7 Agile Leadership Lessons for the Suits

CIO Eugene Nizker attended this year's Agile conference and returned with several suggestions for CIOs, IT managers and programming team leaders.

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Rising's presentation, "Who Do You Trust?" was about team building, but it went way, way deeper. It was about building ourselves, not just building software in teams.

Rising reminded her audience of something we know but try to forget: We are all guilty of stereotyping when we interact with others. We subconsciously label people. We, as managers, sort employees into "winners" and "losers," and we do it within a few days. We forgive our own behavior but not others'. And, by labelling others, we lose all other dimensions of their talents and complexity.

We do this to ourselves, too, she said. Doing so limits our behavior, our talent, the ways we communicate and the results we achieve.

Moreover, stereotyping is so powerful that we even refuse to consider facts that contradict our expectations. We filter incoming information and rationalize away what contradicts our stereotypes. "Stereotypes change our behavior. Our behavior has an effect on others' behavior, and without anyone understanding any of it, you have a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Rising. Once we classify a person, he or she is lost to us: We will not notice anything this person does or says if it goes against our stereotype. "Reality doesn't matter anymore," Rising added. Don't we support this statement by signing a vendor contract where the requirements are set up front, once and for all?

We all believe we are unbiased, pointed out Rising, and we don't want to notice reality. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has two doors: one for those with prejudice and one for those without. Everyone tries to enter through the latter, Rising said, but it is permanently locked.

Not only are we all biased, but our biases are extremely strong. For example, as the Blue Ghosts and Red Genies experiment demonstrated, group behavior even trumps religion. (For more on this experiment, see Lutfy N. Diab's "Study of Intragroup and Intergroup Relations among Experimentally Produced Small Groups," in Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind.)

So, there is no hope, then? There is some, Rising assured us. "Yes, we are hardwired to classify 'us versus them,' but we are also hardwired to work in teams," says Rising. We are not hardwired for a particular classification. Therefore, if we know that we subconsciously endorse anything and everything within our group then maybe we can use this to build stronger teams that, for example, include a client. Maybe we can exclude managerial actions that work against team building. Remember those appraisal systems that create competition within the team from Mary Poppendieck's presentation?

Cooperation in work toward shared goals builds strong ties and helps resolve existing conflicts. "This cooperation must be nourished at all levels in the system, building a sense of interdependence that lies at the heart of a culture of peace," said Rising. Isn't this the same as face-to-face communication, which Agile culture promotes through daily stand-up meetings, pairing, short iterations and retrospectives?

We have scientific evidence of cooperation. Rising cited an experiment in which two primates cooperated by pulling a bowl of fruits toward one of them. They cooperated even though one primate knew she would not necessarily benefit. But in fact, almost always, she got part of delicacies from her luckier partner.

Ours is a culture of social interdependence. Team members have common goals. Everyone is linked with others so that one cannot succeed unless others do. Individuals can reach their goals if and only if the others in the group also reach their goals. Thus, individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to all those with whom they are cooperatively linked. As a result, respect for others' abilities and contribution is produced. Mutual efforts improve both individuals and the group. This results in psychological health and increased self-esteem, decreased anxiety and depression. "Is this why Agile teams are better?" asked Rising.

These were only a few of the high points from the Agile conference. I could continue for many more pages. Yet, the lessons I learned reminded me of an important issue that many CIOs appear to miss. Time after time, corporations introduce Agile without understanding its key philosophical distinction: Agile development is not a set of instructions—it is a mind-set. If you implement Agile techniques as a set of prescriptions, the result will be much worse than any waterfall. You will discredit the Agile idea, and also you will fail the project, break the existing (albeit waterfall-ish) mechanism and ruin team morale. Don't blame the methodology. When I hear a manager saying, "Agile methodology tells us that at this point in our project we need to do this. So, go do this," I can hardly refrain from smacking this "manager" across his empty head. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, PEOPLE! YOU ARE IN SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT!

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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