Can Top-Down Agile Work?

Updated on October 25, 2022
21 min read

In many cases, agile practices have been introduced in organizations starting bottom-up. There is, however, a new trend where management is trying to be the driver of agility. Join the discussion with Malte Foegen, COO at wibas, Luxshan Ratnaravi, agile coach at Bankdata and Mikkel Noe-Nygaard, UX design specialist at Vestas, to understand what changes have to be implemented in an enterprise for such a top-down approach. And more importantly, can it be successful?

In many cases, agile practices have been introduced in organizations starting bottom-up. There is, however, a new trend where management is trying to be the driver of agility. Join the discussion with Malte Foegen, COO at wibas, Luxshan Ratnaravi, agile coach at Bankdata and Mikkel Noe-Nygaard, UX design specialist at Vestas, to understand what changes have to be implemented in an enterprise for such a top-down approach. And more importantly, can it be successful?

Intro

Malte Foegen: Hi, I'm Malte Foegen. I will talk about how we approach management in an agile organization. And I think we need to rethink our approach to management. Starting on it, I think we should start agile with management and not with the teams. And with me, I have Luxshan Ratnaravi and Mikkel Noe-Nygaard. We already had a very pretty interesting discussion about management, didn't we?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yes, we did. What is management even in agile?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: But who are we?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: But who are we? My name is Luxshan Ratnaravi, I make comic strips together with Mikkel Noe-Nygaard. I'm an agile nerd, so I write much of this stuff. And what do you do?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: I'm, sort of, the guy that draws the stuff and makes it understandable for people. So I don't know much about Agile, but I've been exposed to it for 20-plus years.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: And we have real jobs besides this, so this is therapy for us so we can survive in a world where agile is misunderstood and misused. We want to help people improve their agile practices.

Malte Foegen: Actually, that's my job too. I'm working with a consultancy that helps organizations understand agile, and move forward with it. I think that's pretty good. That's what makes my job fun because I think we need more agile in this world and a positive sense.

What is management in an agile world?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: But you have a talk about managers.

Malte Foegen: Yes.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: You like managers, don't you, or management? But maybe could you tell us?

Malte Foegen: I'm a manager myself, so I have to like management.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: We can trust what you say then?

Malte Foegen: Yes.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: What is a management for you, what do you do?

Malte Foegen: Well, I think management is setting the stage for work. And I think if we approach it from that angle, we might also rethink what management does and who does it. I also like the word self-management. Because I think in self-management, there is not just self in there, but it's self-management. And sometimes I think teams are missing the management part, kind of, like we, self, as a team. And then who does the management? And it's interesting because when we think about management, a lot of organizations are larger than just one team, and I think a lot of products do need more than one team. Then how do we organize that, so how do we set a stage for several teams?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: You said self-management is also management, but what is management? I don't get that.

Malte Foegen: Well, setting the stage, I mean, it's, kind of, building the social system. So we talk a lot about the product itself, which is the technical system software, the car which we build. But I think there's also a social system, which builds the technical system. And building a social system is work, it's just not there by itself as a system. It needs techniques, people need to do communication, and they need tools for communication and all those things. Building that social system, thinking about it how it works. That, for me, is management.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: So one of the things we focus on when making fun of and, kind of, exposing the misunderstandings to agile is actually management's role in agile. Right. So what is management's role in Agile? And it seems like they don't get it yet. Maybe we don't even get it yet.

Malte Foegen: You mean the managers don't get it?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yes, other organizations don't get it either.

Malte Foegen: That's probably true because I think agile didn't get it. We are doing this for 25 years, and I do not understand it yet totally.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : Me neither.

Malte Foegen: But I think that's the thing about social systems. They are complex, so they are full of surprises. We think we will never understand how they work, it's a constant experiment. Then the world is changing, and we need to respond to that. 

Let's talk about it. It's about not only efficiency but also whether are we doing the right thing. And so it's also I think when the world is changing, we also need to change the way we function as an organization.

Recommended talk: What Engineering Managers Should Do (and Why We Don’t) • Lena Reinhard • GOTO 2019

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: So taking an agile approach in learning agile, right?

