Responsibility in Command And Control vs Self Management

As a child, most of us are taught to respect authority whether directly or indirectly in school. We obey our parents, we obey teachers. If we don’t, out comes the wooden spoon.

This learning carries on throughout life, well for most people. We respect police, our managers etc. It gets so ingrained, that all it takes is for someone to be dressed in a manner that garners respect. A uniform, a suit, a lab coat, that we blindly follow.

In the 60’s, when ethical standards were more lax, Stanley Milgrim conducted an experiment. He wanted to know, after World War II, how people could do atrocities to other people. Was there something different about the Germans that made them more callus than everyone else? To test his theory, he conducted an experiment.

The experiment was simple, there were 2 subjects. A Teacher and a Learner and the technician in a lab coat who would conduct the experiment. The teacher and the technician were in one room, and the learner was in another room, strapped to a chair so they could not escape and hooked up with wires. The experiment was simple. The teacher would ask a question to the learner, specifically about word pairs. If the learner answered the question incorrectly, the teacher would press a button, administering an electric shock to the learner.  The premise being that the learner will learn the word pairs more quickly with a pain incentive. Did I mention that ethical standards were more lax in the 60’s.
Well, as the learner kept getting answers wrong, the electric shocks grew in intensity.  15 volt increments up to 450 volts. 30 incorrect answers.
At those voltages, the learner would scream, plead for the teacher to stop. Beg for the teacher to stop. The pain was so intense.
Now, if the teacher started refusing to participate, the lab technician would say “Please Continue”. If the teacher refused a second time, they were simply told “The experiment requires you to continue”. A third time, they were told “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and finally if a fourth time “You have no other choice, you must go on”. There was no coercion,  the teacher was just told in a calm voice.  If the Teacher refused to comply a fifth time, the experiment ended. How do you think you would go in this experiment?
Well, 65% of teachers participants reached the maximum of 450 Volts. Many teachers were uncomfortable doing so, but still continued eventually when asked to. It got to the point where the learner was in so much pain, they either passed out, or worse. This experiment wasn’t conducted in Nazi Germany, it was in Yale University United States.

If you are absolutely horrified by now, take comfort, the Learner wasn’t really under pain. They were an actor. There were no shocks given. The Teacher was the only subject of the experiment.

So why did the Teachers continue, well simply put, psychologically, they put the responsibility of their actions onto the Lab Technician. Any consequences of the teachers actions were considered borne by the Lab Technician. That is how that 65% of teachers administered a fatal electric shock to a learner.

So, what does this have to do with Agile? Well, with traditional management, you have a heavy Command And Control mentality. A person is in charge, the manager, direct their underlings towards what needs to be done, and the underlings blindly follow. The underlings may have some say, but ultimately responsibility lies with the manager. Whether in actuality, or psychologically. The underling relies on their direction.

Yes, they may speak up if they think something is wrong, but if told, “That is the way we are going to do it” will go along if told enough times. It takes a special person to give it their all and dissent when they feel they are right. Most people won’t speak up at all. They will just “switch off” and do what they are told.

In many Agile methodologies, especially Scrum, there is no real leader. With Scrum, there are 3 roles. The team, The Product Owner, who isn’t in charge of the team. They are only in charge of the what is made, the Scrum Master who is there to help and guide the team. They do not direct the team. They do not command the team. There are no leaders in the traditional Command and Control sense. The team needs to be self organized. Giving the team this responsibility means that there is no one to shirk responsibility to. You cannot say “Something went wrong because we followed the manager”. Everyone in the team has a say, everyone in the team is responsible. Everyone in the team needs to participate in the decision making process.  Everyone in the team needs to be at the same level. No hierarchy. The team itself is able to choose its own destiny on how it accomplishes the task. Not a “leader” within the team. In other words, they have created their own purpose.

I know what you are thinking, this can get into a Lord Of The Flies situation. The team goes off on a tangent, All hell breaks loose and you have complete Anarchy.  Nothing gets done.
Well, I doubt this will happen. Most people try to do the right thing. Even those in unskilled jobs try to do the right thing. Try to do an honest days work. If you still don’t think this will work, In scrum, there is the scrum master. The scrum master is there to guide the team back on target. In Toyota, from what I have read, there are traditional manager roles, but the managers there don’t manage in the traditional sense. They guide their workers rather than command their workers. Still not convinced, look up NUMMI.

