It does not really matter what industry you work in I bet all of us have experienced working in a company where your boss spends most of their time micro managing, a company where you do not feel valued and where you are constantly frustrated that you are not getting the opportunity to grow? Coupled to this I bet you felt that there was a distinct lack of direction and strategy? And when you look at the product that was produced, I bet it wasn’t great, you certainly felt you could do better. So what did you do? Left the company? If you were lucky you would have joined one which did not work this way, typically you would most likely be back in the same situation.


This post was taken from a talk Dave and I gave at Agile London in July 2015, originally there were three talks given by Gail and Harriet, Giulio and ourselves. All the talks were loosely themed around the Indiana Jones trilogy of films (no there were not 4 films) and ours was from “The Last Crusade”.


When I was a young archeologist I worked in a company which had a micromanager so fierce his nick-name was “Satan”. Obviously you would never call him that to his face unless you had a desire to not pay next month’s mortgage, but Satan took micromanagement to the very next level. He was so important that he used his PA to deliver most of his edicts, he was especially good at making people feel worthless and needless to say the atmosphere in the office was particularly unpleasant and the staff turn over rapid. The product whilst fantastic in conception was poorly executed, people could not wait to get out of the office and would sometimes arrange for a dentist to fill a perfectly good tooth just to spend an hour away. We had it all, poor motivation, disconnect from product and business, zero job satisfaction, all this was the creation of just one person.

Why should this happen

From examining the archeological strata of companies like this the most recent layers do show evidence of Agile but few show high levels of employee satisfaction, product quality and productivity. This is probably because most companies introduce Agile to replace a Waterfall process and all they do is to replace the planning phase they do not introduce evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement or self organising cross functional teams.

Our life’s quest has been the search of the Holy Grail of self organising teams, and within this presentation we will reveal the journey of its discovery.

Loss of power

All good presentations should have at least one controversial statement and here it is for you “The traditional manager is the single most important problem in the modern software development process”.

Any process has the possibility to be completely de-railed, Managers are very good at this especially when they concentrate too much on the literal meaning of their title, lets take a look at the word “Manager”.

The Oxford English dictionary has the definition of manager as the following “a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff”.

We have two problems with this, the main one is “Controlling” this is not appropriate to self organisation, the second is “Administering”. Seriously do your own admin we did not spend half our lifes working hard so we could order your train tickets and approve holiday.

Let’s do a quick survey: Who here likes administration? Not many, I thought that would be the case, so let’s assume that you are all Managers, if you have two things to do and you don’t like one of them then you are going all in on the first, “Control”.

Rewinding a little, let’s ask a question, is this control the reason that you feel frustrated, that you have no opportunity to grow, that your job lacks direction and strategy?

History of Management

Management 1.0 - command-and-control

Throughout the ages we have had management the first iteration of this was pure hierarchical management or command-and-control. The organisation is managed in a top-down fashion, and power is in the hands of the few, these people have the highest salaries, the biggest egos, and the most expensive chairs. Those at the bottom have little money, few responsibilities and no motivation to do a good job. This was the style that old Satan had perfected.

Management 2.0 - self help

Then came a change, it started to be realised that Management 1.0 was not working out so well, the drones were not so productive and quality suffered. It was time for a reboot and the age of wonderful management theory like Six Sigma and Total Quality Management emerged as pseudo science selling millions of books globally. The fundamental problem with management 2.0 was that it was actually only management 1.5, the problems with hierarchical structures were left completely untouched.

Management 3.0 - complexity

In the last two decades we have seen the rise of complexity theory, complexity theory when applied to organisations looks at the way they adapt to their environments and how they cope with conditions of uncertainty. In his book Management 3.0 Jurgen Apollo cites a study “The State of Agile Development Survey 2009”, VersionOne August 2009. This study identified that change management, organisation culture, managerial support, team education and external pressure are the main obstacles to further Agile adoption and causing software projects to fail. Most of these are management problems so it seems that Managers across the world are causing problems that they should be seeking to solve. Management 3.0 sought out to address these issues by completely redressing the concepts of control and hierarchy.

W. Edwards Deming

It was not however Apollo or VersionOne who first drew this correlation, William Edwards Deming an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant first identified the problem in his work looking at American industrial output after the second world war and talked tirelessly about this until his death in 1993. One of the cores of Deming’s work is what he referred to as the Deadly Diseases that had infected western industry.