Malte Foegen: Yes. And also taking an agile approach, and learning how to manage in an agile organization.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: I think there's quite some overlap potentially between management and the Scrum Master role, for instance, right? Because the Scrum Master, of course, services the team, the product owner, but also the organization. So could Scrum Masters build up the social system by talking to each other across the company maybe?

Malte Foegen: Absolutely, I would think the Scrum Master is part of that. I would say, user manager. Or my definition, you're setting the stage for the team.

I also would say the team members are somehow managers because they're self-managing. When they're standing in front of there, making the daily, it's management.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: So why do we need someone outside the team to be a manager?

Malte Foegen: Well, I think if we have more than one team, they need to coordinate.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Can't they just talk to each other?

Malte Foegen: Yes, but they need to make that coordination. Somehow, you need to appoint it. You might also have some techniques that not 100 people show up, but just 10, one of each team. There needs to be some coordination board. So there could be a Scrum Master for that. Sometimes I rethink. If we have multiple teams, I sometimes say to people, "Well, just think about the team being one person as an abstract person. And then scaling works in a way that we, kind of, like do Scrum again or whatever agile technique you use. You just use the same technique, but just think of the team as one person being represented by a real person, which is coming from the team. And then just do the same stuff again.

There we have a manager again because we have a manager who manages these teams, kind of, like building a social system.

A community of practices vs one manager

Luxshan Ratnaravi: So I think what's interesting is how much of this can we do in networks? Instead of having a person responsible for it, could it be in a Scrum Master community of practice, for instance, where they coordinate whatever meetings they need to have across to align? Do we need to have a person? And I think that would be nice to challenge. How can we give coordination tasks maybe even ownership tasks of the social construct in networks?

Malte Foegen: I think you can. Because when you first, again, start with your first comparison that management in a team is done by the team, but also we have that manager who's called Scrum Master, and then a product owner. You could also think about the CEO as somehow a manager. Anyway, but then we do have a network of people doing the management. So I think, again, that on a scaled level, applies in the same way. But then still we have, in the team, one person who makes sure that these things happen.

I think somehow we are focused on the work we do, and then we'll coordinate work between teams. I think the same thing happens. So I think sometimes it's good that there are people who are focused on, "Let's make sure that what we've organized here works." That makes sure that this thing is effective.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yes and there could be a high cognitive load if you need to look both inward and outwards.

Malte Foegen: Yes, sometimes also I think. But that's only if you look at the product-owner view as a manager, who is responsible for the direction. Then again I think if it's a large, complex product or a large organization, then we need people who look into depth and people who look at broadness like a portfolio. And we can't do all because the brain is limited.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: I think scaling is an issue. As you said, just do this and just consider it as one person. Because within the teams, the single teams, they have in my experience, there's a lot of self-management. And they know it, and they can talk. Because just talking to your colleague, you are managing yourself, and all that. But it's scaling that, okay, how can this role that this manager, or how can you scale? Because we see it fail. The scaling part, even in the agile process is failing again and again. So...

Malte Foegen: Absolutely, it's failing again and again. But I think it's also probably a thing that when we come into it as more than one team, I think we need to start dividing up work. In a team, we, kind of, understand, "Okay, this is Carlos doing this, Maria is doing that." That is okay. But if it becomes larger, there will be other teams doing stuff, and not being asked about it. They're just making their own decisions, which we want. Because we want it to be self-managed, they'd make their own decisions. 

Suddenly, an organization makes decisions in which I'm not involved, and I need to be comfortable with that. I think that is difficult because we've learned agility means I'm being asked, I'm being involved. But if we come to more than one team, there will be things I'm not involved in. I think we need to find ways that this works. And because in a larger organization, I can't be involved in everything.

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Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: So it's easier said than done.

Malte Foegen: Yes. That's maybe also, kind of, like maybe a shift in what we think. Because if we think in our team, "I want to be involved." That's probably good because that's why team size is there. But then when we have more than one team, I can't be involved in everything, so I need to shift my thinking.

Best practices for scaling management

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: But do you have some points in your talks where you can you address that, or do you have some silver bullets, or...?

Malte Foegen: I try some silver bullets.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Or lots of guns, maybe?

Malte Foegen: I have a lot of guns. My presentation has three parts. One part is, why do we need to talk about that? And the second part is, how can we solve that? And the third part is, what can you do? And the third part is open. I just wanted to collect ideas from the audience, and I'm not sure if that will work.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: So that's, sort of, you gather ideas, and then bring it back to your job?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: And we can sell it.

Malte Foegen: Well, that sounds like what I constantly do, do you know what I mean?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yes.

Malte Foegen: As I consultant, I'm a honeybee. I'm collecting stuff over here and taking it to another customer.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: Yes, we don't have any solutions either, right?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: No. But I think what I see happening. One of the reasons for these anti-pilots happening is that in the companies I've been in. The manager role. Like, a people manager role, for some reason, also has product accountability. The actual accountability is on top of it, right?

So how can you be a product manager and a people manager at the same time? If we talk about the cognitive load on the team members. Let's start talking about other managers as well. How can they be accountable for both?

Malte Foegen: I think that is a good idea, to separate that. Focus on setting the stage, and someone that's focusing on where the organization needs to go.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: But it seems that some managers like wearing both hats.

Malte Foegen: I'm not sure, but I think...

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Maybe they like one more than the other. Maybe the career path, kind of, leads to... You need to have people's responsibility to move upward.

Malte Foegen: But I think that's where we come from. The classic view on management or organizations is that there is one guy who knows it all. And maybe it's again the teams and we, which have to give up the view that there should be one guy who knows it all or a girl who knows it all.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: I just think, having the people responsible or the social system building responsibility. It's as if it's not respected very much, I think, unfortunately, in many companies. In our company, some managers say, "Just being responsible for people is not always enough," right? But how can I just do that?

Malte Foegen: Yes, they're right.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: And I think we need more respect about this topic, I think.

Malte Foegen: Absolutely.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Acknowledgement.

Malte Foegen:  I think we need to solve it. If we don't solve it, we're stuck with agility at the team level. And if we're stuck with agility at the team level, I think we will lose it because it's not enough. Organizations are not made up of just one team.

Agile implementation throughout the organization

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: But that's what we see all over the place, right? Agile it's implemented beneath the hierarchy, right? It's just, sort of, another thing. We call stuff other names, and now we're agile.

Malte Foegen: But I think there are a lot of managers out there who would like answers. But I think for teams, we've solved it somehow, yeah?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : Yes.

Malte Foegen: I think all those management ideas are pretty old. They're about 1,500 years old. And the cool thing about Kanban, or Scrum, or the frameworks is that it gives recipes of how to apply those ideas. But on a management level, we're not giving them anything. Kind of like saying, "You should behave differently. Figure out yourself how."

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: It's also all the theorists, they've been created from the bottom up, right? It's developers that are taught how we should be able to do this differently. It's driven by the people that do the stuff that produces the software. Okay, yeah, we would like to work like this, and we would like to be self-managing, and all that. That's good, but we don't see many drives from the CEOs and the CTOs.

Malte Foegen: I'm not sure if that's true. Because from where we are called, that's simply from the executive suite. I think now, there're two levels in the organization that want to change things. And I believe that the top executive suite is not stupid and they're not doing it just because they're earning more money, but I think they do care about what they do.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: What do they call and say? Do they call and say, "We want to be agile," or, "Oh, agile is shitty, fix it, please?"

Malte Foegen: Neither. Well, the typical call is, "We need to be more responsive." They are seeing this Tesla thing. They're seeing that they need to be more focused on the market and that maybe the organization is pretty involved looking. They see that, and then they need a new answer, and that answer needs to involve the current managers. Because that's where the organization starts. You can't just say, "Oh, throw them out."

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: But then too, you often see that they call you guys. And we need to be more responsive and all that. Please go apply all that responsiveness to the development layers, to the guys that do the stuff. Are they prepared to say, "Okay, we are also going to change our way of working completely?"

Recommended talk: Agile is Dead • Pragmatic Dave Thomas • GOTO 2015

Malte Foegen: They are, they are. Because they know that management is important for building the organization. Because they have been raised normally through the hierarchy, they know why it's there. They know they have to change it, but they know we're not giving answers. And when we have answers like maybe safe and less, which are incomplete and probably not perfect. But we start throwing them away instead of finding and experimenting with them, making iterations over them. Because we need that answer for the whole organization. And it's not going to solve it, but just denying it.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: I believe in the change part also. That's also what I see in it. It's good if you manage to change executive management's view of this, but we see many managers not wanting to change. Because the way they're reimbursed, and they're compensated, and all that stuff is based on some old reward schemes.

Malte Foegen: True, but we can change that. We need to understand what we need to change, and also we need to make a perspective of where they can go. And, hey, heck, we elaborated on Scrum and Kanban for 50 years now, and now we are saying just please change in five years." We're not giving them all the things we've learned for ourselves, respect, taking time, and making iterations. We don't allow it on the management level.

Failing at the management level

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: I think there's a lot of expectation, okay, common changes. And then they receive a plan, sort of, "this is how you're now, and this is how you're going to be." Instead of saying, "Okay, we need to change, and let's try to be agile about it and be prepared to fail our organizations once twice, twice, or thrice, right?

Malte Foegen: Yeah, also to fail at management.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : Exactly. Yeah, yeah. But I don't know, are they afraid of that failing?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: It's a good question.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: Often, it's their ass is on the line when they're failing, right? Or, "We expected this to be done in two years, and now it's three and a half?"

Luxshan Ratnaravi: It's interesting if they're not. Because of psychological safety, which we talk about. We talk about that a lot on the team levels, the managers need to give that to the teams. Who gives that to the management?

Malte Foegen: Exactly. And all the things we apply to the teams and claim for us. If we just rethink that on the management level, again, and think management is setting the stage that the social system is working, I think we could get somewhere.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: And who asks managers not to load themselves 100%? One hundred percent utilization is bad on the team level, we know that. But what about on the management level, who talks about that?

Malte Foegen: We talk about making errors and iterative thinking, we say it's about respecting what is there, respect the principles. Respect the current situation, don't threaten the current roles, and make it prospective on new ones.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: So can we on the floor, can we do anything to help the management?

Malte Foegen: That is a cool question.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : Yes. Silence?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Was that a rhetorical question? What is the answer, Mikkel?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : I don't know.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: But I think we start educating organizations that the principles, the agile principles work on all levels of the organization just as you mentioned, right?

Malte Foegen: And I think maybe small experiments would help. Like, if we say that, kind of, like the idea, it's the same principles from the team, just on the next level. Yeah, thinking recursively maybe.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: What if that leads to like 100 people having to be fired because an experiment failed, would that impede how much we can experiment with?

Malte Foegen: I think it would impede. And I think, as a manager when you feel responsible for it, I think you would never let that happen. Because at least for me as a manager, the last resort would be leaving or letting people go. I think that's something you don't want to do.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: I guess, you need to have some responsibility.

Malte Foegen: So the experiment I think needs to be smaller in size.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Or it needs to have a lot of money to burn on experiments somehow, I guess, to allow yourself to fail.

Malte Foegen: Yes, but I don't think the experiments are that big. Because I think it's, kind of, like, "Let's see if this coordination works, let's see if this meeting structure works. Maybe change a role or change responsibilities, and see if that works." And make that in a respectful environment.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: So maybe it's not so much about what new products should we make, but more on the organizational stuff.

Malte Foegen: Absolutely. Exactly, on the organization stuff. I have one example which it's a small company that tried to have Dev and Ops. Well, like a lot of companies, they're in two different teams. Now, they wanted to come to DevOps, and they started with, let's make a product owner that, kind of, like looks at Dev and Ops. Suddenly, a lot of discussion about that, "These people are doing the right jobs." They don't understand what they're doing, and I said, "Heck, it's a new job, and you need to do something, and then inspect and adapt what the job looks like." I think it's as simple as that. And then give them a year or two of time to go through iteration hoops to understand, "Okay, how is this new job now working?"

Recommended talk: Expert Talk: DevOps & Software Architecture • Simon Brown, Dave Farley & Hannes Lowette • GOTO 2021

Luxshan Ratnaravi: And why would management not allow that, given the time?

Malte Foegen: Actually, I think it's not the managers, I think it's the teams who don't give the managers the time. Because they're saying after two durations, "This is a shitty job."

