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Agile organisations are often seen as the opposite of bureaucratic organisations. Many people think, that Agility means to rid of existing strict rules and processes in order to get flexibility. To some extend this is true.

Usualy the word bureaucracy has a negativ touch. It means that an organisation is strictly driven by rules and processes and that a group of people that works in bureaus are executing the rules and have the power to make the decisions. It is a form of administration.

Rules have value

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber a German sociologist published an slidely different take on bureaucracy. He claimed that bureaucracy is the liberation of the people from autocracy. Before bureaucracy, the main administrative model in organisations was autocracy. The autocrat has the power to decide everthing at anytime. People cannot rely on certain rules or laws and must expect at any time to be effected by the autocrat's decisions.

In a bureaucracy the decisions are made based in fixed rules (or laws). Weber sees the following advantages:

  • Handeling based on predictable rules without arbitrariness
  • Processes are done by educated staff
  • Independent from personal relations
  • Independent from political view

Well, we all know, that autocracy is coming back in some areas.

Frame for self-organisation

Getting back to agile organisations. The simplistic opinion, that Agile means to get rid of bureaucracy is a trap. I have experienced that managers - who claim to lead an agile organisation - don't focus on rules, don't define focus areas or don't nurture lateral leadership. "Agility means there are no rules. The people will figure it out." But without rules forming a frame for self-organisation, the law of the jungle is coming back. Often a hierarchy is still present, that defines, who is in charge. The people with the most power make the decision or arbitrarily intervene. We are back to a form of autocracy.

With agile organisations we transform bureaucratic organisations in the 21st centrury. It's more a bureaucracy 2.0 than the opposite of it. Agile means that rules that are adaptive. People of the organisation are involved in changing the rules and setting up agreements rather than rules. Both, the rules and agreements are part of the order that is necessary in a funtioning organisation. They give orientation and focus for the people within the organisation.

Agreement are better than rules

The wording is interesting here. Rules are more formal, they are setup and imposed by others. Rules are pushing us towards obedience. Agreements are created by two or more parties for themselves. Their goal is collaboration and they nurture intrinsic motivation (nice post about it by Joshua Freedman). In agile organisations we reduce the number of rules and create more room for agreements. Rules are the frame. Within the frame the self-organisation happens. Agreements are an important part of the self-organisation. Rules as well as agreements are made transparent, so everyone knows about them. The perfection goal is to replace rules with agreements. One example is the current trend in the Agile movement towards OKR (Objective - Key Results). The Key Results in OKRs are agreements between a manager and a group of people. People will be intrinsicly motivated by agreements. That fits more to an agile culture than to impose objectives on them.

Maximize agreements and make rules adaptable

A management is usually in charge of the rules. They are responsible to set the frame for self-organisation. They also have to provide a mechanism to inspect and adapt the frame. Within the frame the people are asked to make agreements. To ensure that agreements are made, lateral leadership is necessary (Coaches, Scrum Masters). They look after the group's processes and help the convergence towards agreements. They also drive the continuous improvement of the agreements and interface with the management on the adaption of the frame of rules.

So, rules to some extend are necessary, especially to give focus to the people. I will cover the "right to be focussed" in a next blog post. Without framing rules and without lateral leadership that ensures agreements are in place and respected, the people are missing an order within the organisation. To avoid chaos, the gap will be filled by powerful people who make the decisions. So, be aware of the hidden autocracy in organisations that falsely claim to be Agile.

Software development is a complex endeavour, that’s why Agile is very relevant. Agile methods enable us to cope with this complexity. I want to give one explanation why Agile works.

Ashby's Law - Photo by Dave Gray
Credit: Flickr - Dave Gray

This post will also prove that command-and-control is not working to solve a complex problem. I will show this by linking software development to Cybernetics, the science of controlling. The special discipline of Management Cybernetics was introduced by Stafford Beer in 1959 and relates Cybernetics to management. Economist Fredmund Malik references Management Cybernetics in his work. As I mentioned in the previous post, the science for leading agile organisations already exists.

