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One Shocking Thing Many Agile Coaches Are Getting Wrong

December 5, 2018

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Many Agile coaches and Scrum Masters believe they know best. They believe teams must follow a certain set of steps and do things a certain way, and if they do, those teams will be more productive, happy, and successful than ever.

There's a problem with thinking that way. That style of thinking is part of what got many organizations into the mess they're in today. That style of management thinking derives from something called Taylorism.

At this point, some of you are thinking, "Taylorism - what's that?" Please stick around for at least a few more paragraphs. The rest of you are probably thinking, "Oh great… another Agile guy throwing that Taylor name around again." You should also stick around.

If you are an Agile coach, Scrum Master, manager, project manager, team lead, or anyone else responsible for managing the world of work, you should have at least a basic understanding of Taylorism and how it impacted modern management to ensure you aren't unintentionally applying it.

Why Taylorism matters…

“(Taylorism is) what many people believe is the most important -ism in the 20th century…It is sometimes argued that Taylorism has made the most lasting contribution to American thought since the Federalist Papers.”

- ABC World Report

Most people have never heard of Taylorism or they've only heard criticism of it. Most of the 'Agile' movement in today's industry is a rejection of Taylorism (notice I said most- we'll get to that). Yet many are unfamiliar with Taylorism, how it affected the trajectory of management, and how it continues to affect many people's thinking today. Because many Agile coaches are also unfamiliar with Taylorism or misunderstand it, they often fall into the same trap that Taylorists fall into.

A brief introduction to Scientific Management

Scientific Management (also called Taylorism after its creator, Frederick Winslow Taylor) is a style of management intended to benefit both management and employees by creating a healthy, balanced relationship between the two roles and continuously improving through empiricism by applying the scientific method. To quote the namesake of Taylorism,

"The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity of the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity of the employee…The close, intimate, personal cooperation between the management and the men is of the essence."

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management

If you have never heard of Taylorism, you're likely thinking, "That sounds great! What's wrong with it?" If you're one of those Taylorism-bashing-Agile-coaches, you're likely thinking, "That's not Taylorism! Taylorism is evil!" Again, stick around.

Frederick Winslow Taylor created Scientific Management in 1882 to increase productivity at a steel company where he worked. He was convinced that through careful analysis of working methods, he could determine the single best method for each task. Once he determined the best method, he would then identify the most qualified people to carry out the task, teach them how to do it according to the newly-discovered best way, and then heavily incentivize the workers through gracious monetary bonuses. Scientific Management was popularized even more by Taylor's book, The Principles of Scientific Management, written in 1911.

In the late 1800s when Taylor introduced Scientific Management, it was a radical shift from how management had performed their role. Taylor labeled the predominant form of management at the time as “initiative and incentive.”

The philosophy of the management of initiative and incentive makes it necessary for each workman to bear almost the entire responsibility for the general plan as well as for each detail of his work, and in many cases for his implements as well. In addition to this he must do all of the actual physical labor.

- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management

Instead of having each worker be responsible for determining how to do their work in addition to actually doing the work, Taylor proposed that management take on the responsibility of determining how the work should be done. That responsibility was broken into four primary categories of management:

  1. They (managers) develop a science for each element of a man's work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb method.
  2. They scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman, whereas in the past he chose his own work and trained himself as best he could.
  3. They heartily cooperate with the men so as to insure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.
  4. There is an almost equal division of the work and the responsibility between the management and the workmen. The management take over all work for which they are better fitted than the workmen, while in the past almost all of the work and the greater part of the responsibility were thrown upon the men.

- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management

Taylor's sales pitch for Scientific Management was that he could radically improve productivity. Instead of having each worker determine what tooling worked for them and how to do their own job, Taylor would provide the best tools and teach them the best methods. By establishing standard ways of working and baselining expected productivity levels, management was also able to mitigate the effects of soldering, which is the act of a worker of intentionally slowing their pace of work to be no more or less than those of his coworkers. By standardizing the world of work, implementers of Scientific Management also gained an ability to scale operations in ways never before possible.

Taylorism: misapplied, misunderstood, or bad theory?

There are differing opinions on the validity of Taylor’s Scientific Management. Some think Taylorism was successful for a while and that its success dwindled as it became misapplied by managers not looking to actually partner with their employees. Some think that Taylorism is a great theory and likely worked great when applied by those who truly understood the theory, but that its success faded as more and more people didn’t take the time to understand it and implemented something very different than what Taylor had in mind. Others think Taylorism is bad theory and should never be applied (many Agile coaches that are familiar with Taylorism fall into this camp).

I see a bit of truth in all three of those perspectives. The world needed Taylorism in the early 20th century. Taylorism paved the way for Henry Ford’s model of management, Fordism, which led to further productivity increases in American and European factories. Some have gone as far as asserting that the Allies would not have been victorious in World War II had it not been for increased national productivity due to Tayloristic management. However, Taylorism was often so misapplied that it became something very different than what Taylor had in mind.

