Buzzwords periodically wash the management field; agile is the latest of them, but it holds promise. When management was presumed to be scientific, practitioners measured the productivity of workers under different lighting and resting periods. That is how we landed the Human Relations area of management. After Peter Drucker published “Management by Objectives”, all managers worth their name had to have goals. That’s how lean organizations became fashionable. Until a few weeks back lean organizations also had to chase SMART goals, but now those are not enough either: goals must also be FAST ones. We all know what the acronym for SMART goals stand for; even the FAST acronym has a meaning: Frequent, Ambitious, Specific and Transparent. The ‘S’ in FAST is a die-hard one, lingering on from SMART goals.
All this was to say how we got where we are now: lean organizations following SMART and FAST goals must now be agile too. You are not alone if this sounds like a throwback to the Jane Fonda 1982 workout.
Change is now purported to be so fast that the Agile proponents did not even bother about mnemonic acronyms — Agile has none, perhaps because the agile lot know that there is little purpose in helping people remember what might not make much sense tomorrow. This would be a shame, because there are elements of the agile tenets which are worth looking into in greater detail.
What to me makes the ‘agile’ proposal interesting is not the agile need for a “North Star”, which is not new, nor is the agile call for stress on rapid and effective processes or even on appropriate technology; rather, what makes agile interesting is its stress on people and structure. Agile calls for a focus on mobile but cohesive teams. Naturally, this requires an adequate structure. In bare-bone parlance, agile proponents suggest the structure should allow for an accountable ecosystem of communities of knowledge and practice ruled by a hands-on governance. Though this is easier said than done, it is an interesting concept in organizational knowledge that is now making an inroad into mainstream management.
To be agile, communities must be mobile, so let us focus on cohesion during mobility. The smaller a group of people, the more cohesive it is likely to be.
So, how large can a mobile team be and still be cohesive?
A few decades ago, Dunbar, a British anthropologist matching the size of groups of primates to the mass of their brains’ prefrontal cortex came up with a magical group size: close to 150. Larger numbers would require more rules and a greater effort in enforcing them to attain similar group cohesion. Thus, groups larger than 150 would lose efficiency.
Gore Tex manufacturers are known to implement the rule of 150 quite strictly, to the extent of preferring not to house collaborators in factories holding more than 150 people. Also unaware of the Dunbar number, Brazilian Samba Schools parade in Carnival with several cohorts of roughly that same size, each with one leader who knows how to blend smaller groups adding up to that total.
Managing 150 would require shouting out too loudly even if you stood-up on a chair, so it is quite likely that, like Samba Schools, cohorts of 150 are made-up of work teams of a dozen or so members. That allows natural team leaders to emerge and coordinate them without shouting too much. Practice shows which team leaders have the potential to blend larger teams, offering a system to groom future organizational leaders. If you do not believe it works, just think of how W.L. Gore & Associates, with 9000 employees and $3 billion in revenue selected Terri Kelly for CEO once the founder retired: the board polled Gore employees asking whom they would be willing to follow.
Polling a large number of people to ask whom they prefer to be led by requires them to have a fair idea of who that person might be. This can only happen if communication is transparent company-wide to foster a shared purpose. That allows for names to surface in association with an aura of servant leadership, precisely the type of leader collaborators are keen to respect and follow. There you are, agile management might turn out to be more than a buzzword.