We have reached peak Agile. Not only is it being corrupted as an efficiency and control tool. Much worse is, that it lends itself towards being corrupted. It has become, for the most part, a tool that is useful in emergencies but ultimately changes nothing of fundamental importance in today’s companies.
Agility is a good thing, no doubt, and the Agile Manifesto isn’t unreasonable. Compared to a straw-man practice called “Waterfall”, Agile is notably superior. Yet, so much of Agile as-practiced is deeply harmful, and I don’t really think that the Agile/Waterfall dichotomy is useful in the first place.
There’s a variety of Agile, called Scrum, that I’ve seen actually kill a company. By “kill”, I don’t mean “the culture wasn’t as good afterward”. Rather, I mean that its stock dropped by almost 90 percent in less than two years.
What is Agile?
Agile grew up in web consulting, where it had a certain amount of value: when dealing with finicky clients who don’t know what they want, one typically has to choose between one of two options. The first is to manage the client: get expectations set, charge appropriately for rework, and maintain a relationship of equality rather than submission…
“No theory of Management is worth anything if it has no underlying theory of performance”. I am not sure where I read this sentence, but it stuck with me ever since. The performance question is the “holy grail” of any organizational theory. The very reason why companies exist is that they are there to perform something. The very function of the market is to root out low performing companies.
Still, most management advice is of the self-help nature: There is much advice given how to do this or that, without ever being clear on why this or that management action should work. This article is the first one in a series that drills down on the conditions of performance, the underlying theory of human performance as individuals, of groups and of companies.
After all, performance is the crowning discipline of anyone who is managing. A manager/ leader’s job is to get people to do things.
But there are ways of getting people to do things which will cause people to achieve much and ways that won’t achieve much. So how can management practices be designed in such a way to maximize performance? To answer this question you got to look at the conditions that drive individual effectiveness.
Why does individual performance occur?
Here is the synopsis of what I learned from my research over the years.
Internal conditions are, first of all, the capabilities that people bring into a job:
A set of skills at various levels
Cognitive abilities, such as Intelligence (IQ), Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and specific talents
No big surprises here: You hire for skill. And slightly more advanced, you rely on some personality tests in order to select by cognitive ability (for more on this checkout Hiring like a Pro: Lessons from Google).
But capabilities are not enough. It takes the willingness to use those capabilities, the willingness to fully engage. Engagement can be triggered best by addressing the needs of a person’s intrinsic motivational structure. Of all the literature on intrinsic motivation, I have found the summary that author Daniel Pink made most useful:
The urge for mastery, to perfect oneself
The autonomy to act
To follow one’s own purpose
Of course, no one has the same urge for mastery, the same need for autonomy or the same clearness of purpose. Some people may like to hang loose, spend their time on youtube or engage in social media all day. These people are unlikely to be highly effective. Some may not have found their purpose, their need for mastery and autonomy just yet.
Internal conditions are more or less given to a person, at least at a certain point in time. People are endowed with capabilities and what drives them. It is a package deal. Although these attributes may change over time, they are pretty constant over a longer period of time. It’s hard to change IQ, it takes time to acquire new skills and it takes a transformational experience to shift one’s intrinsic motivations.
A popular myth in western culture is “you are able to achieve anything if you really want it”. Well, I guess that may true – at least as the laws of physics are not violated- but I think a more accurate version of this saying would be “you are able to achieve anything if you really want it, but some things are highly unlikely”. But that kills the motivational intent of this statement, doesn’t it?
To excel as an individual the circumstances of your whereabouts matter. You need external help. Malcolm Gladwell researched the question of individual performance and dug-out three factors that explain individual excellence best:
A supportive context
An environment full of opportunities
Deliberate practice, ten thousand hours of reflective, focused, professional practice
These claims have been scrutinized in a business context. One of those factors is not important in a business context: Deliberate practice. Shockingly for Protestant work ethics, which stresses the importance of hard work, deliberate practice is of low value in a business context. It is important for sports and arts, yes. But not in the much more complex, muddled world of business.
A work environment that provides people with opportunity and assistance to perform and grow is very relevant, though. In all organizational or educational research about performance, these factors stand tall.
