t lead, and/or don’t understand the work that people are responsible for doing, that manager is ineffective. If he is not replaced, or there are several ineffective managers in an organisation then the hierarchical model of management has failed, and the long-term sustainability of the organisation is in doubt.

Deming pointed-out that “the most important things cannot be measured” and considered management by numbers alone “an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do, and in fact is usually management by fear.”

Flattening the Organisation

As organisations improve and ‘modernise’, they often seek to flatten hierarchies, with the well-intentioned motive of ‘getting closer to the customer’. This doesn’t work for those organisations for one simple reason – the customer doesn’t feature in the hierarchical model at all. What happens instead is that horizontal slices are removed from the hierarchy, usually from the middle (management) layer, where salaries are high and the value of an individual’s contribution is difficult to measure.

In reality, some of the people forming this expensive layer of middle management actually are the value of the organisation. They are its ‘IP’ or intellectual property. It is they who know what happened when they launched a product on the Spanish market and they who know how to do it better next time. They were the engineers who rolled-out a brand new technology across the organisation, and the lessons-learned are embedded within their collective experience. Equally, they are the ‘old-guard’. A cautious foil that may be more conservative than risk-taking, slow to change but perhaps resilient too. Deming promoted co-operation within the organisation too, it was central to his ‘System of Profound Knowledge’.

We are here, now

The recent economic collapses in Europe and the USA have made organisations look again at their operations, and make changes that were, in some cases, long overdue. Preserving cash and controlling cash-flow resulted in moves to cloud services and the cutting-out of much ‘dead wood’.

But this has not changed the basic structure of the organisation nor the way it is managed. Yet.
Perhaps that’s next?

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