Management By Proxy and Agile Development Don’t Mix

Following the rules isn’t good enough.

encyclopediaDo you manage by proxy or are you being managed by proxy? It works like this. A manager or management team defines lots of rules — you must do this — you cannot do that. Been there? Some of the rules are sensible like those related to timely response and quality control. Others, not so much, like those that call for filling out forms or submitting requests for every issue no matter how small or insignificant.

The manage-by-proxy manager simply monitors compliance. His first response to any question is “Did you follow proper procedure?”. If your answer is no, you’re told to go back and follow the procedure. If your answer is yes, you’re told what the next step is according to the procedure.

I’m calling this “management by proxy”. The proxy is the procedure. That’s a management job you gotta love. Just pull out the rule book, find the appropriate entry and read it. The rule book manages the team not the manager.

To my shock and awe, some employees actually like this approach. They know exactly what they need to do (and not do). They believe that as long as they follow the rules they have nothing to fear — even if something goes wrong. Disaster may strike but as long as you followed the rules, you’re protected.

Those who create need more.

The approach works in many situations where people are performing jobs that demand accurate repetition — the same work must be performed in the same manner repeatedly. The end results are well known. The number of things that can go wrong is constrained. Makes sense, right?

Enterprise software development is different. The end result is often envisioned but not known. The number of failure types is difficult to quantify. Management by proxy is often attempted but rarely works. You’d need a rule book the size of a multi-volume encyclopedia.

Agile self-organizing teams and rule books are hard to mix. We all need to “know the rules”, of course. Yet, one of the best kept secrets to successful agile development is letting the team figure out the rules as they go. And, empowering them to change the rules as needed.

Skip the Encyclopedia

If you’re a manager with a background in management by proxy, learn to let go. That will only happen if you have respect for your team. Be open-minded and transparent. Be willing to accept small failures as learning opportunities.

If you’re a developer accustomed to management by proxy, learn to rely on your teammates. The best agile teams show mutual respect and help each other. They swarm to the aid of any team member in trouble.

Rule books don’t create great software. People do.

photo credit: two instincts via photopin cc

Updated: March 19, 2013 — 9:46 pm