Agility? We tried it! Does not work! – Part 3

Guest contribution by | 30.01.2020

Why that can be true: An overview in several parts

“Agility for agility’s sake” is not always a good idea and can even be dangerous in some cases. The first article of my small series on agility in companies was mainly about the question whether agility is the right approach for organisations at all and if so, which concrete approach could fit which situation. In the second part, I focused on typical problems in the introduction and implementation of agility. In this third part I would like to focus mainly on the people themselves.

Again, I will not be able to provide a universal solution or recipe for successful agility. The one or other attentive reader may realise that my arguments partly contradict each other. Welcome to reality: ambiguity is – according to experts – a characteristic or companion of complexity, at least unavoidable. And yet I am convinced that the inclined reader can make sense of one or other of my impulses.

And be careful: This article may again contain traces of irony!

You play agility theatre in order to survive in the labour market: Look out! Very thin ice!

A few years ago, I was sitting in an impressive company car of a partner of a German consulting firm, a subsidiary of a German automotive group with a strong brand appeal. We got to chatting and he complained to me about how hard it was for them to find really good and motivated consultants. He had the impression that most of them would apply mainly because of the prospect of an exclusive company car with which they can make an impression on their friends and parents, not because they are passionate about consulting and want to make customers successful …

The comparison is of course misleading. Even if suddenly many applicants should only apply to you because you have included the keywords agility, scrum, new work, eye level, self-organisation etc. in your job advertisement, this is honestly something different than if they apply to you because of a pure status symbol that has nothing to do with the job itself. (Back then it was the company car of the luxury brand, today sabbaticals, home office or even cool job titles are highly popular in some circles).

And yet caution is advised!

Because if you rely on agility “only” to survive on the job market, this can obviously be dangerous if agility does not (yet) make any sense on your market, as I have described in the first part of this series.

If, on the other hand, you only pretend to be, e.g. if you simply rename the project management role to Product Owner without changing anything else, if you advertise with self-organisation and at the same time set strict rules, processes and tools, if you create fixed requirement specifications as usual, but now have them processed “totally agile” in sprints, … if you only play “agility theatre”, then you are also moving on very thin ice!

Maybe you can actually achieve the hoped-for relief on the job market in the short term. Maybe “agile status symbols” can indeed attract the urgently needed talent to your company. And then what?

Those who have understood agility and really want to work this way will quickly notice if you are only acting the part. In the beginning, they will probably still get involved and fight for real agility. But at some point they will give up and either stay frustrated or just leave. Which is worse?

Those who stay frustrated are no longer the dedicated employees you wanted to hire using the agile buzzwords. And even worse: Often their frustration radiates out to their colleagues and poisons the mood far and wide. And if you come up with a serious change later, if you perhaps have to become “really” more agile in the future, then nobody takes it seriously anymore.

Those who still believe in agility and leave your company annoyed are obviously lost as well. So you have to find and train new employees, which is expensive. And in times of social media and high levels of networking, it is also possible that the frustration of those who have left can also spread outside the company. In the well-connected agile community, you may not even be able to reach the desired applicants – this hurts at the latest when you should really mean it later and urgently need agile expertise.

And then there are those who have come for the agile status symbols and are and will remain completely satisfied with them. Which brings us back to the anecdote at the beginning: Are these really the highly motivated talents that will move your organisation forward and make your customers happy?

Therefore my advice: Be honest! To yourself, to your applicants and to your customers! Honesty can be a first step towards an agile attitude! And it pays off in the long run. I am convinced of that.

You preach eye level and establish steep career ladders: Watch out! Danger of falling!

Let’s go one step further and beyond recruiting. Usually at some point in the course of an “Agile Transformation” the question arises whether there should not also be “Agile Career Paths” (i.e. career paths for employees in agile roles), especially for Scrum Masters and Product Owners. At first glance this is also a good idea. It would also be unfair if employees in agile roles did not have the same opportunities for advancement as their colleagues in management and specialist roles.

And – as in the previous paragraph – transformation is also about creating conditions that allow internal talents to enjoy working in agile teams. And as long as it does not (at least not formally) pay off on their individual career ladder, one or the other may decide against taking on an agile role and opt for a classic career. After all, who knows if this “agile” is not just another fad and then it would be stupid to waste a few months or even years, from the point of view of your own career.

But is an “agile career path” with levels like “Junior Scrum Master, Scrum Master, Senior Scrum Master, Agile Coach, Executive Agile Coach, …” the right approach to promote agility? Doesn’t this replace the intrinsic motivation of those who want to become better and better Scrum Masters in the broadest sense with an extrinsic incentive?

