Bad Management is Mad Management

A while back I went for dinner with an old colleague whom I am still in touch with from when we worked together several years ago in a large financial MNC.  We chatted about our lives and naturally we discussed work.

She told me she had a new line manager.  She was not happy about this.  The new manager was not as personable as her old manager, and in addition, was a bit (a lot) of a control freak.

I asked her to give me a few examples of her new line manager’s behaviour that made her (and it turns out the whole team) feel so disgruntled.

And so she explained.

Firstly, the new line manager, let’s call her ‘Ms Goneril’,  immediately gave the impression to her team that she thought she was better than them; that she was of a higher social status.  Ms Goneril   was a little more ‘mature’ shall we say and so throughout her long career had managed to accumulate the money to acquire more high-end material possessions. A fast car, a big house, that sort of thing.  Whilst the problem was not with her obvious success, this is not a crime and actually I believe all personal successes should be championed, including career success.  It was her attitude that was the problem.  Regularly referring to expensive shopping sprees, expensive holidays, and basically being a bit uncouth around the team was the default stance.  The consequence of such meant that, as my friend said, the team felt she was not personable and was aloof from the team, which made them feel that Ms Goneril thought she was better than the ‘minions’ that do the work.  Ms Goneril had made it clear she wasn’t part of the team. She had lost the ability to identify with her own team and vice versa. She would frequently ask members of her busy team to perform tasks for her that she was perfectly capable of doing herself.  She would demand updates on an unnecessary frequency. She would dictate what time lunch was. She was a stickler for time-keeping and would mention if team members arrived at 9.05am or were not back from lunch exactly an hour after they left their desk.

A little more worryingly, she said that Ms Goneril had access to all the team’s work email accounts so that she could read all the teams’ emails and check their calendars whenever she wished.  Shocking behaviour! So, as I saw it, this ridiculous situation with my unfortunate friend was thus: Her previous line manager whom she (and all the team) liked and had a great rapport with and whom had promoted a more healthy, empowering approach to managing the team, had been replaced with a controlling snob with no social skills. Perhaps there were reasons for Ms Goneril’s behaviours that were not brought to the discussion, but whatever the circumstances were that surrounded the change, the result was a massively disgruntled team that were not enjoying their jobs as much as they did, mainly because their new manager made them feel stressed with her controlling, micromanagement ways. For the business, this meant that they had unwittingly created risk of increased attrition, quality decreasing and sickness becoming more regular due to stress or lack of motivation. All expensive situations for a business, not to mention highly disruptive and potentially debilitating if all the accumulated knowledge within a team is lost.

It got me to thinking, as I’m sure many of us have at some point in our careers, “How has that person got that job?”.  Then I thought “you poor thing” about my friend, then I had some other thoughts about her new line manager but shan’t mention the specifics here…

Clearly something, perhaps many things had gone wrong with the appointment of this individual not just to this team but the company as a whole. How was Ms Goneril able to slip through the net like this?  Nepotism? Everything looking good on paper? Multiple Personality Disorder?? Who knows.  So then I got to thinking about recruitment in and Agile environment.  Regardless of her credentials, would Ms Goneril have been able to cope in an Agile environment where, among things, teams are trusted, relationships are collaborative and leadership is about mentoring and serving the team as opposed to power dressing in Prada?  Would this person have been able to learn Agile values or are they now too conditioned to (and arguably enjoy the perceived power of) Command and Control that there really would be no hope?  Finally, if Ms Goneril were subjected to an Agile transition (the Company I speak of is still heavily Waterfall), would the company be brave enough to get rid if they proved themselves to be incapable of changing their attitude to be more accommodating to an Agile approach?

It’s a difficult topic, and it is hard for companies to know what to do in such situations because there is understandably emotion and attachment involved with people, no matter how useless they may be!

