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Bureaucracy Can Drain Your Company’s Energy. Agile Can Restore It.

Bureaucracy Can Drain Your Company’s Energy. Agile Can Restore It.

With four steps, Agile practitioners can free organizations from the iron cages of bureaucracy.

  • min read


Bureaucracy Can Drain Your Company’s Energy. Agile Can Restore It.

This article originally appeared on HBR.org.

Believe it or not, bureaucracy was once a progressive innovation. Its hierarchical authority, specialized division of labor, and standard operating procedures enabled companies to grow far larger than they had ever been. The German sociologist Max Weber famously praised bureaucracy’s rationality and efficiencies.

But Weber also warned that, unfettered, bureaucracy could create a soulless “iron cage,” trapping people inside dehumanizing systems and limiting their potential. He was right. Today, most people work in some sort of bureaucracy—and according to Gallup, 85% of employees around the world feel disengaged from their work. Maybe this group includes you. If so, what can you do to escape the iron cage?

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The most common conversation I have these days with discouraged employees below senior management levels goes like this: “This company’s bureaucracy is killing me. It’s killing the whole business. I know it is critical for the leadership to embrace agile, but the sad reality is that I’m not sure our leadership team will start before it’s too late. What can I do?”

In these situations, advocating greater patience or more persuasive business cases isn’t likely to help. Nor is recommending a job change. If 85% of global employees are unhappy, chances are that most job jumpers will merely land in another company’s cage. Instead, our discussions typically turn to another option. Rather than debating the advantages of agile teams, why not start demonstrating them? Executives, like other customers, may not know what they will want until you show it to them.

Agile teams definitely work better with senior sponsorship, and executive support will ultimately be important to scaling agile throughout the enterprise. But agile innovation teams work better than current approaches, and agile principles hold that making immediate progress beats waiting for perfect solutions before starting out. Tens of thousands of agile teams have operated for decades without much awareness—let alone active support—from CEOs. About two-thirds of agile practitioners report higher team morale, increased productivity, greater ability to manage changing priorities, and faster time to market than they were experiencing before.

So, take the initiative. Use agile to free yourself and your teams from those iron cages of bureaucracy, then turn to releasing everyone else.

I know from my own experience that meaningful change is both possible and worthwhile. Perhaps my journey to agile will help you figure out how to begin your own.

Learn and experience how agile works. I first encountered agile teams a decade ago in the IT departments of some retailers. I hated the jargon. Time boxes, retrospectives, scrum masters, and all the other gobbledygook that surrounds agile felt like giant “Keep Out!” signs aimed at nontechnical people. I wasn’t a software engineer, and I was tempted to leave agile methods to the geeks. But I noticed a clear pattern: Retailers with agile IT departments were transitioning to omnichannel (the mashup of physical and digital selling, a hallmark of most successful retailers these days) far more quickly and successfully than others. It was time for me to learn how and why agile was working.

I began reading articles and books, including many that criticized agile methods. I watched videos and took certification courses. The best learning experiences, however, came from sitting with strong agile teams. Nearly every company I visited in my work as a consultant turned out to have agile teams running somewhere. I went out of my way to join them for even a few hours. The energy, commitment, and collaboration among team members was a revelation.

To be fair, it wasn’t all positive. Agile teams often get frustrated with corporate functions that slow their progress; in fact, about 60% of teams report tensions with command-and-control management styles. Still, that frustration is a natural part of agile innovation. It drives continuous improvement as teams attack constraint after constraint in pursuit of perfection.

I especially loved agile’s do-it-yourself ethos. I have formally researched management tools and techniques for 25 years. Most techniques prescribe similar paths to success. First, get the CEO to declare it as his or her top priority. Second, add a new chief “X” officer to the already-bloated executive committee. Third, train the entire organization and ramp up a motivation campaign. We all know how well most of these initiatives turn out.