For those who want to go deeper: The second part of my small series of articles has already dealt with intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic incentives.
In my opinion a classical career ladder at least simplifies various individual development paths and unnecessarily restricts them to a given “path”. By placing the roles on a “ladder” one also automatically suggests a value, in my opinion a change from Agile Coach to Scrum Master would be a step backwards. This automatically limits the possible solution space for the organisation and for the individual: Let’s assume that I have successfully completed the “agile career ladder” from Junior Scrum Master to Agile Coach. I was an excellent Scrum Master and had fun doing so. Now I have finally been promoted to Agile Coach and I am very happy about it. Unfortunately I now realise that this role is neither fun nor really good for me. I much prefer to work intensively with a team and I am more effective there than in my new role as an Agile Coach, where I focus on overarching issues, coach other Scrum Masters and work with high-level stakeholders. But should I really voluntarily take a step back on the career ladder? Or even involuntarily?

Such a situation does not seem particularly good for the person or the organisation. The bottom line is that we have the good old Peter Principle in a new, agile guise …

Peter Prinzip - ein kleines Video

In brief: I think classic career ladders are a dangerous tool if you want to establish agility in the company. The steeper the ladder, the greater the danger of falling deep!

But what to do instead? I’m afraid it’s the same as usual: complex! I think a key will be to separate the aspects of role, hierarchy, personal development and pay.

I am convinced that people can develop without getting a new job title every time and thereby (consciously or unconsciously) differentiate themselves from others.

Personal development can be achieved by trying out new roles or by deepening a role and/or by accompanying measures (training, coaching, sitting in on classes, time out, …). The individual and situationally appropriate personal development does not follow a standardised master plan or predefined career path, but is dynamic and complex. So why not enter into dialogue on a regular basis? With Scrum Master, Agile Coach, managers, personnel development and with direct colleagues (in the team) as well as with a mentor? Yes, that is work.

You rely on flat hierarchies and compensate for the “loss” through other privileges: A highly explosive mixture!

If you rely on flatter hierarchies in the course of the “agile transformation”, one or the other may perceive this as a loss. And this is understandable if you have defined yourself for years through your own position in the hierarchy, on the career ladder or through the job title.

It seems obvious to compensate for this loss of formal awards in some other way. But be careful! You may end up with more inequality than before!

A few years ago I moderated a workshop in a training center of a German airline and wanted to show a YouTube clip. Since I couldn’t find any information about W-LAN in the workshop room, I went to the registration at the entrance and asked for W-LAN access. I wouldn’t have been very surprised if I had been told that I couldn’t get access as an external person because they hadn’t set up W-LAN for guests yet. This was not unusual then (and still is), unfortunately. But the lady looked at me critically and asked: “Are you a pilot?” I answered, somewhat perplexed, “Uh… no.”, to which she replied that unfortunately she could not help me, W-LAN was only available for pilots … Now I understood some of the statements of my contact persons – all of them non-pilots – about the pilot strike at that time. To put it carefully: solidarity with the colleagues in the cockpit was limited.

Pilot and non-pilot are obviously not hierarchical positions. The title “pilot” could simply be a role, like “doorman”. Privileges like “W-LAN”, special parking spaces or corner offices manifest differences in other ways. Under certain circumstances, such subtle discriminations have an even more toxic effect on corporate culture than formal hierarchies and job titles.

This goes far beyond agility, it is about respect and eye level as a basis for good cooperation.

So be careful! The supposedly simplest solutions (“Let’s just give the former team leaders a higher company car category as compensation!”) are not always the best. However, individual appreciation and specific development perspectives mean work. But I like to repeat myself: it pays off.

You don’t (yet) trust your employees to be agile: Look who’s talking.

In an established and traditional company in the financial sector I recently heard the statement that agility and self-organisation sounds great. And one was also convinced that this would be a necessary prerequisite for success in the future, given increasing dynamics and complexity. But they have hired the wrong people over the past years and decades. They have hired clerks who are simply supposed to work through cases. How are they supposed to organise themselves and suddenly make their own decisions?

After this explanation I had to swallow first. On the one hand: Hats off to the open self-criticism. On the other hand: What a frightening image of man!
If I do not trust my employees to think for themselves, then first of all I myself am not ready for agility.

In workshops I like to use the X-Y theory according to Douglas McGregor¹ to question my own image of man:

There are exactly two kinds of people in this world, here in brief:

  • X-men are lazy and shy of responsibility. Without incentives and the threat of punishment, they will never work on their own initiative, they always just swim along. One must also always tell them exactly what and how to do it and closely control the results, otherwise nothing useful will come of it.
  • Y-people, on the other hand, are committed and like to take responsibility. They are creative and motivated, want to achieve something and develop themselves.

On this basis, I ask all those present to take two notes without looking at each other:

  1. What am I myself? X or Y?
  2. What percentage of my colleagues (preferably in the neighbouring department or at the customer’s) are of type X?

