30 March 2009

Mitigating Mediocrity in Middle Management

James Shore just wrote a post on "mediocrity" which nicely explains why Agile doesn't always scale well: It isn't Agile that's being scaled, but corporate inertia. If an organization isn't going to commit to doing things differently, they have succeeded only at mediocrity.

Some of the follow-up comments got me to thinking about the problem. People were asking how to get middle management on-board. I think a few of the questioners realized that finger-pointing, and arguments, and directives to "Just do it!" are counter-productive. It's not that managers don't see the value in Agile methods, but it's not clear how their day-to-day behavior is supposed to change.

We need a little root-cause analysis here. Businesses are run by people, and people are motivated by a variety of things: Self-interest, compassion, fear, joy, confusion. Change is unnerving, particularly when one is not the instigator of the change.

I find that people resist change at work when work itself is a source of stability in their lives (e.g., they would rather be at work than at home), and/or they see their job as just a job, and not a productive, change-generating career. In traditional organizational structures, middle management is detached from the two most dramatic regions of the org chart.

So if I'm a middle manager, and I like my stability, I resist the change. If I would like to be part of the change, I see my own involvement as limited. And, do I even have a role (and a job!) in this new world order???

The good news is that, on a truly agile project, there is plenty of interesting work, and learning, for everyone. Our first step is to stop thinking of them as managers, and start thinking of them as leaders.

I once heard a very good quote which helped me out of a career rut. I'll paraphrase: "Not everyone gets to do what they love [C'mon, I'd be co-authoring novels with Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge. In Maui. Shaka, Bra!]; but we must love what we do."

That's a non-mediocre goal, without being an impossible stretch towards perfection. You help the team by helping yourself grow, and you help yourself by helping the team.

I can't count the number of times I have met a manager who says, somewhat forlornly, "I used to write code..." Leadership involves some wonderful skills that we can learn and be proud of, but we may want to reconsider the "one ladder" approach of moving our most talented technical people into pure management roles.

Nor should we necessarily get our managers directly from a pool of young, non-technical, certified PMIs. We need to be picky, and find people who are familiar with technical endeavors and are willing to lead people towards a common goal.

Maybe that's why "coach" has such appeal for me: It's technical, and people-oriented. I help other people (developers, testers, managers, directors, VPs, everyone) find ways to enjoy what they do while successfully building quality software products. I do love what I do!

Do you? (If not, we can help.)

Further Reading

Jim's post: http://jamesshore.com/Blog/Stumbling-Through-Mediocrity.html

Agile Bob's comments regarding Jim's post: http://www.agileforall.com/2009/03/30/new-to-agile-dont-settle-for-mediocrity/