Drifting Back To Hierarchy (Woopah Oh Yeah Yeah!)

One of my favourite things about working in agile teams is the lack of hierarchy. Different people in the team earn each other's respect not through their pay-grade or supposed seniority but through the different skills they bring to the project and the progress they help the team make.

Agile teams should also be self-organising as much as possible. They should make decisions in the open, discuss the options (the pros and cons) and then by-and-large make decisions as a collective. Of course, disagreements can happen, but it’s crucial for teams to understand specific roles should have the “last word” in certain areas. In general, though, there shouldn’t be a single person (or small group) who is running things.

In my experience, it is surprising how often teams drift back towards a hierarchical structure.

Sometimes people start to see some roles as more senior than others. This can happen when people are moved from senior positions in a previous structure only into specific agile roles. Often they keep their attitude and ways of working of that prior structure (and why not? it's got them this far!). Other team members who feel less senior can exacerbate the problem by being overly deferential to people in those roles. And the cycle continues.

At other times the context that the team finds itself working in includes an aspect of hierarchy which starts to impose itself on the team. For example, the organisational structures surrounding the team, or pressures from stakeholders who aren't used to (or don't understand this way of working). This context means those in the team whose connection to that hierarchy is stronger become the de facto leadership.

The team then has to live with a kind of cognitive dissonance. Are we doing this one way? Or are we doing it another?

The processes and ceremonies of agile assume a multidisciplinary team. Faced with these hierarchical pressures, they stop working. Members of the team start to become confused and disconnected from the purpose and the direction that the team is going in. The things that make agile work begin to get left behind, even while people try to keep working as if they’re still doing it.

Agile needs to be a process of continual renewal. Both in terms of the work that is being done and the ways of working employed. I'm beginning to feel that checking whether we’ve drifted back into a hierarchical situation needs to be an integral part of that renewal. It needs to be a question we keep asking and one of the critical ways we judge whether an agile team is functioning correctly.

Wondering about the title? You sing it, to the tune of this: