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How Complexity Changes Leadership

Scrum Inc. Scaled Scrum Leadership

I just finished reading Retired General Stanley McChrystal’s outstanding book: Team of Teams. While the book is not specifically focused on Agile practices, it turns out that when US Troops are dying at the hands of a viral insurgency, you have to use Agile techniques to beat your enemy. As McChrystal writes: “To defeat a network, we had to become a network. “

A network in this context is a collection of small cross-functional teams that have been empowered to self-organize, self-manage, and self-execute. This is exactly how Scrum scales. A network structure, as opposed to a hierarchical one, reduces complexity by limiting the number of communication pathways while keeping communication saturation high. It also allows for quick execution because leadership has empowered the teams to act in a timely responsible manner without having to wait for a sign-off.

McChrystal, a former four-star general, states he quickly discovered that being woken-up in the middle of the night to green-light a life-or-death operation was a problem.

… I was under no illusions that my judgment was markedly superior to that of the people with whom I worked. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I only rarely had some groundbreaking insight. Most of the time I would simply trust the recommendations made by those who came to get me, as they knew the most about the issue. My inclusion was a rubber stamp that slowed the process and sometimes caused us to miss fleeting opportunities.

In order for McChrystal to be an effective leader, he had to trust his teams. And he did. However, this wasn’t blind trust. McChrystal recast himself as a servant leader. He uses a nice analogy to explain the difference between servant-leadership and traditional command-and-control management.

. . . I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than [command-and-control] chess. The move-by-move control that seemed natural to military operations proved less effective than nurturing the organization—its structure, processes, and culture—to enable the subordinate components to function with “smart autonomy".… Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting (i.e. planning) than on consistent maintenance. Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.

McChrystal cast off the leader-as-hero persona and embraced a new paradigm in which he nurtured his forces rather than commanded them.

Leaders looking to take advantage of Scrum and other Agile techniques need to make a similar shift. Scrum isn’t simply a new process or framework; it’s a cultural change that needs to be led. And, it can only be effective if leadership embraces the same paradigm shift McChrystal did.

--  Joel Riddle

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