Software Development Can Teach Management to Become More Agile

Software development is a fairly young profession, which continues to borrow heavily from other disciplines as it defines itself.

12 years ago, a group of passionate software professionals who had been using “lightweight methods” met to identify the commonality and the essence of their methods. Their intense collaboration resulted in the brief Agile Manifesto, which still reveals its depth as the software development world scrambles to adopt, and ultimately become, agile.

The Manifesto makes four bold value statements, the first of which is not specific to software at all – it’s about people.

That statement may surprise you, if you subscribe to the stereotypical view of programmers as brainy loners. It claims that valuing individuals and their interactions over processes and tools is a better way to develop software. The Manifesto’s authors intentionally presented it first. And this premier point has proven to be the most challenging to implement.

However, enough software development teams and companies have applied the concept successfully. In one of my favorite talks, I share their top 10 lessons from almost 15 years of putting people before process. They are:

  1. People are not “resources”
  2. Focus keeps you going
  3. Nurture the joy of delivering value
  4. Always take small, safe, feedback-rich steps
  5. A standardized physical environment is for standard people
  6. Collaborative methods need a supporting social environment
  7. High performance teams require investment
  8. Manage less, lead more
  9. Develop collaborative leaders
  10. Human conduct trumps “best practices”

Often, as I describe these lessons and how to apply them, someone in the audience will raise their hand gingerly and say, “I totally agree with you, Gil, but what’s new here? Isn’t this basic management practice?”

Valuing individuals and their interactions over processes and tools is a better way to develop software.

Indeed it is basic management practice – but only if you accept the points as an axiom that people come before process. Most of the managers I meet don’t operate this way. The “Theory X” axiom – that employees will avoid work if they can – is still followed in some organizations. Considering people as countable, fungible, divisible resources is everywhere.

People even do it to themselves; at one meeting I observed, a developer said to the team leader, “I’m a free resource now, what should I do next?” Many managers view staff as an expense, even in the highly creative, insanely complex, and never repeating activity of software development (in other words, the antithesis of the factory): they attempt to maximize staff utilization, usually by multiplexing people.

Will this ever change? Can we expect to wake up one day to a world in which all managers are collaborative leaders, who trust their unique teams to organize themselves efficiently to delight their customers? Management research and literature are certainly headed that way, and more and more managers now follow suit.

However, even when hiring practices, organizational structures, and motivational programs catch up, will they suffice? Some changes take a generation – and I think we have yet to cross the midpoint.

The “Theory X” axiom – that employees will avoid work if they can – is still followed in some organizations. Considering people as countable, fungible, divisible resources is everywhere.

What steps can you take to better align yourself with the other axiom, “Theory Y”? Regularly reflect on your interactions, and trace your actions and their results back to your beliefs and values (think “Five Whys”.) The resulting awareness may be uncomfortable, but it’s the universal first step toward change. The second step, adopting new or revised values and beliefs, can be challenging at times, but you might discover a useful shortcut in “fake it till you make it.”

And if you do nothing else, adopt the habit of regularly thanking people for a job well done. The smiles you’ll receive in return may be all you need.

(For more on this subject, check out the training / telesummit: “Individuals and Interactions: How to Put People Before Process for Outstanding Results” scheduled for May 15 – 23, 2013).

 

Art by: Luddox

Gil Broza helps software organizations build and lead engaged, solid, high-performance Agile development teams. He coaches and mentors at all organizational levels, focusing on the often-neglected human and technical dimensions of Agile. Gil’s best-selling new book The Human Side of Agile: How to Help Your Team Deliver is the definitive practical guide to leading Agile teams in the real world. He has been a regular contributor and track chair for the Agile series of conferences, a sought-after speaker for other industry events and groups, and host of numerous public webinars about Agility. He lives in Toronto.

  • bunnahabhain13

    As a manager and a software developer, all I can say is “you nailed it”! Excellent article.

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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