How much ‘empowerment’ is there in Agile?

Does Agile imply that people only do what they like to do?
Does Agile imply that there is no more direction?
Does Agile imply that the team decides what they want to do by consensus?

Well… today Agile means a lot of things to many people.

So yes, perhaps it means some or even all of these things to some people nowadays.

But that’s not what the agile approach was about. Around the turn of the millennium, when the term Agile was coined it was a collection of values and practices some people followed to successfully deliver software where the majority of projects was over-promising and under-delivering.

Previously, I tried to debunk the myth that pull means work on whatever you like, so for today let’s have a look at self-organization once more. Doesn’t “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams” (the 11th principle of the agile manifesto state that teams should decide what they do, and how they do it, based on consensus? Not really. There is a lot to be said about different approaches for reaching a decision and consensus is but one of them.
The important thing at the time when the agile manifesto was written was that the decisions where no longer made by managers, procurement departments, or architects three degrees distant from the team, but instead by people within the team. But even that doesn’t mean that the team sets its own direction. It used to be quite the other way around. Like when you go on a city tour. The team (tour) members choose wether they want to get on the “romantic old town tour”, the “modern city sites tour”, or the “historic monuments tour” – but once they’re on the bus the self-organization might be about who brews the coffee, who hands the cookies and perhaps even who hands out blankets when it starts getting cold on the upper deck. But not whether you should rebuild the bus to become a biplane or whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to tour the romantic old town if you’re on the “historic monuments tour.”

From my point of view, there is a lot of empowerment in agile. But perhaps not quite as much as some people would like it to be. After all, we’re still making our living because customers buy our product or service – and customers only buy what they need (or think they need).

Or, to put it another way: without direction self-organization leads nowhere.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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