The Limits of Management (and Umbrellas

When a team in an organisation decides to do something a bit different (like adopting agile), the rest of the organisation tends to push back and force the team to conform to the normal way of doing things. A team, isolated and on their own, can only resist that pressure for so long until they have to give in. It's like standing outside in a thunderstorm - sooner or later you will get so uncomfortable that you will have to retreat to shelter.

But what if you could take some shelter with you? Something like an umbrella perhaps? It's not exactly comfortable standing under an umbrella in a raging storm but it will let you withstand the elements for longer than you could if you didn't have one. This is what we do in organisations when we start to engage leaders. When the team's leader gets engaged with the change, they can provide some shelter to the team. They become the team's umbrella. But as anyone who has stood outside with an umbrella in a storm will know, the protection they provide is limited at best. We need something better.

Umbrellas are fine if the weather isn't too bad, but as soon as the rain gets too heavy, or worse, if the wind picks up, the umbrella is quickly rendered useless, blown inside out and left a mangled wreck in a bin. It's like this in organisations as well. A manager shielding a team can do fine when things go well. Everyone loves success. But as soon as things start to go less well - a missed release or serious production problem or something like that - the weather can turn very stormy, very quickly, and the team's shelter may vanish just as quickly. Many teams have found their once supportive manager reverting to old behaviour in a crisis. Many teams have found their still supportive manager left as the career equivalent of a mangled wreck in a bin somewhere as a sudden crisis causes the organisation to shuffle people around.

Some really great leaders can withstand more pressure than others. Like one of those huge, well engineered golf umbrellas with the vents to let wind out and special sprung frames to avoid collapse. They can withstand the storm pretty well but even they have their limits. Even if they survive the storm intact, if the weather is bad enough, plenty of rain will blow in sideways and make life pretty miserable for those sheltering underneath.

No, good as they are when the weather is relatively mild, no umbrella will work when the weather gets really bad. To really handle bad weather, we need something better. We need something with some real structure. We need to start building a marquee. A marquee isn't just a giant umbrella. It's a different beast altogether. It has a solid frame, well anchored to the ground to prevent it lifting in the wind. It has sides to prevent weather blowing in. It has structure.

Likewise, what we need in an organisation isn't a really great leader (a giant organisational umbrella), what we need is something with some real structure to it. We need to get beyond one team (or a team of teams) sheltering under a sympathetic management team and start to build a structure.

I don't mean adopt a formal agile framework here BTW. The likes of SAFe and Less aren't what I mean. They tend to be giant umbrellas that work well when the weather is fine but blow away in the first squall. They can be huge, but they tend to be on their own and isolated from the rest of the organisation's giant umbrellas. What I mean is embedding the new process, be it agile or anything else, into the organisation. Not just the IT department or the release train, but into the whole organisation.

We need to reach out and engage with the rest of the organisation. We need to get whatever our change is accepted by the rest of the organisation as a legitimate way of doing things. We need to engage senior leaders and get their support. They will provide the strong poles that hold up the shelter. We need to engage groups that we usually avoid - finance, PMO, audit. We need to bring them on the journey. That will provide our guy ropes and anchoring to prevent things blowing away in bad weather. We need to reach out to groups we work closely with and get them involved. They will provide our walls and protect us from things blowing in sideways. We need to get the whole organisation involved.

We need to be careful when building structure that we end up with a marquee and not a house. Why? A house is far more comfortable and provides much better shelter. Why not aim for a house? Because a house is fixed and static. Once built it is hard to modify (I have been renovating for the better part of 2 decades now...I know how hard houses are to alter). The house we build to suit our needs now will not be the house we need in the future when our needs change. A marquee on the other hand, while not as comfortable, is much easier to change. We can string up an annexe if we need more space, we can open up the walls if the weather is fine. We can even pick the whole thing up and move it to a different site if we need to. It We can adapt it as our needs change.

So let's stop relying on our umbrellas and start building some structure instead. Just not too much structure.