• Erwan Hernot

Agile is coming but long is the way…

Agile is spreading outside the software world into the mainstream management thinking. We, often then, pit Agile against “Command And Control” management. And rightfully so. But all the articles or books go like “Agile is inevitable” and sooner or later, everybody will adopt it. They may be right on the later part 😉 but for now and from a senior leader’s point of view, Agile remains very often an esoteric software thing at the best or an unrealistic wish at the worse.

In short, Agile is a set of principles (you can find them here: http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html ) Its basic assumptions are : trust the people to get the job done, collaborate (within the team AND with your customer), discuss face to face, deliver quickly something that works, be transparent regarding problems, … Truly, Agile confronts Command and Control in multiple ways:


Command and control assumptions are still widely shared

  1. Command and Control infers that trust doesn’t really exist: people are somehow lazy or not very competent or not aware of what business requirements mean and are just stuck to their job’s logic… hence the control. You can also put it this way: people are an asset and need to be managed and constrained to obtain results. Agile says that people are …human whom you can rely on, people know what to do. After all, they drive cars without most of the time killing their passengers or others drivers, they contract loans, most of the times without being bankrupted and so on… You have to trust them for their private life, why then, not trusting them for their professional one?

  2. Command and Control goes very well with silo mindset. Silos favor expertise over collaboration and waterfall project management over working with cross functional teams like Agile. Silos make control easy because you have clear perimeters. When using Agile as a leader, you don’t know what teams are at on most of the times…

  3. On one hand, Command and Control relies on “Leadership traits theory” which assumes that leaders are born with specific characteristics. Implications go, then, that natural born leaders are here to lead no matter the situation. Agile, on the other hand, relies on the “Growth mindset” (Carol Dweck) which states that trial/mistakes/learn is an opportunity to grow. Agile talks about servant leadership or distributed leadership: the main principle here is “manage by exception” and help people grow. Quite a different perception as you can see. As far as the leader is not a “natural” one, he as to be self aware (aka aware of his strengths and weaknesses to manage them). He coaches more than he controls or specifies the work. he develops his/her foresight to act rather than to react. He listens in order to give people the relevant capabilities to finish the job and to remove impediments in their way.

Senior leaders think Agile is more a creed than a business tool


Agile and Command And Control are almost complete opposites. But let’s go beyond this fundamental difference and delve into senior leaders thoughts about Agile.

  1. Agile comes from software guys not from prestigious consulting firms that you can quote in a Board meeting as a kind of quality certification ( or a safety belt if things go sour sometimes).

  2. A generation effect. Agile was not taught in business schools when Senior leaders were students. It doesn’t have the “academic” branding from Harvard or Wharton…

  3. “Trusting people is fine” would claim senior leaders. What they won’t tell is that it supposes another environment than the short-termism era we live in today where quarterly results reign supreme.

  4. Learning is a major goal for Agile professionals as they think in perpetual “flows” of experiences, It is only a side effect for senior leaders that think more as if knowledge was a “stock” you need to learn once and for all. After all if you want to learn, you go in training session.

  5. Agile people don’t make much effort to explain their way of thinking and doing things to senior leaders. Picture this [senior leader] “When do we deliver this product ?”  [Agile project manager] “When teams will have finished. You can update your information by looking at the versions we release. We deliver once a day!”

  6. Leaders act on (hard) facts and figures. Agile is more a creed (the Agile Manifesto). It has to prove ie.to track and measure its outcomes in each organization before senior leaders will change their perception.

But the biggest obstacle to Agile is something simpler -but taboo -. Lots of senior leaders are bad people managers. And managing by deadlines is both easy and a no risks approach (you deliver in the deadline, I win ; you deliver beyond the deadline: I win too because you are so incompetent). Managing the risks by “test & lean” suppose potentiel failure that you have to take responsibility for…


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