Blog post

Taylorism – A Pox upon Agile

By Mike Rollings | April 11, 2011 | 0 Comments

TransformationStrategic PlanningManagementIT GovernanceHuman BehaviorEconomyCloudApplicationsAltered States

This past Thursday my colleague Kirk Knoernschild pointed out a blog post by Alistair Cockburn about Taylorism creeping into the world of agile. Alistair’s post ignited a discussion within Gartner’s IT1 team reflecting on how it applied to our own agile work practices. What follows are some of my insights about the dangers of Tayloristic thinking taking over agile.

Personally, I have written much about the influence of Taylorism on IT, management theory, and human behavior so I was certainly interested to hear how it was infiltrating agile. Tayloristic thinking, where efficiency is the sole basis of your approach, has permeated management doctrine for over 100 years. Taylor believed managers should dictate how men should work. Time-motion studies, metrics, and removing people from the puzzle are some of his contributions which created the hazardous belief system called efficiency thinking.

I can’t stop thinking about the irony of “agile” and “Taylorism” getting together in the same sentence. It would be like Donald Trump and Rosie O’donnell announcing their engagement, or the slow food movement being supported by fast-food chains, it is not an expected combination.

You may be thinking “But Mike, the post talks about metrics and metrics are good aren’t they?” There is a big difference between the use of metrics to understand something and the mindless pursuit of efficiency. In my blog post “A Life out of Control” I discuss the pox of Taylorism:

The industrial age and the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor made control popular as we used humans to mechanize our factories.  Control permeated society down to the education systems that eliminated variability, encourage conformity, and produce the mechanized humans for the industrial machine.  But the control mentality does not have utility in a world that is co-creative and cognitive.  We must replace control with the creation of shared value, a fondness for contribution, appreciation for human uniqueness, and the embrace of uncertainty.  We need to create an atmosphere of humility where co-creative energies are released instead of subdued.  Our future depends on the cultivation of new ideas and shared knowledge — a future easily smothered by control.

This is why I feel that agile is not evolving when it embraces Taylorism, it is devolving.

Alistair’s post is timely because I recently finished a research document “Improving Cross-Competency IT Effectiveness” that will be published in the coming months for IT1 subscribers. In that document, I illustrate how IT has multiple competencies that work in concert with one another to achieve a greater effectiveness level. Yet, many IT organizations are fixated on improving single competencies and wonder why organizational effectiveness is elusive. I use agile adoption throughout the paper to illustrate the corrosive effects of single-competency maturity thinking which has its origins in efficiency thinking:

The pathological pursuit of single-competency maturity blinds IT staff from seeking effectiveness improvements beyond their own competency silo. One example of this poisonous mindset is illustrated by how organizations are pursuing Agile development. Many organizations adopt Agile practices to improve business outcomes and generate more value for the development dollar. But they cannot attain that goal when they emphasize Agile adoption solely during the development phase. Ignoring related practices – estimation, prioritization, and budget allocation – suffocates the improvement they seek.

Taylorism is a pox upon agile. Efficiency thinking – Taylorism – causes incrementalism and striving to be rated “+1” (i.e. if your efficiency is a one, you strive to become a two). As you constantly focus on efficiency, human nature causes you to ignore other inputs that are not related to efficiency. This results in incrementalism which prevents you from breakthrough thinking, and isn’t breakthrough thinking what you are hoping for by adopting agile? Breakthrough thinking is certainly what IT needs.

Mark McDonald’s post highlights the urgency for a revolutionary change

The enterprise is up for grabs. One difference between an evolution and a revolution is that evolutionary change is based on adapting to the environment while revolution either creates or has at is roots a fundamental change in that environment and its circumstances.

IT would be facing an evolutionary change if it were not for the observation that enterprises are changing as they take the turn from the past and into a future dominated by the need for growth in a sluggish economy, new requirements for productivity, and the need for product and service innovation.

These differences are leading executives to look for new ways to manage the enterprise, its operations and performance.  This opens the door for IT and others to revolutionize their role as simply delivering last years results plus or minus 10% will not drive success.

We need a different style of thinking to make revolutionary changes and Taylorism is not it.

Comments are closed