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Agile Teams: Are They Waiters or Doctors?

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Author: Ravneet Kaur     Source: LinkedIn

Source: www.agileschool.org

As an agile coach, I’ve led several Agile Transformations, most of which start with setting up of Agile Teams and then, the management starts assigning work to these Agile Teams as they had always done. So, what’s the difference? Are these teams considered to be waiters, who would take orders respectfully and deliver you what you’ve asked for? Or are they considered to be doctors who would listen to your problems, diagnose the root causes, find the solution and propose you the right medicine for your problem?


Over a period of time, number of pure Theory X Managers have considerably decreased, however, delegating decision making to the teams is still an important leap for command and control organizations.

Let’s go back to the two professions mentioned earlier - Your waiter gives you a list of possibilities and asks you to choose one. He may guide you a bit, but he’s essentially an order-taker, bringing whatever you request. Your doctor, on the other hand, doesn’t ask what you want (“Today’s special is an angioplasty. Would you like an X-Ray with that?”). Rather, he asks broad questions regarding things that affect your overall health: How are you feeling? Why are you here today? As you respond, he follows up with even more specific questions, always with an eye towards narrowing down what’s wrong and offering solutions regarding how it might be fixed or improved.

When you go to a restaurant, you either tell your choice to the waiter or ask him to suggest; in both the cases you are the final decision maker regarding what you want to order. On the other hand, when you go to a doctor you tell him your problem and trust him with his diagnosis; you might ask some questions, however the final decision regarding what to do next predominantly lies with the doctor. As David Marquet, Commander of the nuclear submarine Santa Fe, said, “Move the authority to where the information is!”. We follow this principle in our daily lives, however, when it comes to the workplace! NOT REALLY!!

The authority to make decisions in most of the organizations still lie with those who are neither developing the Products nor selling these. At the best and with the most progressive management, the teams might be consulted. However, the final decisions are still made by Senior Management or Middle Management.

Why is that a problem?

These people might be very good in their own functions; however, they are not developing the Product on the ground, they are not the ones who are doing the real work, they are dependent on others for most of the information. Information changing hands leads to delays, misinterpretations, customer dissatisfactions and frustrations both for management as well as teams. Moving the authority, to make decisions, to the teams, solves these problems. However, there are a lot of reasons why that’s still not done - the most important one is “fear of losing control”. Others could be “lack of trust in the ability of the teams” etc.

I often come across Managers who appreciate the idea of Servant Leadership and hence, instead of “telling” the teams what to do, they’ve started “guiding” the teams because in the core of their heart they still believe, that it’s difficult for the teams to figure out what to do on their own until and unless they are “told” or “guided” by the manager. A lot of times it’s also blamed on the teams that they are not willing to take the responsibility and hence the manager has no choice but to tell the teams what to do.

The real Servant Leaders believe in the idea given by fifth Principle of Agile Manifesto - “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.” This will involve some risk and some failure, but Leaders know how to manage those.

The problem is not how to manage these risks and failures; the problem with many of us is that “it doesn’t feel right”. Giving control doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do even if it is producing better results. It feels like losing your identity. It feels like becoming redundant.

These are the fears that Management needs to work on and decide if they want an engaged workforce or a workforce only compliant to their orders. Or, in other words, if they want their teams to be doctors or waiters.

*With all due respect this article is not trying to degrade the importance of any Profession.
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