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The #1 rule of agile management

August 29, 2014

]Agile Management of volunteers at the Operation Clean Sweep

Volunteers at the Port Of San Diego - Operation Clean Sweep 2013

Think about this: If everyone in your organization could do whatever they wanted at work, would they do anything differently compared to today?

If so, your organization is in big trouble!


Because that means that some of your people do some of their work because they have to, not because they want to.

Consider these top three challenges of today:

  • The young people entering the work market today have other experiences and expectations

  • It has never been more difficult to guess what customers may find valuable

  • The global competition is tough, and getting tougher


None of these can be solved by people doing things because they have to. More on that below.


Try hiring someone with internet in their DNA from birth. Someone that has been building phone apps on their free time. Someone that has been contributing to open source, just for fun.

Then tell then that you will decide what they will work on. Also, you will tell them with whom to work. And that there are many other things that you will decide for them also. And that they will have to wait for a year before they can have any sort of real feedback from users.

Good luck with that...

We have to set our workplaces up so that people will want to work there.


The world is changing ever faster. It is also getting more and more complex and hard to predict. Guessing what customers may find valuable rarely works anymore.

Instead we need to learn what works through massively experimenting. This requires short development cycles. Measured in weeks, days or hours.

When it comes to innovating in a complex world, it is also a numbers game. A central investment decision point in a company, such as a product manager, will not do. We need to go for volume and for diversity of ideas.

Alas, you cannot command people to take initiative, to be creative or to be passionate! This only happens if they want to.


Whatever successful products you build is likely to be copied really fast by some competitor. The same goes for any innovative business model you may have. The average lifetime of big companies have never been as short as it is now.

Again, to survive we need to speed up on innovation and/or shorten the time it take to respond to competitor moves. Agile practices has been the standard attempted cure for that for more than a decade,

But, having people follow some agile framework because they have to does not work! Agile works because done right it awakens the intrinsic motivation in people.

When dropped inside a traditional organization without a mindset change, the practices give very little value.

A change of mindset is required

Gary Hamel's Pyramid of Human Capability Gary Hamel's Pyramid of Human 

I think Gary Hamel explains the situation well. Look at his 'pyramid of human capability above. It shows different levels of engagement employees can choose to apply at work.

It used to be possible to compete by having access to hard working obedient experts. This is not the case anymore. Anybody can buy that. In some places even for a very low price.

What matters now is if your organization can deal with the top three problems at the top of the article. The solutions to all of them are all based on decentralization and delegation.

Decentralization and delegation in itself will not fix the problem though. We also need people to start operating from another mindset.

  • We need people that show initiative when needed even outside their job description.

  • We need people that keep scanning the surroundings to come up with disruptive innovative ideas

  • We need people that feel passionate about their work.


The agile management solution

Since you cannot command people to take initiative, to be creative or to be passionate, the solution is quite simple:

The #1 rule of agile management: Treat everyone as if they were volunteers

If people choose to do whatever it is that they do, because they want to do it, then we have created the conditions needed to solve todays top problems. Anything less will not suffice.


What? We surely cannot have people running around doing whatever they like?

Well, no. Sort of. Some very successful companies that seem to grasp the #1 principle is WL Gore, Morningstar, Semco and Valve. All of these would probably look quite chaotic to an outside observer. They all are managed though. We still need management, but in a different form. Some might call it Management 3.0.

What to do?

I have using the #1 principle a lot. With great results! So can you! Right today, in your current organization. Here are some things to try:

  • Involve the team members when creating new teams. Having a say in what team to work on and what products to work on makes a big difference.

  • For each new effort: align company goals, team goals and individual goals. Do a team kickoff session and ask people: "What would you like to learn, experience, achieve to make participating in this effort worth your time and full attention".

  • Redesign work until everyone is driven by intrinsic motivation. Moving Motivators is one useful tool for working on that.

  • Clarify the boundaries of self-organization for your teams. I.e. by using a delegation board.

  • Study the Christopher Avery's Responsibility Process. This is essential learning for everyone in a modern organization. People are not used to thinking about what they want  it seems! BTW I have a really funny and powerful 45 min session on this that I'd love to do for your whole organization ;-)


So, I hope that you found some inspiration and some new thoughts above. If you also actually want to try some of these things I'd be really happy;-)

Will you?



Image: (c) Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0. Port of San Diego, Operation Clean Sweep 2013

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