Working this way can become very powerful for a company. Your workers are now no longer there to just complete tasks assigned. They are there to accomplish a goal in a manner that they chose. They are there to learn and grow. They have purpose and a level of dedication that you would not normally see.

Just remember,  don’t abuse it. This is a very delicate balance. Start bringing in command and control policies and people become disillusioned again. The whole thing can fall into a heap and you might be worse off.

Let me know what you think in the comments. If you work in a Command Control situation, do you “switch off” and do what you are told or are you actively involved?

If you work in a team that has more control of their destiny, do you find you are more involved in reaching the goal or has things degraded so much it feels like a “Lord Of The Flies” situation.

6 thoughts on “Responsibility in Command And Control vs Self Management”

  1. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development was meant to be disruptive, to change the status quo, to improve quality in technology. I’ve actually had to explain to two certified and seasoned “Agile Coaches” several aspects of the material in the article. First was the difference between management and leadership. Second was that self-organizing included self-management. Third was that the Development Team was comprised of adults and should be trusted by default. Fourth was the need for management to “let go” and embrace change.

    1. Hi Alan,
      Thanks for your excellent comment. I agree with all your points. It doesn’t surprise me that you have had to explain this to seasoned agile coaches. This stuff isn’t really taught. I myself have had little experience as an agile scrum master. 2 weeks to be exact. But what I do is read a hell lot and try to understand. I assume you are the same. My drive is to find a better way to do my job. Theirs is to be a professional change agent. Which is difficult. Everything is against them. I assume come into c&c structures and try to change it to an agile environment. Breaking c&c is way too hard and probably hasn’t even entered their mind. As I inferred, it is ingrained in us from a very young age and is very hard to break. Hopefully by you bringing it to their attention it gave them something to think about.

      As for your third point. That is what I liked about the NUMMI story. It worked when you have adults acting like children! All Toyota did was treat the workers with respect to get them to do a good job.

  2. Thanks for the article! It brings up questions about people/teams who don’t self-manage. Recently I was on a team that was following many of the agile principals (Kanban-ish!). The team was responsible for designing a system to automate a manual, error-prone process. There was dysfunction in the team (two senior people had very different ideas on the overall design, and weren’t willing to see benefits of the other design, or of other options). Self management works great when there’s not dysfunction, but what can be done to avoid ‘battles’ such as these? If the situation exists, what’s the best way to address it? I’m very interested in your insight from the perspective of all three roles, as well as the manager. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Janet,
      Thanks for the comment. This situation sounds tricky. A bit like 2 countries trying to negotiate a peace treaty.
      My thoughts are that this is exactly why a scrum master is needed. The scrum master should be an impartial intermediary and they should facilitate things to a team decision where possible. So for example, each of the senior people plead their views to the rest of the team. Then the whole team discuss. It’s possible that the team overall will see one design is better than the other, or come up with a hybrid design. If the senior members are unable to let their ego go during this process, kick them out and only bring them in for clarification on certain points. It helps if the scrum master has the respect and authority to do this.
      There is also the possibility that the team could be indifferent to the design and happy to go either way. Especially if both designs have merit. In this case leave the discussion till last if possible if you can’t, time box it to say 10 min. Set up an ultimatum. If no decision is made by the team, a coin will be flipped. Of course this requires everyone to agree with the coins decision.
      There are many other techniques that could be used most if not all easier said the an done, but ultimately it comes down to the scrum master. They need to make the team make a decision. For that they need the authority and respect of the team to do that.

      1. Thanks for weighing in! We weren’t too far off from what you suggest. There was a bit of a bullying undertone to the situation, leaving team members uncomfortable recommending either design. The facilitator (we were using Kanban, not scrum) said he would select the design if the team didn’t, and brought in a neutral party, who happened to be the designers’ boss’s boss, to review the designs. The facilitator and this other person then came to a decision. I’m not sure though, if the designers’ attitude towards each other and the process was ever addressed. Ugh!

        1. Hi Janet,

          I’m glad that the issue was resolved, although not through the best approach, but probably the only approach.
          The bullying undertones does need to be addressed. It will not be good for the team in the long run. Especially if it prevents other team members from speaking up. Hopefully the facilitator or the boss’s boss (or the boss themself) look into it.
          It is probably not going to help, but thinking that these two are only trying to do what they think is best (at least that is what I hope) might give a little more understanding. They just might not know how to best express it to put it mildly. They are after all, human.

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