Ashby’s Law

Ashby was a pioneer in cybernetics. Ashby’s Law is also called the Law of Requisit Variety. Understanding Ashby’s Law requires to understand variety. The variety is a measure of a number of distinct states of a system. This measure can be used to exemplify complexity in a system. Ashby’s Law describes the condition for the variety in two systems, that make it possible for one system to control the other.

Simplified, the law leads to the following rule: The higher the variety of the controlling system, the better it is able to cope with the variety of the system under control. If the system that I want to control has three different possible distinct states and the controlling system has only two possible distinct states, then the direct control will be impossible.

Let’s take another simple example to explain this law in our domain. The system that we want to control is an existing legacy software and the controlling system is a programmer that needs to fix a defect. Variety in a software system is higher, if the software system has more lines of code. The more options the programmer knows to change the code, the better are the chances to fix the defect. Or on the side: more simplicity in legacy code leads to better chances to fix the defect.

Imported to note is that we have two possibilities to get to a successful control and therefor a successful software development.

  1. Reduce variety in the system under control, which means simplify the problem that we are facing. It would mean to simplify the software or the scope of the problem.
  2. Create a controlling system with more variety, which means you get a more complex organisation in the project team.

Agile and Ashby’s Law

Let’s apply this to a another example. The system that is under control is a business problem that needs to be solved by creating a piece of software. The system that want’s to control is the project team. What can we do to improve the variety of the project team:

  • Skilled team members - the more tricks they know, the more options they have to contribute to the solution.
  • Collaboration between people to combine the variety of every single person. This increases the total variety of the team.
  • Team members from different function in one project team - a tester may see different options to solve a problem than a programmer.

These are only three things that help the project team. What are the things that reduce the variety of the project team, which we should avoid:

  • Hire less skilled people or don’t train people - well, that’s obvious.
  • Have a single person that commands other team members to execute his ideas. The variety of the whole project team is reduced to the variety of this single person.
  • Less possibilities to collaborate. Team members wont share their thoughts and combine them with others.
  • A fixed organisation with defined roles (Architect, Lead Developer, …). This reduces the options that the team has to re-organize and adapt in the solution process.

This explains quite nicely why so many things in Agile are helping us to get the job done. It also explains, why a command-and-control culture is not helping us to solve a complex problem.

What are the implications for management?

In Agile we make all the things explicit that increase the variety, e.g. self-organised teams that are empowered to make the decisions, no explicit roles in teams and close collaboration. As a manager you create the environment for such an organisation. This organisation is a complex social system and can be very precious, when it’s functioning well. You can compare it to a biotope. Like with a biotope, you cannot mindlessly intervene in the system. Making a change in the system may have destructive results, that you cannot foresee.

Since it seems very difficult to lead such a complex social system, managers usually fall back into old habits. They constrain the individuals, introduce roles, create hierarchies or directly intervene in the solution process. But all this reduces the variety in the development organisation and therefor will create a system that is not able to cope with the complexity. Additionally the complexity of the problem to solve will be reduced by demanding big upfront specification. And then we are back to the waterfall environment.

How can you create and lead an agile organisation, to actually cope with more complex challenges of the enterprise? I will cover this in the following posts.

There is a lot of noise around the management of Agile. A new discipline of Agile Management seems to be necessary and is discussed on conferences, in articles and is the base on new consulting products.


Agile as a body of knowledge has its roots in Agile Software Development. For many years the community ignored the managers. Statements that managers aren't needed anymore in agile organisations were not very helpful to adopt new agile methods. Nowadays the management practices are much more in focus by the agile community. We understand that management plays the important role in the change process towards Agile.

What is an Agile Organisation?

The agility of an organisation can be described as the ability of this organisation to adapt to new market conditions. Depending on the products and the market the required agility may differ to actually qualify it as an Agile Organisation. Even with traditional processes a company could achieve some level of agility. Agility of an organisation's business alone is not enough to call it an Agile Organisation.

What I mean with Agile Organisation is the use of agile methods and the compliance to the Agile Manifesto for a group of people within a company. For example a multi-team Scrum organisation that creates one product can be called an Agile Organisation. The management of the Agile Organisation is the focus of this post.

What is Agile Management?