Agile innovation is different. It is less like a plea for CEO support and more like a declaration of independence. Senior executives are welcome to join the movement, and they certainly can strengthen it. But agilists aren’t inclined to wait for them. They know that agile successes will increase executive motivation faster than pleading or making the business case ever could.

The more I have studied and experienced agile innovation, the more confident I am about its ability to unlock iron cages. There’s a lot of overlap among agile values and principles, employee engagement, and the practices of high-performance teams. In most of my encounters these days, agile practices are helping people become both happier and more successful.

Develop personal, habitual agility. Before suggesting agile approaches to others, I figured I should practice them myself. For each value in the Agile Manifesto, I picked one simple behavior to change and set promptings to trigger that behavior. For example:

  • Work in ways that make humans happy and successful. When I feel stressed, I will express sincere appreciation for the work of at least one person.
  • Break large tasks into small steps and test solutions with working models. When challenged by an opinion different from mine, I will ask, “How could we test that?”
  • Simplify and sequence activities to focus on the most valuable customer benefits. When asked to do work with little or no value to customers, I will explain what I need to do instead.
  • Welcome and celebrate learning. When my predictions or opinions are wrong, I will laugh about them with others and change course.

The most enjoyable change was the first. Expressing gratitude made me happier and improved teamwork. The hardest change was the last. For more than a year, I wrote down my hypotheses and predictions, then tracked their accuracy using something called a Brier score. Sadly, I found that I was wrong far more often than I expected. Along with a heavy dose of humility came the realization that considering the opinions of others couldn’t be much riskier than relying on my own. I also feared that laughing at so many mistakes would undermine my credibility. Instead, it led to more collaborative ways of developing hypotheses, better results, and greater confidence.

As these behaviors became easier, I started adding others. I felt happier and more in control. I was ready to start testing agile approaches with my teams.

Develop team agility. I lead Bain & Company’s Global Innovation Practice; so most of my teams are actually clients’ teams seeking breakthrough innovations. I had an idea. I decided to offer them a two-for-one deal: “We are happy to help you discover, design, and develop this product. But what if we were to help you create an agile team to do it? We can coach you and serve as subject matter experts in the development process. You will learn more satisfying and productive ways of working, and after we leave—when there is a strong chance that the product will need to be changed, you will know how to do it.”

About two-thirds of new clients reject my offer (further damaging my Brier score). Of course, they have rational explanations: “We should stick to the request for proposal. We’re too busy. We don’t have time to learn new approaches. We don’t have the right people to do that. Our executive sponsors would never allow it. Our culture would kill it.”

However, clients who accepted the offer haven’t regretted it. We assemble multidisciplinary teams and do joint training. We observe and interview successful agile teams. We clarify goals. We break large problems into manageable tasks. We build, prioritize, and sequence potential activities. We develop creative ways to build rapid prototypes and test them with real customers. We identify and remove constraints to the innovation process. We track changes in team member happiness and productivity, customer behaviors and satisfaction, and sales and profitability.

At the conclusion of one agile sprint, I overheard a group of five team members talking to one another. “Honestly,” said one, “I would quit before I would go back to the old way of working.”

Teach and coach others. Agile practitioners are constantly uncovering better ways of working and helping others do it. It turns out those two activities are linked.

Richard Feynman, whose work in quantum electrodynamics won him a Nobel Prize in physics, taught that the best way to master any new skill was to teach it to a beginner. He believed that experts often hide behind jargon and esoteric vocabulary to disguise their own ignorance. I find that when I struggle to explain things in simple language, I have identified an opportunity to learn more. I try to dig in until I can explain it to a child—or a skeptical senior executive.

As you develop agile capabilities and start teaching them to beginners, don’t be surprised to find the CEO or other executive committee members among your apprentices. While agilists won’t wait for senior sponsorship, they tend to create results and passion that ultimately command it—and that helps everyone escape their iron cages.

Darrell K. Rigby is a partner in the Boston office of Bain & Company. He heads the firm’s global innovation and retail practices. He is the author of  Winning in Turbulence.


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