Leading the way!

Participative management styles are often used by Agile teams.  Participative management styles are perceived to be more flexible. Flexibility allows teams to immediately react to the feedback they receive as they work rather than wait until it is too late to react. Flexibility is a core principle of Agile; however, scaling Agile requires trading some of the flexibility of participative management styles for more control.  More control is needed due to the increased size of both team and work and the increased level of risk large pieces of work typically represent.   

The five management styles (autocratic, consultative, negotiative, delegative and participative) can be viewed as a continuum from  the most directive to the most collaborative.  Teams that follow Agile principles and are of manageable size leverage a participative management approach (except in specific scenarios). As Agile is scaled the number of people and roles required to deliver in a predictable manner increase. This need is a reflection of a need for control.  The raw number of connections required for a group to use participative management exclusively explodes as team size increases. The harder it is for everyone to communicate and come to a consensus, the more other management styles are required. This is even though small teams within the larger group might mix and match management styles base on their individual needs. For example, I recently observed a moderately large Agile program (six teams and 70 people involved, including support personnel).  A key stakeholder chaired a weekly directional meeting with the leads from each team.  She used a consultative approach to set direction, the leads then returned to their team and more participative styles.   

While Agile principles and autocratic management styles don’t mix  and are rarely used together in Agile organizations. The other styles mix more appropriately with Agile principles (think oil and water, or perhaps  a better analogy might be the combination of water and rocks — autocratic management sinks Agile fast).  The less interactive styles tend to be adopted a step at a time as the work gets larger. Each style reduces the number of decision points.  For example, negotiative styles typically revolve around positions of power within a team, such as a product owner or a technical lead.  The people with power act as decision makers reducing the number of people that need to reach consensus.

In most organizations, the fear generated from risk can cause individuals or groups to want to hold decisions closer to their vest if they perceive that an outcome of a piece can affect their business or career.  As programs get larger (scale) the level of perceived and actual risk gets larger. For example, all other things being equal, a piece of work with a budget of $1,000 will be perceived as being far less risky than a piece of work with $1,000,000 budget.  Individuals that might be affected by a risky project will tend to veer toward more controlling management system.  Controlling management styles allow the decision maker to retain authority for decisions and reduce the fear that they will be seen abdicating responsibility.

The size and risk to the business and career of those involved can often require a more controlling management style. A more controlling style for the overall piece of work does not mean that a team has to abandon their more participative style to guide their day-to-day work.