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Professional Agile Leadership - Part 3 - Hierarchy and More

November 23, 2022

In this episode of the Community podcast, Kurt Bittner, PST Ron Eringa and PST Laurens Bonnema come together again to join host Dave West for a discussion on some of the topics in the new book, The Professional Agile Leader, including hierarchy and shifts to more flat, agile organizations. 



Lindsay Velecina: 0:03

Welcome to the community podcast, a podcast from the home of Scrum. In this podcast we feature professional scrum trainers and other scrum practitioners sharing their stories and experiences to help learn from the experience of others. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Dave West: 0:20

Hello and welcome to Community podcast podcast from the home of Scrum. My name is Dave West CEO and I'll be your host today. In this podcast. Normally we feature our Professional scrum trainers and other scrum practitioners sharing their stories and experiences around scrum so that maybe we can all learn together. today's podcast, though, is a little different. It's a third installment actually, we were laughing before we we got on air that maybe this time we'll get it right. But it's the third installment on agile leadership with the authors of the professional agile leadership book. So welcome to the podcast, Kurt Bittner. Laurens Bonnema and Ron Eringa. Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And as I said, it's the third time so hopefully, we'll be better this time, right, with practice makes perfect. So over the last two podcasts, we've talked about agile leadership, you know, we've really focused on what it is why it's different from maybe more traditional leadership perspectives, and how organizations can and should embrace the ideas into their leadership discipline. today's podcast, I think, I would like us to focus on a challenging topic, a topic that is very important in many to many people, which is hierarchy. And when I'm talking about hierarchy, I'm talking about it in two areas, one, the hierarchy in terms of the systems and processes of managing risk and decision making and authority. And the second type of authority, which is hierarchy in terms of promotion, career, and money. So I guess the, the invitation or question that I'd like to start with, is how does a bottom up flatter view of the world which Scrum and Agile really promotes integrate with the reality of most traditional organizations? And, Ron, this is a topic that you talk a lot about, and a very wax lyrical on? So how could you sort of get us going on that question?

Ron Eringa: 2:33

Yeah, the integration question is actually one of the most interesting questions because, you know, in any organization where you start working with ideas of self organizing teams, you're going to have to start with what what is there, right, and I think we talked about this last time a little bit as well. Would you call on the void, that there is a hierarchy there in the organization. Another thing, I think people also think that the hierarchy will be gone. Once you have self organizing teams, which I think is probably also not there. The hierarchy looks probably different. And I think that is the tension that that you're going to work with when you start with self organizing teams and Scrum teams. So you will have the traditional hierarchy, which is normally kind of a power hierarchy in any organization, meaning that everyone that's up in the food chain higher up the hierarchy will make decisions about money, about careers, about you know, everything, actually. But at the moment that you really get mature, agile self organizing teams, a lot of those traditional responsibilities start shifting towards actually the people doing the work. But that doesn't mean that hierarchy will disappear in the organization, it's just going to look different. So in the old organization, people up in the food chain higher up the hierarchy are responsible for well, almost every decision. And in the new organization, they will responsible for helping people to take those decisions themselves. And I think that's a much harder job, because they're going to have to make sure that those people are actually capable of doing that, that they have all the means to do so. And that they, you know, that the organization is still an organization. So I think the hierarchy won't disappear. It's just, you know, it's replaced, the power hierarchy will probably be replaced by a hierarchy of concerns, making sure that the organization as a whole will still keep functioning and that people aren't capable of continuing to make the decisions that they were taking in the past.

Dave West: 4:40

So just want to pick up on those two quite important points, number one, that ultimately authority, his changing from making decisions about stuff to helping others make decisions about stuff, which I think it's really, really interesting. So that's what one point, the and then you you brought up another interesting point about how I guess it'll work. And that, you know, the reality of, of the transition, which I think is really, really interesting as well. Let's talk a little bit about the first point. So decisions used to be made, supposedly, you know, you'd have multiple meetings, somebody's been invited to a meeting, the team would present something that person would say yes or no, or that person would then take it to somebody else, right? Who would then say yes or no? Who would then take it to somebody else? Who would say yes or no, depending on the severe pneus of the decision, the bigness, the bigness, if that's a word of the decision, it would go up and down? The, that's changing? How does it manifest itself? How does it work, you know, in terms of decision making, and the like, what does a agile leader have to do that's different.

