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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.