Saana Ström: Does agile really work?

Typically we explain that being agile means listed thigs from people point of view:

  • People are empowered.
  • You can decide how the job is done.
  • Boss is not giving you tasks and telling what to do, boss is helping you to achieve your goals and being your coach.
  • When people get to decide about their job it increases the motivation.
  • Teams and individuals do proactively continuous improvement because when you can develop things that are important to you, you have the motivation to make the change happen.

I have come to the conclusion that thinking like this consists of two basic assumptions that are: 1) Everybody like their job 2) Everybody can be self-directed. But is this really true?

Do everybody like their job?

Let’s look at this sentence for instance: “Teams and individuals do proactively continuous improvement because when you can develop things that are important to you, you have the motivation to make the change happen.” But what if you don’t have motivation? What if you don’t like your job? What if you always wanted to be a doctor but never made it and now you are in a job that you got just to get money for living?

I would guess that in the world there are more people who don’t like their jobs than who really like their jobs. But maybe we could find a positive way of thinking this. Maybe the point at the end is not are you in your dream job or not. Maybe we could think it a little bit differently: When you have ability to make decisions related to your own work, even if the work is not your dream job, you probably are able to make it more pleasant for you if you can perform the job your way. Could that be enough?

On the other hand, as a gymnastics coach I work a lot with motivation. You might think that when you have a successful gymnastics team it’s easy to work with them because they have the motivation in place. That’s because they are special individuals who are chosen to that team and they really are committed. But that is not actually true. Even in a successful team like that there are always some gymnasts who don’t have the motivation. On the other hand motivation is not that black and white that you either have it or not. It might change over the time. Motivation is something that you need to work on to find it and then keep it. So even if you think you don’t have the motivation for the job maybe you could try to work on that a little bit and try to dig it out?

Can everybody be self-directed?

How about empowering people? Do everybody want to be and can be empowered? Do you know how to be proactive and self-directing? Do you like to decide? Can you set your own goals and create a task list to achieve your goal?

I see that people are struggling a lot with the self-directing and I have been wondering is being a self-directed person a skill like reading that anybody can learn or is it more like a competence that some have it and the others don’t – Like some people are better at maths than the others. It is understandable that for people who have been raised at school to listen to the teacher, at job listen to the boss and at home listen to mom, it is a huge change for them to suddenly start deciding themselves what to do without asking anybody. Generating ideas, making decisions and setting targets is hard if all your life teacher has told you what the topic of your essays is, boss has given you the tasks for the week, and mom has told you what you eat.

Would we be different if we had been raised differently?

But now comes the million-dollar question that we are probably unable to answer: Would we be different if we had been raised differently? What if as a child, your mom, instead of giving you a knife and telling you precise instructions how to peel an apple, would have just told you to peel an apple and would have left you to decide the rest? Carol Dweck would probably answer yes, we would be different if we had raised differently. According to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory, you can learn almost anything you want to. Your abilities can be developed.

I have also heard that they are changing this at school nowadays too. Students are more encouraged to listen to their inner voice and can e.g. write about the topics they are interested in. Teachers are becoming more enablers than telling what to do. However, to succeed in this we should be careful with the key point of empowerment: Empowering in agile means empowering people within certain limits where people then can be self-directed. Goal setting and defining the limits is very important to be successful with this. If the student comes home and explains that I have to do an essay but I don’t know when it needs to be ready, I don’t know if it is a biology essay or arts essay or do I need it to pass my course. Then we have not succeeded. The most difficult part in agile is to understand the relation between freedom and limits. Otherwise we start thinking being agile is a mess.

For me it depends on the situation or even my mood how self-directed I want to be.

This makes me wonder do we need some kind of maturity level before we can become self-directed? Do you need basic understanding before you know what you want and what you want to achieve? If I think of me, I need to get some kind of a basic understanding before I start getting ideas what to do and am able to set targets for me. On the other hand, I find it a bit stressful if I must create everything from scratch. I would like to use my energy to the things that create most value or are most important. Regarding less important thigs it would be ok for me to just do as I’m told because that saves my energy for something more valuable work. E.g. I would love to use some readymade templates for PowerPoint so that I would not have to start the material creation from scratch. It would also be ok for me to use a tool that somebody else has selected and told me how to use it even though I’m a person that likes self-directing a lot in general and want to decide about my own tasks and set own targets. For me it depends on the situation or even my mood how self-directed I want to be.

We could also think about this from person types’ point of view. According to DisC study it depends on your personal type weather you are a person who likes to decide or not. E.g. (if I remember correctly) the C/S-type people like to be told what to do more than the D-type who likes telling others what to do. However, it is also said in the study that personalities can also develop over time. Carol Dweck and growth mindset would also say the same.

To summarize, I believe that to some extent everybody can become self-directed but probably as in many other skills some will be better at that than the others. Personality is also something that affects the ability to become self-directed. I believe that raising us from the early age towards self-derationing would increase the skills in that.

I also think that self-directing at its best can only be reached after certain maturity: If you don’t know about the topic or the big picture about what you are working with it’s probably harder to decide what to do next or what is the goal than when you really have a good understanding about the thing you are working with. In addition, those who have just started learning self-directing are probably not at good at that than the ones who have been practising it during their whole life. This rises up still 1 challenge that we currently have: The ones that we raised to obey rules are now teachers and bosses who should be able to coach and teach other people to become agile and self-directed. Can a person who has been raised to obey rules be the best teacher for others to become agile and self-directed? –Probably not and that will probably slow down the way. However, I don’t think that is impossible. After all and once more: People can learn. #growth mindset