Agile: Leadership without titles

This was title of a lecture I gave at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or in short PolyU. I’ve been asked to tell my story, and how I got where I am right now, related to leadership. Am I some kind of a well known leader to talk about this subject? No, I am not. At least not in the way many perceive words leader and leadership.

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The message was that looking up to or becoming a leader has a flip side. I’ve been through one of the most extreme ones in Bosnia, where leaders pushed people into war against each other. A more subtle one is the way most businesses are being managed. In Hong Kong, but also in the rest of the world. In most companies, we have people who think or manage, and others who execute as being told. Distinction between the two is very clear. There is this whole notion that people on the floor know much less, and are less capable than people on the top. Of course, this has also become a self-fulfilling prophecy with certain level of acceptance. People on the floor are not encouraged to be creative, think for themselves, but follow the process defined by “smarter” people. It is defined by Frederique Winslow Taylor about 114 years ago in his book “The Principles of Scientific Management”. Not much has changed ever since, or has it?

Well, yes. Many changes are taking place in this area and some of them, like Agile Software Development, are making a dent in this old-fashioned way of thinking about people. A nice “side-effect” is that people who have broken with these old rules, actually deliver much better quality faster. Or better to say, they are more effective.

Who is “they” in this case? They are Agile teams. A groups of people holding certain values, like collaboration, trust, and respect. But, what makes these people really effective in business world is the sense of leadership in each member of the team. Team members are continuously encouraged to improve, be creative, place people above processes, take initiative, bring ideas forward, convince others, and so on.

These are the leadership qualities. They are not based on titles, but mutual trust, respect and power of arguments. In these environments, the Taylor’s world is upside down. The traditional leaders / managers, are taking more facilitating role and following the wish of the teams. I have become part of this, in the past 15 years, and will never leave it.

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After I told these 18 year old Hong Kong students about basics of Agile and Scrum, the most interesting thing happened. I’ve received about 100 questions, written on paper. These questions are much different from questions I’ve received in any workshop, training or a masterclass I gave before. At that moment I’ve discovered that if I’m able to answer these questions, I will learn a lot about why we like this thing called Agile and also about myself.

In the following posts, I will try to answer those questions, one by one. The list below will be updated continuously:

Agile and Scrum in Hong Kong

In short, Agile is starting to take off in Hong Kong. Others might say, it is not really happening here (yet), depending on how optimistic one is. While in America, Europe and even other APAC countries, Agile software development is widespread, Hong Kong is a quite different story.

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Dinner and gala for ICT CEOs of Hong Kong.

Why? There are several reasons. Most people associate Agile and Scrum with software development, and there are less software development companies and software developers in Hong Kong compared to neighbouring countries. It seems that most software for Hong Kong customers is developed in India or Singapore.

Another reason could be cultural. Software development as craftsmanship seems to be less valued in Hong Kong than in other countries. Also, there is this obvious hierarchy, where management takes decisions and subordinates follow up. Actually, this seems to be only the symptom of much deeper difference with e.g. Europeans. Higher ranking people, both in private (parents and other older family members) and business life, are much more respected than in Europe. This very nice cultural aspect, has a pitfall. It is quite difficult for teams to take substantial decisions without simply asking the boss what she wants. This makes introduction of self-organising teams easier if management actively and continuously approves and (co-)facilitates the coaching process.

Hongkongers are hard working people. Working more than 40 hours a week is very normal. Children are brought up in relatively protected environment, where hard work and obedience are being rewarded. Typical Agile guys in self-organising teams are rather assertive and opinionated, and don’t really like working hard. Instead, they like to continuously improve effectiveness of their work. In other words, achieve more while doing less. There is of course nothing wrong with working hard. It is just that in order to be more effective, very often we have to slow down and retrospect on what is happening. This might feel like waste of time and awkward.

Also, people are very eager to learn new things. Preferably by listening to a lecture or some other form of teaching. Unfortunately, there is not much to learn about Agile and Scrum unless you actually start doing it as soon as possible. Becoming Agile is more about learning from experience, and less about learning from others.

I’ve also wondered if delivering a software solution here in waterfall approach is simply more successful than in Europe or US. Therefore, an Agile approach with faster delivery would simply not be needed. That is definitely not the case. The problems with disconnected business, large IT projects, mostly outsourced and managed with thick contracts are same as anywhere else.

Comments on the subject are very much welcome.