Agile Management is the management practice in the context of an Agile Organisation.

The term Agile Management indicates that there is something special in the management of Agile compared against the management of traditional organisations. While this may be true depending on the context, the knowledge in science of complex social systems and self-managed teams exists already for many year. The agile movement has not invented a new type of management. It rather discovered the knowledge and has incorporated it into the Agile body of knowledge. This means for managers that want to move to Agile - apart from learning the essentials of agile methods - they can re-learn or improve the knowledge about management based on what already exists in science.

There is nothing unique about the management of agile organisation, so I did not recommend to use the term Agile Management. It's because people may anchor on the wrong things: agile people may think that Agile Management is new and they have to teach managers their own - agile - way of management and managers may think that Agile Management is not adoptable in their company or it's a buzz word, that has nothing todo with real management.

My experience is that using the word Agile for everything, like Agile Marketing, Agile World or Agile Management, is not helping us to adopt our body of knowledge. I usually explain the real business benefits and the insights to convince people. Labelling it as Agile often creates immediate resistance.

What is good management?

We had a discussion on our company how an agile manager should behave. We brainstormed several properties of an agile manager, that I cannot fully recall. It was something like: supportive, empower the team, remove impediments, ...
My colleague David from the UK noted, that all these properties will make the manager a good manager (in the context of product development). Even, if no agile methods are used at all, a manager that behaves and leads his people like this, would create a very helpful environment for product development.

This means that we have organisations out there that are not using agile methods but with good management. I met some of these managers. Although they were not heading an agile organisation, they understood very well, what it takes to lead in the context of Agile. One difference is that agile organisations require good management. Agile does not stick in an organisation with bad management.

In the next posts I will continue with the topic "Leading in Agile".

Credits: Photo from Flickr Michael Heiss

Product Owners employ User Stories as product backlog items. User Stories represent requirements and are detailed during the course of the project. Large User Stories are called Epics. Epics are coarse grained User Stories and are usually decomposed during the project and detailed further on. And then there are Themes ...

Often Themes are not used properly by some teams. I have seen that a Theme is either a more fine grained concept than an Epic or a more coarse grained concept and contains multiple Epics. It may not be wrong to use the concept of a Theme this way, because neither an Epic nor a Theme is clearly defined. But this confuses the team members and it is not helping us to adopt agile planning.

Clarifying the three different concepts before you work with them will help:

  • A User Story represents a requirement and is small enough to be implemented by a team within one Sprint.
  • An Epic is a larger User Story and represents a requirement as well, but it is too large to be implemented in one Sprint.
  • A Theme is a set of User Stories or Epics. A Theme can reference multiple User Stories from even different Epics.

But for what are we using the concepts?

A User Story is a requirement that is digested by the team within one Sprint. A lot have been written about how to use user stories. Some teams avoid the concept of Epic and simply call them large User Story - fair enough. But it makes sense to call a large User Story an Epic, because the sizing of a User Story is an imported information. Having Epics in the Product Backlog indicates that the items have to be split. If in the Backlog Grooming meeting the team labels the backlog items as Epics, which means they cannot be estimated. Separating the large and small user stories with different terms, forces the team and Product Owner to make the backlog items smaller, which is a decent goal.

But Themes? Why do I need the concept of a Theme? The answer is: For roadmap and release planning.

Usually customers and users want to have many many features. It's not agile and not helpful for the customer to convert all their wishes into fine grained User Stories, so they can be implemented by a team. It's better to narrow down the desired scope and to get closer to the best business value for available team capacity with agile planning techniques.

Agile planning has many different levels. The highest level is the product vision, that describes the actual business goal of a project or product. The next level is the release roadmap. In this roadmap the product owner and the team agree on a series of releases with a rough scope - the Themes. Releases have Themes that describe the scope of the release. Within a release we usually want to build and deliver a Minimum Viable Product (or Minimal Marketable Feature). That's a single or set of features that bring value to the customer.  In the roadmap planning we want to find out which Epics and User Stories are a minimal necessary valuable set of functionality. Since Themes are a set of User Stories they can help us to find and describe the MVP.

How can I identify Themes?

