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Is agile management the future?

July 19, 2017

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Productivity, collaboration and innovation is a difficult proposition for many employers.  For those employers that have telecommuters, many have used and/or developed internal tools from Instant Messaging to blogs to internal LinkedIn type pages to encourage teamwork, camaraderie, and innovation within the workplace.  However, the tide appears to be turning.

From Yahoo to IBM, face-to-face live workplaces are now the new norm. “Most companies are very nervous doing things they feel are out of step with everybody else,” says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the school’s Center for Human Resources. “For a long time, the way to get ahead in the corporate world was just to copy what other big companies or leading companies were doing, and that looked like you were doing best practices.”

The new management style is called agile management, which emphasizes highly flexible cooperation, face-to-face communication, and daily interaction as keys to fostering innovation.  Capelli states that agile management necessitates the end of telecommuting for many. “Most companies have had historically … a one-size-fits-all model [of managing people]. We’ve got policies for everybody, and we want to treat everybody equally because we’re all in this together,” Cappelli said. “How are you going to manage to treat two different groups of employees differently when your whole organization has been based around treating everybody the same? Actually, a lot of employment law is based on that.”

Agile management brings various disciplines to work together using non-hierarchical forms of leadership in a nonlinear approach to problem solving.  It started in software development as a way to transform project management from traditional start to finish to identifying key milestones that are reportable on a moving target.  It pursues reporting on incremental achievements of the project as opposed to status of the entire project.

In 2001 the Agile Manifesto was published which defined the core values of agile software project management:  individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan.  It’s an extremely flexible approach to managing employees by essentially having employees managing themselves, all stepping up at different times to lead.

Redefining agile management to a non-software approach to management can be daunting.  It moves away from top-down management approaches to self-regulating cross functional teams.  It starts with general problems defined by the team and develops flexible models to overcome the issues.  In the end, though, it allows for greater career and personal growth of the employee since everyone will participate and lead at one point.

However, there can be a number of problems that still need to be reviewed before implementing this approach.  For example, the value of the positions needs to be redefined.  How is a manufacturing engineer priced when the employee also leads and implements?  Most salary surveys are not all encompassing.  Second, how does performance management fair when projects are based on segment completion as opposed to full completion of the project?  Would project 360’s be the norm for evaluation?  And how is the value of the completed segment weighted?  The project is flexible, and segments may lose importance as the project develops.

Finally, worklife balance may suffer.  “The old approach of doing projects was quite predictable, and it made your life as an employee or as a manager overseeing it much more predictable,” Cappelli said. “Now, if the process is unpredictable and you’re a manager trying to watch this thing, and you’ve got the finance guys still pestering you for the same level of accountability, and you’ve got employees who can’t organize their life around the agile product development cycle, what’s going to happen? What we know in the past is that family has yielded to corporate demands, and [those demands] are likely to become more unpredictable as we move down the pike.” 

In the long-run agile management is likely a solution for a small select group of employers.  Aspects of it may appear in the mainstream management approach, but for many who have comfort in a linear approach to management, it is not likely to catch on as a norm.

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