“The same mechanism which will produce the finest results when made to serve the underlying principles of scientific management, will lead to failure and disaster if accompanied by the wrong spirit in those who are using it.”

- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management

The Taylorism that people often refer to isn’t Taylorism at all - it’s the legacy of Taylorism after 100 years of misunderstanding and misapplication. I then question what went wrong with Taylorism - was the theory itself valid but just so misunderstood and misapplied that its legacy has been tarnished? Or was Taylorism bad theory to begin with, which is why it never really worked? Or was Taylorism a good theory, but so hard to implement that very few did it with any success?

I think Taylorism was a good theory that, when applied exactly as intended in very specific contexts, likely had good results in a handful of organizations. One of the most significant paradigm shifts that Taylorism contributed to management was standardization, which inspired other movements that have led to the productive world of manufacturing that exists today. However, the downfall of Taylorism resides in that standardization - the idea that there is always a single best method for accomplishing a task that can be easily identified, taught, enforced, and measured. That is possible for simple work, but it is very difficult in work where any creativity is required. It also has a significant downfall - it strips people of their creativity and turns them into cogs in a machine.

“ He (Taylor) deprived workers of control over the workplace, over their tools, and over the use of their bodies.”

- Thomas P. Hughes on ABC World Report

The decision to deprive workers of their autonomy wasn’t an accident - it’s the most criticized part of Taylorism, and rightly so. According to Taylor, working-class men were to be perceived no different than highly-prized livestock - animals that must be directed by a human of superior intelligence.

This work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent, gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man can be.

Now the one man in eight who was able to do this work was in no sense superior to the other men who were working on the gang. He merely happened to be a man of the type of the ox, —no rare specimen of humanity, difficult to find and therefore very highly prized. On the contrary, he was a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do most kinds of laboring work.

He is so stupid that the word "percentage" has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.

- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management

Taylor thought that managers, who had been selected by society due to being naturally superior beings, were to establish the methods and practices their employees must use in the most minute detail. You’re probably wondering why anyone would ever listen to a manager that would do that, but Taylor had a very simple solution - money and improved working conditions. Because of the efficiencies gained from having the right people do the job in the most effective way, he could avoid soldiering and exponentially increase productivity. With the increased productivity, he would need fewer people and be able to pay employees a substantial amount higher than they had previously been paid and give them better overall working conditions.

Managers in Taylor’s model also had to build solid, caring relationships with their employees in order to win enough trust that the employees would listen to the manager’s instructions. This appears to be the biggest component of Taylorism that was missed when other companies began to adopt it. Many companies saw Scientific Management as a method to do more work with fewer people in less time. The result was that employees feared for their jobs and the Tayloristic systems self-destructed.

Many discredit Taylorism solely because of the seeing-people-as-animals perspective that Taylor had of working-class people. I find it best to ignore that aspect of Taylorism when evaluating its legitimacy because a manager in today’s world could still implement a Tayloristic model while not believing working class people are just slightly-more-intelligent animals. But even with discarding the animalistic component of Taylorism, it would still struggle to work in today's world for many reasons. Here are some of the most obvious ones:

  1. The work Taylor wanted to apply Scientific Management to was simple work. In other words, it was possible to fully understand exactly what needed to be done and how it should be done. It was just a matter of doing it in the most efficient way possible.
  2. Research over the past 100 years has made it obvious the effects of depriving people of the autonomy and mastery.
  3. For a multitude of reasons (skills getting stale, never had the skills to begin with, new technologies emerged after becoming a manager), many managers are often no longer technical or domain experts. They are often the least equipped to make decisions about how work should be done.
  4. Measuring the output of creative work can be very difficult. I've done a lot of digging into how to measure the output of a software development team in a way that can be compared to other teams and organizations. The best methods I could find for measuring that productivity are under a great amount of scrutiny. Not being able to connect causewith effectmakes it even harder for a third-party manager to determine which working method is best. Heck, it's even hard for the people who are experts in the field. Don’t believe me? Research all sides of the debate about how and when to use automated unit testing in software development. There is little consensus even among respected, experienced developers and thought leaders.
  5. The world in which Taylor lived was much more simple than today's world. Real-time communication wasn't widely available. People, organizations, and countries were primarily connected through paper and snail mail rather than elaborate digital systems and e-mail. Increased lines of communication and its speed of delivery as well as the ease-of-access to information has created an infinitely more complex and competitive environment than what existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, making innovation more important than standardization in many contexts.