I have added a third factor: Accountability and Rewards.
In a business context, it is important what people are assigned to do: What is their accountability? People may have great capabilities, possess a great intrinsic drive to excel, they may be part of an organization that provides them with truckloads of opportunities and support, but if they are kept inside a small, narrowly described job they may not be able to fulfill their potential. People need to have the authorization to act.
And not all people are easily intrinsically motivated. Some people respond better to extrinsic motivation, such as money or status that is given to them by others. Extrinsic motivators, financial bonuses, key performance indicators linked to individual pay, are used quite regularly in business settings. They are effective if well used, but tend to crowd out individual motivations or may even encourage reckless behavior, as all those things which are not rewarded will be relegated to secondary considerations.
Combining intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is tricky. The safest path seems to be to rely foremost on intrinsic motivation and to use extrinsic motivators only sparingly.
The Magnitude of Performance: 10X?
Suppose that all internal and external conditions for individual effectiveness are given: What is the difference between the performance of the highest performers and the lowest performers?
An interesting narrative is given by Jeff Sutherland in his 20014 book “SCRUM”. Joel Spolsky, a software developer, compared the time needed to complete a standardized programming assignment at Yale University. Just focussing on those people who managed to get the top 25% of grades, he researched the time spent on the assignment:
The top 10% of performers needed 10 times less time than the low 10% of performers
The 10X factor was pretty constant over the years and classes
This narrative is showing what the performance differential can be in a laboratory setting. It is illustrative, but not more. In a business setting a quantification of individual performance is much more complex. Even for more routine jobs, such as call center agents, it is very difficult, as there are so many things that are hard to quantify and measure. In a normal line job measuring individual performance quantitatively is nearly impossible. What is the value added by an ordinary accountant? How does that compare to another employee, say in logistics? Therefore, in traditional business settings, one has to rely on qualitative, gut-based judgments of managers.
But two things are sure:
Even one good or bad decision of an individual might sometimes determine the fate of the company.
The sum of all tiny, daily decisions of all colleagues in a company does a lot to determine the overall performance of the whole company
So optimizing the work environment and management practices in a way to foster the conditions for individual performance is a sure winner. You might disagree with the conditions I laid out, but you absolutely need a yardstick.
Individual Performance Does Not Equal Team Performance
A question for you: Is most work actually done by individuals or by teams? That question may sound silly. After all, the sum of each person’s work makes up the work of a team. But here is another perspective: How much of work is actually already structured, in established processes and daily, habitual work practices and therefore does need much personal interaction? I guess the latter is actually the bulk of the work in most companies. I.e. my answer to the first question is: Most work inside companies is done by individuals and not teams. True team tasks, that require intense collaboration between people and can only be solved by their close cooperation, are rare.
I share that view with Richard Hackman, a professor who was specialized in the research of teams. According to Mr. Hackman, most departments are work teams. In a work team, work is parceled out to each individual by a manager, through job descriptions, processes and day to day delegation. Close collaboration, “a true team” as he calls it, is not needed.
Indeed, treating work teams as true teams is very wasteful. Investments in team building of ordinary work teams have no measurable benefits. None, nada, niente, aucun, gar nichts. Still, companies send their so-called “teams”, which are really Work Teams, to team building exercises.
Companies confuse work teams, which make up the majority of teams inside most companies, with true teams. What a waste of resources.
The preponderance of work teams in organizations highlights the need to have a consistent and holistic theory of individual performance in business. The one given above is my best shot.
Let me know what you think!
This is part one of a series of articles on the underlying theory of performance in businesses.
More on the effectiveness of teams in the next article.
Gladwell, Malcolm „Outliers“, 2009 -> on the external supporting conditions to achieve “outlying” performance
Pink, Daniel “Drive”, 2009 -> On the the conditions of intrinsic motivation
Rosenzweig, Philip, “Left Brain, right stuff”, 2014 -> On the limits of deliberate practice in business
Keegan, Robert et al, ” An Everyone Culture”, 2016 -> On organizational learning that is built on individual growth