5 Whys is a blog about technical leadership in the software world.

Leadership and the mature team

The following is a guest post by Mike Burrows.

Until last year a developer, project leader and development manager in investment banking, Mike is now an IT Director in the energy risk management industry, still leading projects, still writing code.  His blog (positiveincline.com) covers open source development and his recent Kanban implementation.

Roy's post "The 3 maturity stages of a software team and how scrum fails to identify them" [1] rings true to much of my experience as a team member, project leader and development manager, but still it touches a red button of mine!  I'm grateful to Roy for his very gracious offer to let me respond to it.

My red button?  I worry about the Agile community's recent focus on self-management.  Don't get me wrong: self-management is a good thing, but in its current popular usage it has two problems:

  1. It fails to capture satisfactorily the much more powerful concept (borrowed from the study of systems) of self-organization
  2. There seems to be a move in the community to minimize the role of leadership

Self-organization is at the heart of agile methods, indeed it is the 11th of the 12 principles [2] behind the Agile Manifesto.  Definitions vary, but in this context it describes the ability of a system (here the project team) to create for itself ways to increase its own effectiveness. 

Looking at the team from the outside, we see "emergence" - new behaviors arising without external intervention.  In the Scrum context this might happen as a result of team retrospectives (the 12th principle) or simply through the individual contributions of team members.  Either way it's important to recognize that some of these new behaviors (i.e innovations) may be highly non-standard.

Leadership (whether from within or without) takes the team to places it would otherwise never have reached, perhaps never even have considered.  This can be in terms of the team's internal structures or its external goals, but in the absence of leadership it is a rare thing for a team to take itself out of its comfort zone, to redefine its approach to the outside world, perhaps even to completely reinvent itself.

Here's the paradox: good leadership encourages emergence, but the leader must also be ready to take the team out of the ecological niche it has carved out for itself, however effectively.  Yes, self-management is needed at every level (or the leader has time only for management), but we need also the humility to recognize its limits.  Now there is true maturity!

[1] /blog/the-3-maturity-stages-of-a-software-team-and-how-scrum-fails.html
[2] http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html

Mike Burrows

Video – Code Leaders and Beautiful Teams

The 3 maturity stages of a software team and how scrum fails to identify them