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Of prioritizing you mean, or ordering...?

Malte Foegen: No. Kind of, like saying, "Well, there's a new product owner who is responsible for now Dev and Ops." He doesn't understand either Dev or Ops because he's probably coming from one of the perspectives. Yeah, so, "He's not understanding it, he's not doing it right. The coordination before was better," or whatever comes up. Yes, because he's learning it, he is not just learning his job, but, kind of, like, the job itself is being created.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: I have a feeling that there are a lot of the consultancy businesses that sell agile on pretenses, and are not good enough at selling that, "Okay, everybody needs to change, and the CEO needs to provide us psychological safety down through the organization, and all that." And instead, it's, sort of, everybody wants the silver bullet or the fast way to change the organization and all that. But it's just a feeling because I've never done it. 

Luxshan Ratnaravi: They're starting to sell agile leadership courses. That's the huge business right now. Maybe you even sold it, I don't know.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : You were laughing.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: At least here in Denmark, it's being sold.

Malte Foegen: Yes, but it's a start because at least you see that people want to learn. I mean, that's a good sign, isn't it? You can only sell it if there are people who want to know about different ways of management.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: The question is do they want to change after learning?

Malte Foegen: Yes. But let's assume, yes, maybe that's a start. We do assume they want to change, and they do see the problem too. We could do things like management guilds, or communities of practices in the organizations. We could simply, I think in the teams, think more about self-management and really about the management part of it. And in my presentation, I say, "I also own the bad parts of management. Like, for example, if they have to let someone go. Tell 'em, "Honestly, no you're not fitting, you need to go, you need to leave that company." Suddenly, that's not the team's job. So I think maybe rethink that.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: Maybe just also accept that we are in a process, right? We had this keynote with Allan Kay. He told us about engineering that they spend 1,500 years learning to build a bridge, right? And we are just, in the first 20 or 50 years, in the process of building software in the organization. So, yeah, we are bound to fail a lot of times.

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Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yeah, yeah. I think we need to articulate what management means. Is it, like, people in suits, or is it a capability? And I think it's more of a capability to build the social structure.

Malte Foegen: Maybe think that together with people who do management. I could think that when we in the agile community would start maybe inviting CEOs and think, let's have this talk with one of the CEOs. I think they would be totally happy to do that, and that would be also a message if that, kind of, like, team and executives would start thinking about, "How do we build a good social system that is responsive?"

Luxshan Ratnaravi: It would be very nice to not have to use the word agile anymore, just talk about how we run companies in a modeled way, adaptable way. When you say agile, it sounds like this specific way of doing everything.

Malte Foegen: That is true, but I think that happens with every word that is being used a lot. And it's, kind of, like people saying, "Oh, I've heard this is a lot." But in the end, I think it doesn't change. If, you know, start saying responsive instead of agile. Well, then responsive is burned in 10 years.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Or adaptive.

Malte Foegen: So we can live with the burned agile word. It's a top three of which we shouldn't say.

And again, not saying it doesn't solve the problem.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: No, no, we should solve it so well that we don't have to say it anymore, I think.

Malte Foegen: That is just a normal way of work, that is true.:

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: So that's just how we operate a company.

Malte Foegen: Yes.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Or, we should have the next talk and the next thinking session about that with executives. We should try that.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Yes.

Malte Foegen: Maybe they would come. And if they don't come, then we can complain again. But if they come, then we have a different...

Luxshan Ratnaravi: How would you sell it to them to make them come, what would you say?

Malte Foegen: I don't think we have to sell it. My first impression would be if you would call 10 of the top executives here in Denmark, I think at least three would come. They would say, "Hell, thank you that you called.". We should try that.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: We'll do that for the next year?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: We'll edit this video, and we'll send it to them.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard : Yeah. So next year, 2023?

Luxshan Ratnaravi: We'll have to wait a whole year?

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: Yes, we have to prepare a bit.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Oh, okay.

Malte Foegen: We'll have, like, probably three top executives to have that discussion again.

Luxshan Ratnaravi: Or in October in Copenhagen.

Mikkel Noe-Nygaard: Yes, we could do that as well. Let's see if we can do it.

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