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Role of the manager in an agile enterprise

August 22, 2007

JP at Confused of Calcutta has been making an interesting and entertaining run of posts about Facebook and the Enterprise. The latest is focused on the idea of using a social networking platform like Facebook to inform a role-driven induction process for bringing new hires up to speed. The idea is that it would be much more interesting and useful to know what a previous player actually DID in the role (assuming, of course, that the previous player was performing well) than any sort of formal academic description of what the role SHOULD be doing.

This argument resonates strongly with me, although I’m not convinced Facebook is the right model. There are social networking tools that specialize in forensically evaluating email and chat patterns and other artifacts of interaction that are more in line with this idea of documenting what a leader actually does. Who they interact with. What meetings they attend. Etc.

But I didn’t want to post about that tonight. 🙂

I very strongly connect with the almost throwaway reference JP makes to Max De Pree’s definition of leadership, namely that

  • The first job of a leader is to articulate strategy and vision.
  • The second and last is to say thank you.
  • In between, a leader should be a servant and a debtor to the led.

It’s that third bullet that got my attention. Because I so wanted it to be elaborated on. Perhaps De Pree does exactly that in some of his work, will have to take a look.

My thinking on the subject is probably infected with too much exposure to Bionomics in the mid ’90’s, the idea of the economy (and the organization) as an ecosystem. The infection was exacerbated with some amazingly successful experience with eXtreme Programming later in the ’90’s, watching the incredible things that teams could get done, the almost synchronistic, catalyzed, emergent behavior that delivered outstanding results and created a fantastic work environment as a great side effect.

It used to be that the manager had to assign, monitor, and assure completion of specific tasks. The manager, in this “traditional” example, needed to be better in the execution domain than anyone else on the team.

The world that I was experiencing starting over a decade ago was an agile organization where the manager had a very different role:

  • Craft a mission for the team that made it a viable actor in the organizational ecosystem
  • Make sure to get “the right people on the bus” (in Good To Great speak)
  • Act as a park ranger or steward rather than a manager, making sure the processes in the team were staying in balance
  • Keep a weather eye on the rest of the organization to evaluate how the original mission was working and whether the ecosystem was changing
  • Keep the corporate entropy and chaos (and bureaucracy) from getting in the way of amazing results (kind of like how the ozone layer keeps harmful solar radiation from destroying life on earth)

I used to describe this as “carving out a space in which the team could ACT LIKE it worked for a rational company.”

I wonder how this relates to De Pree’s work.

And although the word Agile is tired these days, this leadership style is still at the heart of the extremely effective organizations we’re encountering every day.

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