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Only another 15 or so years to go…

Unfortunately there are still lots of managers and directors running teams and departments in large organisations, who may have good intentions, but are lagging behind in their thinking and management approach. Who haven’t yet moved with the times. Who are asking the wrong questions and measuring the wrong things.

In order to find out why they stick with this approach we need to go back. Way back.

The 18th century saw the start of the Industrial revolution, which started a c.100 year era of accelerated change that transformed human society. Fossil fuels, steam power and the rise of manufacturing changed well, everything. The way people got from place to place, where they worked, how they worked and a crap tonne more.

The majority of people ended up moving from the fields on to the factory floors as part of a production line of some description. Towards the end of the 19th century Scientific management reared it’s head thanks to the work of Frederick Taylor, which at the time was deemed quite brilliant. It was driven from a desire to improve process and reduce waste by encouraged putting people into boxes (not literally – apart from the undertakers) based on their skills, and measuring and rewarding workers based on output (number of units of X produced in a given time). The result of this may have been an increase in production of goods but there was little interaction, zero autonomy, plenty of mastery, not much of a sense of purpose, and generally low motivation in the workplace.

As we moved towards the growth of institutions and office work in the 20th century a lot of this factory thinking came over too.

Think about the cubicle culture common in American offices from the late 60’s – this was just an extension of the factory floor, with people working in isolation, on a specific set of process, being supervised and measured on output of x units over time. So in short Scientific management was still in abundance, despite the context being different.

We now live in the age of  the digital revolution that has yet again brought an era of accelerated change that is transforming human society. The way we work, the type of things we work on. As we increasingly move towards building new technology that has not existed before we move away from working in a predictable, linear fashion.

As such the last 30 – 40 years has seen a new way of thinking, of being, creep into our places of work. A way that asks us to tear down the cubicles, encourages collaboration and empowers small teams of people to work together to get the job done. We still build stuff, and we still have a pipeline of work to get a complete product out of the door, but rather than focusing on producing as much as possible the focus is on producing as little as possible in order to get as much value as possible, as early as possible. This is what we call agile, and the many guises that this takes.

But there’s a problem. Not with the teams so much, but with the bosses who have spent the last 30-40 years of their careers learning the old way. Scientific mgmt still reins. It’s what people know, understand and have a history with. It’s what they were brought up with. It’s what they were taught at business school. It’s what was passed down to them by their managers when they started their corporate journey. These people are in their 50’s now, and whilst there are lots of them who have heard of and believe they understand agile, they’ve rarely experienced it first hand.

They’ve never been part of a scrum team. They’ve never paired with a colleague on a task. They’ve never sat in on a retrospective. They still have performance driven bonuses based on bullshit metrics which they filter down the chain.

Now by my reckoning these managers, leaders and directors are coming to the end of an era. In another 15 – 20 years they will no longer be running the business. People with first hand experience and a deeper understanding of agility will have worked their way to the top and things will be different. Conversations about how we work should be as welcome as a conversation about the work itself. People showing vulnerability and willing to experiment, fail, learn and grow should be the norm, not the exception.

So, in the mean time what do we do? What do you do? Do you play the long game and wait this thing out? Do you work towards being one of these future leaders, by gaining as much experience as you can now? By spreading your knowledge and love for agile as wide as possible?

Either way, it’s important to remember and reflect on the past. To acknowledge the brilliant thinking born out of the industrial revolution that was fit for purpose at the time. It’s also important to acknowledge that things have moved on, and so our approach to management of people and work needs to shift too.

We are not robots. There is a place for robots and automation in todays world, but we need to hold on to our humanity, our sanity and our unique ability to inspect and adapt. To embrace each other as people, warts and all, and focus on working together to achieve the best outcomes.

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