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The Agile Way: Trust Your Talent

Posted by Dave Todaro

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As-seen-on-Forbes-1 As previously seen on Forbes.com

The best quarterbacks in the NFL, such as Tom Brady, do an excellent job of making the right calls on the field. This is what has helped make the New England Patriots one of the best teams in NFL history. Once the play clock hits 15 seconds, communication between the QB and coaches shuts off. At this point, Brady continues to read the defense and makes his own calls. When Brady feels confident he has the right matchups, he’ll finally say, “Hike!”

The Agile Way

The whole point of agile is to get new products or services to the market quickly, by being flexible enough to change conditions as needed. I think of agile as a social engineering framework first and a software project management framework second. Agile is all about empowering the team, getting the players to work together to make decisions, and boosting performance by offering to put both responsibility and accountability upon the shoulders of the team -- all methods similar to the ones Brady uses.

Agile methods are iterative and incremental. However, instead of management providing complete, detailed descriptions of how everything is to be done, the bulk of decision making is left up to the development team. This is because the team will know best how to solve the problems they are presented.

If your agile process is not working, one of the main reasons could be that management is failing to understand the fundamental agile philosophy of empowerment. Empowerment in an agile world means that managers must trust their team to determine the best product development methods. This happens with an inversion of control or an inversion of power, allowing the individual contributors on each team to be the most powerful people in the organization. This may sound crazy. But given the success of companies such as Google, Facebook and Airbnb, the question for any manager today is: Have you disempowered yourself in order to empower your teams?

Henry Ford figured it out. You don't ask the foreman how to improve production -- you ask the assembly line worker. And by doing this, Ford essentially invented the weekend not only for his employees but for the rest of us, too. To improve production, Ford knew he needed to make his workers happier. By asking the line-workers, he essentially realized that they needed time off to re-energize. And the time off had to be tailored because his Jewish workers needed Saturdays off and the Christian workers needed Sundays off. Thus, the weekend was invented using an agile-type philosophy.

Agile starts at the top and requires a change in leadership styles -- from command-and-control models to one built on trust. For leaders, this means learning to let go and rely on their teams to make the right decisions. If you develop leaders with an agile approach to management, you can get the maximum value out of your company’s talent and workforce energy.

Look At Facebook, Google And Airbnb for Good Agile Methods

Many of today’s leading companies such as Facebook, Google and Airbnb have all adopted agile as a way of driving innovation and product development. Facebook’s success is based on its developer-driven culture -- not because Mark Zuckerberg is some mastermind but because he gets out of his developers’ way.

At Google, management is there to keep the project running smoothly. There are plenty of meeting rooms and open spaces for people to chat. With happy, self-fulfilled programmers, all managers have to do is not impede success. If any directing or ordering needs to be done, it’s done more as a suggestion than a demand. If a manager imposes his or her will on the team, it will more than likely be a struggle.

At Airbnb, there’s no feeling of rank within each team and no room for prima donnas. As Jonathan Golden, Airbnb’s first product manager, said of his agile methodology, “Everybody has the same ownership of impact across data, design, engineering, and product ... It’s a team that operates cohesively, versus one person who’s potentially more of a totalitarian leader. You need to shape good judgment in individuals instead of imposing rules across the team.”

Management's fundamental skills -- facilitating a structured process and managing the social implications of getting a team effectively working together -- are all completely transferrable in agile. However, managers need to be willing to invert power within their companies. Those who are doing the work need be the ones who determine how it gets done, and everyone should work in service of that goal.

Managers, to whom the members of the team report, need to learn how to make the shift from directing the work to supporting the work. Other stakeholders who have a vested interest in the team’s work need to understand the agile rules and how the resulting goals come together. This may include senior architects, members of other groups or divisions in the company and anyone else who is affected by development. Everyone must be on board with the agile way, from the C-suite to the junior developers. And most importantly, managers who are used to commanding and directing need to get used to listening. With the decision process aligned in an agile manner, development teams will be able to work quickly and efficiently while making the proper calls to get the project out of the red zone and over the goal line.

Topics: Team Building, Scrum, Leadership, Software Development, Agile, Project Management