Ron Eringa: 6:06

An example of that, if you want to, I want during the COVID crisis that we had, in the last few years, I was in for a manager in an organization. And at some point, we needed to cut budget, which union nine of the 10 times means, you know, letting people go. And in this case, there were people that were hired external hires that we needed to, you know, cut down, like 40 people or something. In the traditional organization, what would have happened, and that does actually what actually happened in the organization before we started experimenting with this is the manager would take the decision, which people that we needed to let go, and then just drip down into the rest of the organization. What we did instead is we went to the product owners and Scrum Masters of the team with the problem that we had, that this is the problem that we have, we need your help with that, could you help us find the solution, because if I'm going to make the decision, I'm probably going to make the worst decision ever, because I'm going to break up, you know, all the dynamics and all the teams and we didn't want to do that. So in the end, what happened is that they had those conversations, they came up with a lot of great solutions, not only solutions, like letting people go, but also, you know, proposals that we didn't even think of. So I think because we involve the people in the problem, they came up with much better solutions than probably I would have come up with. But I think the biggest gain that we had is that, well, people told me afterwards, like this was the first time that I was involved in such a big problem. And normally, the manager would have all that weight on his shoulders. And now we were, you know, all carrying that same weight. So I think, you know, we are talking about people that are all capable of of taking these kinds of decisions. But if they're not used to that, probably, I guess I have to support them in doing it. And of course, that's what I did. So it didn't didn't mean that I you know, wasn't involved in the whole process. But the process when completely different. And my role is very different in that.

Dave West: 8:16

Wow, that sounds pretty scary. Yeah. Kurt, what do you think? I mean, suddenly, you're sort of going from being responsible to being to enabling how does that, you know, that sounds to help to make decisions about whether to lay people off? Or where to change? You know, money and AI is scary. So how does it actually work? to Don't people get kind of like worried about that those responsibilities? And those accountabilities? How does it all fit together? Kurt? Do you have any thing to share? Yeah, well,

Kurt Bittner: 8:54

you know, to continue on what Ron was saying, and use that example. I've been involved in a couple of situations that were kind of similar. And the things that the team needs from a leader in that situation, is essentially kind of guidance and coaching. So there are certain proposals or things that they might think of, that you can't do for legal reasons. There are other things that that, you know, you might ask, Well, you know, have you considered this? You know, we know, they're focused on one set of impacts, but the organization has other ones. So, you know, they might say, well, you know, we can we could just, you know, cut customer support, using a bad example, but, and then you can say, well, we could just cut that and have the team handle that. And the leader might say, well, you know, have a you know that that might be a good way to go. But it's going to mean you're going to get interrupted all the time. You know, Is that Is that something that you think you Want to take on. So helping the team think through decisions, and helping them grow, their ability to make those decisions is is really important. And, you know, as Ron said, the teams were able to come up with lots of lots of ideas that the management would not have come up with. But the teams maybe don't have all the visibility into various issues that they might want to have, you know, maybe there's a, well, you know, we tried to do that five years ago, we have these particular challenges. And, you know, we don't want to go through that again. So. So it's more helping, you know, switching from telling the team what to do to helping them think things through helping them consider different perspectives. You know, they're in most countries, there are lots of laws about diversity. And so a particular decision may not look particularly diverse, even though, you know, it was done for solid reasons, but you might want to consider that. So that's, that's sort of the shift is that it actually, in our view, is that is that the shift away from decision making actually enables the leaders to become more impactful, because they have greater influence, and they have greater flexibility. But the job is very different, instead of being the big decider, and you know, sitting in the rooms, you know, with with all the other big deciders, you know, you involve more people, and you've any focus more on teaching, much in the way that a parent would try to help the child make a better learn how to make better decisions, as opposed to telling them what to do.