What some Agile coaches are getting wrong

I believe that managers, project managers, Scrum Masters, and Agile coaches that are applying a Tayloristic model to the way they lead Agile adoptions are doing more harm to their organizations than anything else I have seen in Agile adoptions. I think this is a huge problem, and one I am actively trying to fix through my daily interactions with the team members, Scrum Masters, project managers, Agile coaches, and managers that I'm fortunate enough to get to work with.

I've seen many Agile coaches become an Agile coach through roughly the same path. I'm going to pick on Scrum a bit because most Agile coaches get their start with Scrum. Most Agile coaches get their start by:

  1. Getting exposure to Scrum and using it either as a developer, Product Owner, Scrum Master, or project manager
  2. Attending a Scrum course at some point and getting ‘certified’
  3. Becoming a Scrum Master for 6 months to 3+ years
  4. Becoming an Agile coach because they have 'seen Agile done before' and are now equipped to teach others how to do it (plus it supposedly pays better and is the next career stepping stone)

Many Agile coaches often go through the same stages of thinking in the above steps:

  1. New to Agile - "This is the best thing ever! I want to learn more!"
  2. Attend training -"I'm certified now. That means I'm an expert and can teach others how to do it. Everybody should work this way!"
  3. As a Scrum Master -"My team didn't have a daily standup around their Scrum wall today! They're not updating their sticky notes on their Scrum wall! Johnny is working on 2 stickies at the same time! They're doing it all wrong!!!"
  4. As an Agile coach - "I can teach these people how to do it right from the start. Then they'll do it exactly how I want them to. Plus if they don't listen to me, I only have to deal with them for a few months before moving on to the next team."

The examples above are real-life quotes I have heard from people (although I did slightly paraphrase them), and stages #3 and #4 manifest themselves in different ways in different people:

  • Some are focused on telling teams to do Scrum exactly as the Scrum Guide describes "because Scrum says so." But by doing that, the people affected often quickly resent Scrum because they're just being told to do it and don't understand why they have to do what Scrum says. There is also no focus on the culture needed for Scrum to thrive.
  • Some are focused on doing Scrum/SAFe/Kanban/BDD/XP/(insert Agile word here) exactly as they have learned it because that's what worked for them in the past. But that was in a different context with different people and most likely different technology and domains.
  • Some have abandoned Agile frameworks altogether and have even questioned the validity of the Agile Manifesto. But then they create their own practices and insist everyone should follow them.

Many Scrum Masters in the industry are somewhere between stages 1 and 3. Many Agile coaches have made it to stage 4. I've had the pleasure of working with some that never went through these stages and started with the right mindset from the beginning, but, unfortunately, those people are far less common than they should be. From my experience, I would guess more than 70% of people in the Agile coaching and Scrum Master market are somewhere between stages 2 and 4. I know this all too well because early in my career I went through these stages and have worked with people who are still stuck in them even after years of 'Agile coaching.' Fortunately, I recognized the problem with what I was doing, got through the stages quickly, and the damage was limited. The problem is that many in the industry do not make it past stage #3, and the Agile movement is getting a poor reputation because of it.

Regardless of how the symptoms of Taylorism manifest, they usually have the same results:

  • Robotic Agile implementations
  • The people doing the work feel like Agile is just a new form of micromanagement
  • There is no focus on the business results of the Agile adoption
  • Productivity and innovation are lower due to stifled autonomy and mastery at the team member level
  • Results are poor and managers wonder why this Agile thing isn't giving them the benefits that were promised -  projects are still late, people are still overworked, and quality is still poor
  • Real collaboration rarely exists
  • Agile adoptions stall as support dwindles from both managers and team members

Being successful in today's competitive environment requires applying the right strategy in the right context at the right time, not blindly applying cookie-cutter practices from the so-called 'Agile methodology' (or any methodology).

An alternative leadership style: servant leadership

Servant leaders in creative knowledge work recognize they are not the smartest person in the room, and they also recognize they don't have all the answers and that what has worked for them in the past will not necessarily work in the future. They are there to support their people and create an environment where those intelligent people can work together to experiment with solutions and create awesome results. Scrum, if used appropriately, can be a great framework for applying servant leadership by creating a bounded environment where a team of intelligent individuals can collaborate around a common goal. But Scrum isn't the only Agile framework that does that - it's just the most popular one in the market right now.

Servant leadership is not new - you can see strong servant leaders in history going back thousands of years. Explaining it in depth is beyond the depth of this blog, so here are some good resources to check out to learn more about how to apply servant leadership:

By the way, servant leadership isn’t a silver bullet. It’s just one leadership style to understand and apply if it makes sense in your context. But in my experience, servant leaders are infinitely more effective at building agile teams and organizations than Tayloristic leaders.

What should you do next?

I'll leave that up to you. You know more about your job, relationships, and company than I ever will. If the ideas in this blog struck a chord with you, please let others know and share this with them. If you want help working through some of the problems at your place of work that were described in this blog, contact us at Responsive Advisors. We're happy to help.

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