Most of you would probably have heard of the 1950's song with the same title. Here's the opening lyrics to that song:
Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Pretending I'm doing well
My need is such, I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell
There are many pretenders in the Agile world. These individuals profess to be advocates for Agile, but either consciously or subconsciously exhibit anti-agile behavior. If I had a dollar for every person I've met in an Agile environment that talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk, I might have saved a tidy sum.
In a recent experience, I came across a manager at a major Australian institution. Agile was a relatively new thing there, but the IT department in particular had matured enough to adopt some semblance of structure and value that kept the gravy train in operation. The reputation of this manager was one of an Agile though leader, and the department's achievements had been celebrated throughout the institution, so much so that this manager's word was never questioned with regards to the future adoption of Agile. But upon closer inspection, I discovered that the grass wasn't so green on the other side.
It became apparent that there were murmurings from within the team of professionals that reported to this manager. At first glance, major initiatives and deliverables were being met, and these brought value to the relevant business units. So, what could possibly be going wrong in this recent incantation of Agile across the institution?
The answer lies in the Great Pretender syndrome.
The manager knew all too well that "Agile" was a strategy that this institution had bought into, and like anything bought into, people will carry on kicking and screaming before they admit anything is going wrong. This allowed the manager to lead initiatives with an Agile flavor (the talk), such as prioritizing deliverables, planning and documenting only what was required, involving the business at planning sessions, professing that teams manage their own tasks, and the list goes on. However, behind the scenes, the manager was not assisting teams to be autonomous, manage themselves, hold retrospectives and reviews (which would have uncovered errors, issues and anti-value), and continuously improve the adoption of Agile (the walk).
Yes, there were the occasional team meetings, but these were predominantly geared toward making the manager and the delivery of initiatives look as rosy as possible to internal customers. Further, while the manager professed to support transparency and open discussions, when push came to shove, their opinion was final and no one could dispute this. In fact, on one conversation, I recall the manager saying "we don't debate here" when someone pointed out an error the manager had made. In another example, the manager would often micro-manage some team members to the point that the deliverable was not met on time. So rather than remove obstacles and be a servant leader, this manager had become the biggest obstacle of all.
So how does the great pretender get away with anti-agile behavior? Well, there are several reasons, and here are some that come to mind.
The allure of momentum
When you have a few wins on the board, and those wins become consistent, it can feel like the momentum is moving in the right direction. But if you are a puppeteer, you can make the puppet appear to be anything you want it to. De-prioritizing projects that you believe may be politically hot, diverting resources from one project to another to ensure it succeeds at the expense of another, and managing resources with the threat of consequences are just some of the ways to make value only skin deep. Sometimes, it may look like progress, but progress at what cost?
One-way feedback process
How any serious Agile transformation can accept a one-way feedback process between managers and subordinates is beyond me. Yet this is exactly what was happening in this institution. You simply cannot champion a transparent, innovative and fear-free working environment if the feedback process only allows managers to give feedback to subordinates, and the feedback from subordinates stops at the supervisor, and is only in a one-on-one setting. Who in their right mind is going to give honest feedback when the only judge of that feedback is the person you are giving it to? 360-degree feedback must be the hallmark of any good Agile environment, and that feedback must flow up the ladder to at least 2-3 management levels above the subordinate. This greatly reduces the chances of the pretender becoming a toxic leader, or their immediate manager protecting them from senior management review.
You can only stomp on people for so long, even if it is ever so effortlessly. Just like technical debt, emotional debt can build up over time and bite you back. This is precisely how revolutions begin. A project may be tracking well on paper as evident through the deliverables being met, but festering within the belly of the collective can sometimes dwell resentment, anger and demotivation. Fear may drive human motivation in the short term, but in the long run, the human spirit yearns to break free and be what it is destined to be: Agile.
Can you think of any examples of the Great Pretender in your workplace? Is your Agile environment really only skin deep? Is your servant leader really just a leader of servants?
"He who is not a good servant, will not be a good master." - Plato
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