Agile: poison for hierarchical structures?

Hierarchical organisations are quite contraire to agile organisations and forcing people to change is never a good idea.

Author: Markus A. Wolf
Updated: August 2021

Self-organizing and cross-functional

Wouldn’t it be great if we all can work in self-organizing and cross-functional teams? Wouldn’t it be great if we all can work in flat hierarchies without politics?

Agile vs. hierarchical structures

Maybe you would think YES! but there are many people around you for which this is a terrible idea. These people got used to the advantages of structure and stable organisations. Trying to implement agile methods like Scrum is extremely hard and if you try to change the whole organisation it’s even harder.

Let’s take a step backwards and ask the question why agile is becoming so popular. On one hand you have an always changing world (VUCA) and on the other hand faster and faster innovation cycles. When Sutherland and Schwaber came up with the Scrum framework in 1995 they had an idea how organisations can improve their software development. Nowadays this framework has been approved so many times that people start thinking - mhhhhhh - maybe we can use this Scrum thing for other teams too. Because of the success of Scrum people started talking about agile and how this new thing can help.

Scrum is disrupting hierarchical structures

Get rid of the agile hype

Personally I think agile organisations will be very successful in the future but first we have to get rid of the agile hype and second we have truly to learn what agile means. If you ask the Scrum Guide how to teach people about Scrum there are some easy answers:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization

So it’s all about people. Teach people to understand Scrum. Let people participate in the success of Scrum and improve the organisation. If you ask developers what is the major cause for a delay they will give you interruptions as an answer. So the major idea behind Scrum is to handle these interruptions well and let the developers do their work. And here is the key why hierarchical organisations have so many issues with agile structures right now.

People who work in hierarchical structures got used to interrupting people. Strong hierarchical organisations are driven by status, structure and power over people. This leads to changing topics continuously and interrupting people to force them to another “the only true” direction.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

Remember that always changing VUCA world I mentioned?

The “U” in VUCA stays for uncertainty so it will be more and more difficult to have one particular direction over years you can force people to. One of these reactions to a VUCA world is that hierarchical organisation gets unstable when it comes to decisions and directions. So these organisations are changing the direction all the time with the result of no direction.

But can an agile organisation help? Yes it can! And starting with agile might help and here are some solutions. You can start with a separated team which is not part of the existing organisation or managed by a team lead of the executive board. In larger organisations it might be useful to incorporate a new company. With this first agile team you can prove the success of agile organisations and this can guide the whole organisation. If you want to be successful in implementing agile frameworks, methods and the mindset you have to take care of the people. Listen to them! Not agile is the reason why it is so hard for some organisations to change - it is because of the people who have big issues with change. Solving these issues takes time - remember this when you are dealing with people and their issues.

Be patient - I know it’s hard but you should.

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Thoughts, topics or just solutions I would like to make available to you, colleagues and fellow enthusiasts.