As I work with more organizations and across more cultures, I’ve been realizing that agile exposes a huge piece of the power in the organization that many people may not want exposed. I didn’t have a name for until I read Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he talks about Hofstede’s Power distance index. (Here is the author‘s site with all the data and a way to compare countries. Here is an illuminating world view.)
That’s the ability of the less powerful people in the situation to talk to the more powerful people in the situation. Where do we hear about successful agile transitions? Israel, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Finland: countries, and by extension, organizations, that we assume have low power indices. This is an assumption. I know of organizations in these countries that do not have low power indices.
The countries, and by extension, organizations, have had more trouble with their agile transitions, have had a higher power index. That’s because it’s more difficult for people in less powerful positions to talk to people in more powerful positions.
This has implications for geographically distributed teams, for project managers, program managers, for anyone working across the organization to accomplish work, not just the agile teams.
What can you do about it?
- Acknowledge it. Recognize that some people are intimidated by others and their titular power in the organization. (I’m not, but that’s just me :-)
- If you have to work with people who revel in their titular power, acknowledge their power, because it makes them feel good. Now, move on. Know what you want, and help them acknowledge that what you want is also necessary for the organization to succeed.
- Stay positive. Sometimes, the other person needs to put you down, because he/she has no other way of dealing with other people. I allow it for a limited timebox (10-20 seconds, maybe up to a minute) and then I move the conversation on.
- Look for common/joint objectives. What will make us both happy? Often, this puts us on the same power plane. Usually the other person doesn’t recognize this until we are done talking.
- I’m happy to build a long-term relationship to make this work.
I avoid gossiping about other people. I need to keep my integrity. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I need to keep my integrity. I especially don’t let the other person blame my team, my project, or my program for the other person’s emergencies or failings. I also don’t blame his/hers. I keep my integrity. I didn’t say this was easy!
I’ve come home from these meetings and said to Mark, “I need a drink and it’s not water!” When you have these conversations, you are re-educating the person about culture. Sometimes it takes, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Agile exposes this power differential. Yet another transparency.
Can you make and keep the transition to agile with this power differential? I don’t know. For me, the jury is still out. When I see organizations with a high power differential, they keep falling back to command-and-control approaches, because the power differential is so ingrained in their culture. This is why a transition to agile is not just a technical issue, but a cultural issue too.