However, I am of the belief that in order for Agile to flourish, the right sorts of people are needed to be part of it and make it work.  Regarding the latter clause, ‘making it work’ means for ever, not just through a transition.  For ever and ever, project after project, until the end of time.  That’s ages, isn’t it?  Companies do need to be tolerant of difficult individuals and individuals who struggle to change, but there needs to be a clear message that attitudes of the troublesome need to change within a reasonable timescale. ‘Reasonable’ meaning what the company feels is a just amount of time for an individual to adopt the attitude needed to facilitate Agile principles. The company should provide ongoing support and training to everyone throughout a transition and even beyond so that they have every reason to succeed, but, after a ‘reasonable’ time has passed, sadly, the Company needs to have the courage to cut those people loose and recruit replacements with more suitable experience or just a great attitude.

The behaviours of managers like the one my friend described should not be tolerated in any company, not just an Agile one.  To me it is basic common sense that such a violation of trust and obsessive control by a manager will never bring any good to a team’s morale or their performance; it will only create distance as the ‘us and them’ culture perpetuates.  So many companies still ignore how management affects teams on a daily basis.  Therefore, in conclusion, all I can say to all this is for companies to be careful who they hire and especially who they give team responsibilities to.  Agile or not, the approaches of the line manager I have discussed above is disgraceful behaviour that should not be tolerated at any level.  Bad attitudes from anyone but especially from management all contribute to a more global negative culture that is very difficult to turn around later.

Education, education, education!

If you are a ScrumMaster or Agile Coach working with a new Scrum team(s), it goes without saying that it is really important to spend the majority of your time at the start of your deployment investing in training the team.  Obviously by ‘The Team’, I’m not just talking about Dev/Test, I’m talking about Product Owners too.  If you don’t do this, you will end up with a confused and frustrated team because they will not know the Scrum process OR what is expected of them as part of a collaborative self-organising team.  You need to be tenacious in delivering a clear, consistent message to your team about what Scrum is about, both as a development framework, and as a culture, and be constantly checking on their development as a learning team.

If you know your stuff, it is much easier to start training your team than you think because there are some fantastic online resources to help you deliver a really great session.  I am a big fan of the CollabNet Agile e-learning training series ( ), and at the moment, it is a major element of my training session’s agenda.  Speaking of which, here is the agenda I use for Scrum Introductory training:

  • Presentation (you should put a few slides together for this):
    • What is Agile, and why did it come about?
    • Definition of ‘Agile’
    • What is The Waterfall Model and why is Agile different?
    • The Agile Manifesto
    • Other Agile frameworks that are around, e.g. not just Scrum, but Kanban, XP, DSDM etc.

I then use the entire CollabNet interactive training series to train the team.  I use the Quizzes and questions provided in the series to ask the room what they think the answer is.  I also take the time to explain why an answer they have chosen is NOT right, and why another answer IS.  This is a really important part of their learning, and means they will have a better chance at understanding the logic to Agile rather than just learning parrot-fashion, but not really getting ‘why’. The session takes around 2.5-3 hours, depending on questions.

If I have Product Owners to train, I run the above session in the morning, and then hold an afternoon session with the following agenda:

  • What is a PO’s role and responsibilities?
  • What makes a great PO?
  • How to be a PO at <the company you are in>
  • Requirements: What is the difference between a granular User Story and sn Epic User Story?
  • Introduction to a real life Product Backlog
  • How to maintain a Product Backlog, including prioritisation of User Stories
  • How to write excellent User Stories and Acceptance Criteria with an exercise. (The group will be split into pairs/small teams and will write  User Stories and Acceptance Criteria for a real project, followed by a discussion)
  • How to Prepare the Product Backlog properly for a Backlog Refinement Meeting or Sprint Planning
  • Q&A

If you do this, you will get everyone in the Scrum teams off to a great start.  However, it is also really important to keep their knowledge up.  I hold fairly regular ‘open desk’ sessions, where I block out some time and invite people to come and talk to me and ask me anything about Agile.

Finally, teach (theory), demonstrate (real-life application), repeat.  I cannot stress enough the importance of reiterating a constant and consistent message. At the Scrum Board, in the stand up, at the retrospective, one on one, in training session, all the time.  Being consistent with your approach allows familiarity and the team encourage the team to trust that you are serious about what you say and you won’t also move the goal posts for whatever reason.