Seit einiger Zeit beschäftigte ich mich mit Design Thinking. Diese Methode hat eigentlich nichts mit Software-Entwicklung zu tun. Sie soll dazu dienen, innovative Ideen hervorzubringen. Agile Methoden verfolgen in erster Linie das Ziel, auf Veränderungen der Anforderungen zu reagieren. Aber wie kommt der Anwender oder Kunde überhaupt auf die richtigen Anforderungen?

Was ist Design Thinking?

Diese Methode basiert auf eine Reihe von Werten und Prinzipien, die jedoch nicht so gut niedergeschrieben sind, wie die Werte und Prinzipien im Agilen Manifest. Die beiden Wertesysteme sind aber sehr ähnlich und daher kompatibel. Zusammengefasst ist bei Design Thinking folgendes wichtig:

  • Gutes Design ist nicht das Ergebnis eines einzelnen, sondern eines interdisziplinären Teams.
  • Teams arbeiten iterativ in festen Zeitrahmen (Timebox).
  • Jeder wird zum Experimentieren ermutigt.
  • Fehler werden als Anlass zum Lernen angesehen.
  • Teams involvieren echte Benutzer in ihre Arbeit.
  • Jeder lässt sich inspirieren von anderen Ideen, Prototypen und Lösungen.
  • Empathie ist notwendig, um die Bedürfnisse der Benutzer zu ergründen.

Ein wichtiger Aspekt vom Design Thinking ist das interdisziplinäre Team, also ein Team, was sich in einer Firma aus verschiedenen Bereichen rekrutieren würde. Zu einem solchen Team könnten z.B. Techniker und Marketing-Leute gehören. Dieses Team durchläuft einen Prozess, der jedoch nicht starr und rigide ist. In den Prozess können je nach Bedarf Iterationen eingefügt werden. Ein wichtiger Bestandteil dieses Prozesses ist die Entwicklung von Prototypen, die dann an echten Benutzern getestet werden.

Konkret beschäftig sich Design Thinking nicht nur mit Werten und Prozessen, sondern auch mit Praktiken, in die in einzelnen Phasen des Prozesses angewendet werden können. Dazu gehören, z.B.:

  • Story Telling
  • Verschiedene Brainstorming Techniken
  • Prototyping

Wir bezeichnen Design Thinking auch als einen "Body of Knowledge", der von verschiedenen Seiten weiterentwickelt wird. Im letzten Jahr fand in Deutschland die erste Design Thinking Konferenz statt. Mittlerweile entwickeln sich lokale Gruppen, die sich mit Design Thinking beschäftigen. Aktuell wird gerade die Gruppe Design Thinking München gegründet.

Product Owner als Flaschenhals

In der agilen Methode Scrum ist der Product Owner verantwortlich für das Hervorbringen und Priorisieren der Anforderungen. Er legt die Anforderungen als User Stories ins Product Backlog und das Entwicklungsteam setzt diese Anforderungen um. Aber wie kommt der Product Owner zu den richtigen Ideen? Sind die Features, die er umgesetzt haben möchte, die richtigen? Da er eng mit dem Team zusammenarbeitet ist die Situation viel besser als im herkömmlichen Wasserfall. Der Product Owner kann direkt Ideen auf technische Machbarkeit mit dem Team klären. Ob diese Ideen dem Kunden bzw. Anwender der Software helfen und mehr als ein "Me Too"-Feature sind, wird mit dem agilen Vorgehen nicht angegangen.

Wedding Day by flickr:Mike_fleming

Die agile Community hat dieses Problem erkannt und schaut über den Tellerrand. Design Thinking bietet Anregungen, die Arbeit des Product Owner anders zu organisieren, sodass innovativere Produkte entstehen. Viele Konferenzen haben mittlerweile Design Thinking als Thema, so z.B. die SEACON in Hamburg oder die XP2012. Pierluigi Pugliese und ich waren bereits mit dem Vortrag "Innovation needs Waste!" auf verschiedenen Konferenzen. Ich bin gespannt, wie sich der "Body of Knowledge" Design Thinking mit dem der Agilen Softwareentwicklung verbindet. Beide Communities können von einander lernen.