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Do Executives Help or Hinder Agile Teams? Posted on : Apr 07 - 2021

How did agile development start? Was it a reaction to the control and bureaucracy that is applied to waterfall projects? Was it about listening to the customer? Or was it about being fleet of foot as an organization? The answer is, of course, all of the above (and some more.) But are these priorities shared by executives? If not, executives and agile teams are going to clash. And agile teams will lose.

I use the term “executives” to include the C-suite, the senior managers, and indeed, CIOs and IT managers. In fact, in some cases, IT management represents a hurdle to agile teams all on their own, with their need for architectural fit, security, operationalization, capacity planning, and sometimes just plain stubbornness for doing things the traditional way. (But that’s another story for another time --fitting agile with traditional IT discipline.)

We should look at executives and their motivations before understanding whether they help or hinder agile teams. In my book “Reinventing the C-Suite,” I researched executives’ psychology, and the results are disheartening for agile teams. Amid a plethora of research papers on the psychology of executives, I found such titles as: “The dark side of executive psychology,” “Executive derailment,” and “1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths.” Of course, there were also positive papers, but these still suggest a need for executive psychology to be examined and managed.

So what are the predominant psychological traits that these researchers found so disturbing? Hubris and narcissism dominate. Both are negative and affect the kind of executive support that agile teams can expect.

Executive hubris (arrogant pride) is dangerous to agile teams because these executives have ambitious plans and firm expectations that these plans will be executed. An agile approach might be just as ambitious, but it draws from what customers want, not directly from the executive. And agile teams expect to pivot often and not stick firmly to an outdated objective. Executive narcissism, which usually manifests as “I am right,” clashes with agile’s expectation of changing direction or even stopping an initiative.

Hubris and narcissism have served executives and their organizations well. Executives propose bold and expansive moves and have the drive to make them happen. Just what most organizations need. But perhaps not what agile teams need.

Executives should give the teams a cohesive vision of the future. View More