Dave West: 11:52

So I'd like to, you know, there's another element around hierarchy of within decisions, but also in terms of career. So Lawrence, you know, does this mean that you don't, here's how do career paths look, if we suddenly are making, if suddenly, we're all a bunch of coaches, teachers, mentors, parents, helping people grow and develop? How does that work in terms of promotion, hierarchy and career sort of perspective? Do you? Do you have much experience there? When you're working with clients? What do you tell them? When they say, How do I get promoted in this new world? Yeah, as a matter of fact, we do. We, we have some experience in working with clients talk through those kinds of changes, were what we find, the most interesting thing to do is instead of linear progression, which where you have like, a sort of function how, right so you start as a scrum master, and then you move on to become an Agile coach, and then we move on, and you become the king of Scrum, right? But well, it's already taken position, but you never know. Anyway, there, there is like a linear path to take these steps, and then you'll get them. And that's no longer true if you work in this way. So hierarchy changes becomes more of a network structure. And as weird as it may sound, it's more like a bingo card. Right? A firm for beer is, is several slots that you can fill, and you can go both linear, you could go in a different line. So it's more of a journey, and you can draw the map yourself. And that tends to be a little bit more complicated. But in the end, we can, even from an HR perspective, we find you can simplify that back down again, and literally make it into a bingo card. I have seven checkmarks wherever they are. And that means this is my compensation. And that actually, we thought that was oversimplifying it, and it would probably not work, but let's try it anyway, that was brilliant to several of the customers that we worked with. And that's really interesting, because it also answers a very complex question. Or at least, it fixes the fact that we always give very complex answers to essentially a simple question, which is, okay, I have all this experience. What does that get me? And if I take a different step in my career, does that mean I'm throwing away all that experience, and if you work in this way, if you structure it this way, you don't necessarily have to. And that really helps in what you need that different type of hierarchy in that different type of situation. You need people who have experience in multiple places in an organization and can then navigate the hierarchy more effectively, because it becomes more of a network instead of a fixed linear thing. Okay, so yes, I think so. Let me see if I get it right. And then I'd love I'd love some other viewpoints on there. So bye. Basically, what you're saying is that ultimately, the skills that you develop, are like this big list or bingo card as you describe it. And you knock off these skills and these competencies and these capabilities, lots of words to describe this. And ultimately, you are paid, promoted in inverted commas in terms as you progress across this bingo card filling things out as you go. Which then which, which is awesome, because it also removes this concept of, I think it's an expression. And maybe Kurt, you've heard it, the Peter Principle, is it where you get promoted to a level of your own level of incompetence, because ultimately, you show an amazing skill at doing X and Y, they put you into the next level, which is completely different. You know, I certainly know that my man like person management skills have, you know, I got promoted into that. And I'm like, Oh, wow, I don't know what to do here. I was just very good at what I do, well, reasoned, average really good at what I did before. And now you've promoted me into a different position, which I'm no good at. Or maybe I have to just learn to be good at which is going to take some time. So is that what you were saying, Lawrence? Yeah, exactly. But now, it is no longer a bad thing to recognize that and say, Well, look, I have I have all this experience. Now I'm going to move laterally, instead of back down or further up. Because this is not my place. This is not where I add most value. And I think that I can add more value there. And of course, this is all discussion, right? So you, you talked about this with your boss, with your peers, with the people who work for you, whatever position you have, and then you sign and move. Usually, that is a very personal decision. If you have, maybe the bingo card is not the right metaphor, but if it's like a matrix, or something that you're filling out if it's more of a matrix, and you can essentially take any path. And you have defined that as part of your organization, it makes it easier to make those kinds of decisions, because they don't cost you anything, they just that it becomes additive. And that is freeing, not just for the person involved, it's also freeing for tons of HR departments and for people managing them. And then creating fixed paths, knowing full well that almost nobody takes up. Right, because most people almost by accident, are hired for a position that they may not even have considered. And then either discover that they really rock that or that they're stuck in the Peter Principle, and then they start wondering, when will they find out that I'm actually not? And what will then happen, because sappy works with the Peter Principle usually are indeed promoted to your level of incompetence, and then you stay there, which is a disservice to both the organization and the person. So it's way better to make it normal to just try see if you can do that. And if you like doing that, and then if the answer is, yeah, probably not a great idea if you stay here, and shift. And different hierarchical thinking makes that possible. Because it is hierarchical thinking that keeps us stuck in those, I have to go up. And every time I take a different decision, it means I'm going down. As opposed to as I go up, I could also go left and right and a little bit down. And it really doesn't matter because I'm just marking the checkboxes of everything I have done. And therefore everything I am now uniquely qualified to do in this organization. So, Kurt, I'd love your take on that.

Kurt Bittner: 18:50

Yeah, so so that that cross functional, just like teams are cross functional, in terms of their skills, having leaders be be cross functional, in different areas is important. But one thing I think that's that's really important, too, is that as decisions get pushed down to teams, the need for levels in the hierarchy to specialize around functions, declines. So you don't have a, let's say, over the long term manager of software development or a manager of testing or these other functional area areas. And actually keep having the hierarchy organized around functions, keeps, makes the organization less adaptable, because you're sort of locking in certain kinds of expertise. So so the other thing that happens over time is that there's as responsibility for certain kinds of decisions gets pushed down to the teams, then that hierarchy starts to focus more, I think Think on the scope of its influence. So at sort of the, at the level of, of the teams, that leader might have, you know, might be helping a handful of teams. And above that, you know, their, their scope is much broader. So they're, they're helping, you know, whole sort of product groups and so on. So, so that, that, that that scope becomes, what the leader does is less focused on making decisions on a particular area, you know, functional area, and more more focused on how do we get these larger groups of people working together more effectively. And, and their scope becomes that then, and related to that, then is the scope of the goals of those leaders, you know, might be focused on at lower levels, you know, groups of teams, then products, then perhaps the entire organization, so, so that, that shift happens gradually, but it's, it's, it's happened sort of, in parallel with the teams taking on more responsibility for the day to day decisions, and for technical decisions, and even product decisions. And as that there's, you know, there are lots of things that happen between teams. And that often, you know, that consult managed to a point, but oftentimes, it requires somebody to sort of, you know, help out with, you know, maybe some broader conflicts between different sets of goals, or aligning goals or doing things like that. So that's, that's what I think, is the shift away from functional organization toward a more leadership scope of leadership kind of organization.