  1. A lack of constancy of purpose, which creates organisations that have no long-range strategy for staying in business.
  2. An emphasis on short-term profits, which undermines quality and productivity.
  3. Evaluating performance by using merit rating or annual review systems, which nurture inter-organisational rivalry and destroys teamwork.
  4. Mobility of management, which leads to a lack of understanding about the organisation and a reluctance to follow through on long-term objectives.
  5. Running the organisation on visible figures alone, which fails to recongnise the importance of unknown and unknowable figures such as the ‘multiplier’ effect of a happy customer.
  6. Excessive medical costs for employee health care, which leads to an increase in the final cost of goods or services (applicable to the USA).
  7. Excessive warranty costs arising from customer dissatisfaction with goods or services.

Deming argued that the above could only be tackled by effective management that demonstrated a commitment to quality and recognised the need to create a belief in total quality management throughout its workforce.

We do not need managers

Here is another controvertial statement, “A business does not need managers!” how many people think I am wrong?

You might be right in a sense, and in fact Google ran an experiment called “Project Oxygen”, this set out to prove that managers don’t matter and ended up demonstrating that good managers were crucial. The hypothesis was that manager quality had no impact on team performance. Engineers generally think managers are at best a necessary evil, but mainly they get in the way, create bureaucracy, and screw things up. This belief was so deeply held that in 2002 Larry and Sergey eliminated all manager roles in the company. Within six weeks this decision had been reversed as the amount of unapproved expenses and holiday requests built up.

The people team however looked at numbers not perception and it was proven that individual performance for a Googler was between 5%-18% higher when they were managed by the top performing managers. In addition to this teams performed better and had lower staff turnover. It seems managers did matter, amazing managers mattered a lot.

Thankfully the results of this research have been published in Lazlo Blocks book “Work Rules”, we can see the 8 defining attributes that the best managers at Google exhibited and the worst did not.

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage.
  3. Express interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
  4. Be very productive/results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator-listen and share information.
  6. Help the team with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision/strategy for the team.
  8. Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

We still do not need managers, there is not a lot in that list which describes control or administration. What we are describing is a leader, one of the most difficult things to accept when you get promoted to the role of manager is that you are not the subject matter expert, you have different skills, good skills, skills that matter, give up the other stuff.

This last point is incredibly important when creating “self organising teams”, set direction and lead, if you manage then the team is never going to be self organising.

The Three Trials:

So far we have identified that the key problem in getting to the Holy Grail of self organisation is great leadership, from our research we have discovered that there would are 3 trials that need to be passed.

The Breath of God - “Only the penitent man will pass” - Empowerment

The penitent leader is one who kneels at the feet of the team and this means Empowerment. Whenever this word is used in a software development environment the team generally groans, there is most likely a wide spread belief that we say Empowerment but mean “Do as I say”. It is however incredibly important and this leads us back to a point made earlier that as a manager you are no longer the expert in the same things that you used to be. If you want to create great product you must encourage smart people to do smart things. Ed Catmull the president of Pixar takes this one step further he describes his role as one of a social architect, not the visionary. His fundamental role is one of identifying greatness in people and encouraging them to work together.

The Word of God - “Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed” - Be a leader

We need to equip our teams with the tools and skills they need to excel, at its most basic element you need a good framework which allows you to encourage the personal development of people in the team, not something which measures them in order to punish. At NOTHS we have adopted open-skills which attempts to do just that. It is a framework which attempts to identify the skills that matter to people and which maps directly to the roles and responsibilities of a particular function. By creating this we can provide clear guidance and direction on the things that people need to achieve in order to progress in their chosen career path.

Set clear direction and expectations, be honest and open and encourage open dialogue in the teams. Treat people with respect and teach them to treat others with respect. Learn how to listen, learn how to enquire and most importantly learn how to advocate your point of view, then teach this to the team.

The Path of God - “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth” - Encourage Failure

There is a wonderful quote by the artist “Alberto Giacometti”… “The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and – instead of giving up – you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling – be it an illusion or not – that something new has opened up.”

Risk and failure are essential, every time you stop someone making a mistake you are in effect stopping them from learning. People learn by repetition, do not regard this as failure. Risk is also intrinsically linked to innovation and every company needs to innovate in order to stop it becoming irrelevant.

There can be a tendency to chase zero defects but think about the impact this might have on innovation. If people are afraid to fail then they will not innovate.

Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” - The ability for a team to succeed is its ability to adapt to getting punched in the face. Teaching people how to adapt is your role as a leader, not getting in front of the punches and taking them yourself.

The path to success

When we started this quest many years ago we feared we would never find the grail, however from our research we uncovered these seven simple principles:

  1. Lead don’t manage
  2. Empower the team
  3. Encourage innovation
  4. Don’t fear failure
  5. Develop people
  6. Have a clear vision
  7. Treat each other with respect


With every action think of old Satan or a boss you may have had like him, ask yourself am I leading or am I managing? Christ was a carpenter, he would never have drunk from a golden cup, nor should you.