As a rule, 100% of those present attribute themselves to type Y. The percentages for the second question vary greatly, depending on the environment. Interestingly, the highest value in my previous questions came from a French student, who estimated that 90% of her fellow students* were of type X, i.e. human robots.

In fact, there are only type Y humans. Anyway, every human being is born as type Y: A newborn baby is curious and intrinsically motivated, it doesn’t need to be motivated or forced to learn how to speak, grip, crawl and later walk.

Unfortunately, most people at some point come into contact with extrinsic stimuli, which then often displace the intrinsic motivation: For example, the intrinsic motivation to learn something new is often displaced by the extrinsic incentive “You get 5 Euro if you do your homework”. Why should I do my homework without reward in the future?

Unfortunately we cannot look into the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings and see their intrinsic motivation. Often we only see their learned behaviour, i.e. “he only does his job according to the rules, without incentive he does not make any effort”. So we set as precise targets as possible and award bonuses if the goals are achieved. Our employee notices that he obviously should not think at all and optimises his work so that he maximises the bonus. This, in turn, is seen by the supervisor and he is encouraged: “Clearly a type X! And this is how the vicious circle of observed behavior, a self-reinforcing mechanism, is created.

And where has the intrinsic motivation gone? It is worth taking a look into the private sphere: A family is rarely founded on instructions. It is also always enlightening when you realise that supposedly service-by-the-book employees get involved in associations and take on great responsibility without any pressure.

With a “they are all type X” image of humanity, it becomes difficult to enable agility and self-organisation in a company. One should at least trust one’s own employees to find and develop their own type Y. And good managers can help. Admittedly: After decades in the Type X vicious circle, it can be difficult to give your own Type Y a chance. And it is certainly not a switch that I simply flip. There is probably a deep-seated mistrust to be overcome and replaced with trust. This is not easy and can take time. But I am convinced that it will be worth it!

You demand team spirit and link bonus payments to individual target agreements? If that works, you can certainly square circles!

Seriously: Of course it works! Or to put it another way: It somehow works because you have gotten used to it. So everything is fine, let’s just continue with the individual goals and bonuses, regardless of the level of agility. You can’t change everything at once …

This is correct in most cases. Focus and prioritisation are important and an essential aspect of agility!

However, I fear that a great deal of potential is wasted by not changing individual target agreements and linking them to bonus payments. Or, to put it another way: that the potential of agility will be massively limited. I like to think of it as a bonsai orange tree: The tree is cute and the oranges look great. And if you only know bonsai trees, you don’t even think that the tree actually has a completely different potential, that it could bear big juicy fruit if you just let it … You don’t miss anything that you don’t know.

In fact, I am always impressed by how well many organisations work, how well people work together and are successful together. My thesis is: This works despite – and not because of – departmental silos, standardised processes, strict rules and individual target agreements!

When I talk to people about the sense and nonsense of individual target agreements in connection with bonus payments, there is usually agreement: It makes no sense, it is even counterproductive – at least if creativity and cooperation are success factors and should be encouraged. But when I then ask why this is not abolished, the answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders or a deep groan: It’s not that easy.

In the first part of my small series of articles I warned against the laziness of old habits and gave hints on how to deal with it instead: Cold turkey! Simply abolish it! I am convinced that your company will not implode immediately. On the contrary. And yes: there are already some companies that have done so, with success!

By the way, this should not be a plea against goals! Empiricism (e.g. Plan, Do, Check, Act or Build, Measure, Learn) is an essential basis of agile work, which is often forgotten or suppressed. But that’s another story I might tell next time.


I hope I was able to give you some hints in this third part as to what might be the cause if agility does not work for you as you would like it to. And maybe you have also found one or two helpful impulses for what you could perhaps do differently.

And by the way: I have not yet addressed all the important issues. There is something else. Be curious.



[1] X-Y theory according to Douglas McGregor

Top 2020 Blog Post - one of the most read posts in 2020

And here you will find additional parts of articles on Agility? We tried it! Does not work!

t2informatik Blog: Agility? We tried it! Does not work! - Part 2

Agility? We tried it! Does not work! – Part 2

t2informatik Blog: Agility? We tried it! Does not work! - Part 4

Agility? We tried it! Does not work! – Part 4

t2informatik Blog: Agility? We tried it! Does not work! - Part 5

Agility? We tried it! Does not work! – Part 5

Heiko Bartlog
Heiko Bartlog
Heiko Bartlog has more than 20 years of project experience, as a consultant, trainer, coach in many facets. He has been a “host for innovation” for several years and accompanies companies on their way to agility, better collaboration and successful innovation. He uses techniques such as Scrum, Effectuation, Lean Startup, Management 3.0 and Liberating Structures to make change a practical experience. In 2018, together with Olaf Hinz, he published the book “#PM2025 – Projekte. Good. Machen” on the future of project work.