Dave West: 21:51

So you can imagine what the last question will be. And I'd like to hit this run. Okay, so I'm currently working in a functionally aligned organization, where my promotion is supported by a very comprehensive competence model that was developed 15 years ago, and that has been ratified by a works council in a trade union and whatever, and it's all been signed off. Ah, what do I do? How do I get promoted? What? How do what do I, how do I deal with this? You talked about duality. You talked about to operate, you know, how do I deal with this? What What, what's, what's your message to these people that are currently in this transition sort of state? How do they manage these two worlds?

Ron Eringa: 22:45

Yeah, and maybe you can do us a practical application where we started experimenting with this would be like, I mean, well, people need to sell paid pay their mortgage. Right? So that's one yes. So and people are still going to be looking for how to get more of that stuff. So you know, I can buy a bigger house. And you know, that's, that's typical behavior. However, if you start decoupling the monetary reward from someone's place in the hierarchy, by, for example, creating team rewards that are coupled to actually the value creation, that's, that's being done to customers, if the team can couple their monetary rewards to their successes, they book with customers, if it's really like in a value chain, where they concede the, the amount of value that they're creating, and it also, you know, typically drills down to making more money, why don't we just couple that actually to how a real business also works, right? If a business doing good, everyone in the business will profit profit from that, if you start decoupling those individual reward systems, replace it by Team rewards, but also, you know, remove the place in the hierarchy kind of discussion, we have found that people will start asking better questions as well, they will start wondering how can I, you know, still make more money, but by doing the right stuff for our customers, instead of you know, fighting to get that place somewhere up in food chain in this organization. So I think that's basically what we saw in these experiments is that the moment that you start experimenting, with Team rewards, anyone can be rewarded, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. And then that just gives much better discussions, and also different focus for people. So and we've had some very interesting results with that, at least, by running these kinds of experiments.

Dave West: 24:32

And just folding in what Kurt said about this sort of like degrees of influence, you know, sort of higher view, and then balancing team rewards with some sort of as, because you still want to incentivize people to help cross teams, you know, deal with these conflicts, sort of, you know, these these challenges, so balancing that kind of those two worlds in some sort of very explicit, very A very transparent manner, I guess, would you agree is that those two things have to be balanced?

Ron Eringa: 25:09

I think, yes, they definitely need to be balanced in combination with the fact roll. And that's where your question started, like, you know, now we have this very rigid HR system. How are we going to change that? Well, my advice would be, don't change the entire HR system right away, start looking at your most mature team and run some experiments and see how that works out. And you'll probably learn what works best for the organization step by step. So taking an empirical approach, instead of you know, trying to, you know, reshift, the entire way that the whole HR system works, is also probably not the best way to go forward

Kurt Bittner: 25:44

with that.

Dave West: 25:46

Yes, makes a lot of sense, incrementally, slowly, looking at those friction points, not making decisions that hat, like we're going to radically change everybody's how people are paid and salaries, etc, overnight. But maybe we'll run two models and look at how they, how they, how they work together. And then incrementally make those changes. Right. We try to keep these podcasts short. And obviously a topic of this Brett, I could we could go on for hours talking about all sorts of things. So I really do appreciate you taking the time out of today. We've been listening to Kurt Bittner, Laurens Bonnema and Ron Eringa, talking a little bit about hierarchy, talking about how that features in Agile leadership and and how the how to marry these two worlds of flatter sort of more agile organizations, more outcome oriented organizations with traditional organizations. Obviously, we couldn't cover everything and if you've got some interest in this, maybe you should really should read the book. It's a fantastic read professional, agile leadership part of the professional scrum series from from Pearson. So gentlemen, thank you for taking the time again, to talk about these topics. It is a big one. And hopefully, we'll continue this conversation in the future.

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