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Leading Agile Developers: The Seven Levels of Authority (Part 1)

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For managers to make the best use of self-organization in their business, they need to distribute control and delegate their authority. In this article, Jurgen Appelo, author of Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, describes the scientific reason to empowering people in the first of his two-part series.
  • It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s truer that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.
  • David Brin, scientist, author (1950-)

Managers are authorized by shareholders to grow the business and hire other people (and other managers). But to make the best use of self-organization in their business, they need to distribute control and delegate their authority. This article, the first in a two-part series, describes the scientific reason to empowering people, the seven levels of authority, and the “authority board” as a simple mechanism to delegate control to self-organizing teams.

Anarchy Versus Governance

Agile software development is a great success because it works through self-organizing teams. Self-organization is a lot like anarchy, which some people think is a bad thing. But agilists are “benevolent anarchists.” In Agile software development, anarchy is applied in a good way.

The word anarchy stems from the Greek word anarcho. It means “having no ruler.” People use the word in two situations:

  • Absence of order (presence of disorder)—in other words, chaos.
  • Absence of imposed (top-down) order—in other words, complexity.

This is depicted in Figure 1. Governance, the presence of top-down order, stretches from complexity into order. And anarchy, the absence of governance, stretches from complexity into chaos.

Figure 1 Governance versus anarchy

Some people believe that anarchy equals chaos. But nature is anarchistic, and yet ecosystems are complex, not chaotic. And traffic in Brussels is anarchistic. But the daily flows of traffic are complex, not chaotic. Likewise, a well-functioning Agile team is also complex, not chaotic.

Managers are authorized by shareholders to grow a successful business. For managers, the challenge is to make sure that the “anarchistic teams” behave in a way that is valuable to all stakeholders.

I often compare managers to gardeners (Figure 2). An unmanaged garden is typically full of weeds, not beauty. From a biological perspective, there’s no difference. Either way, the ecosystem in the garden is self-organizing. It takes a gardener (authorized by the owners of the garden) to turn an anarchistic garden into something that the owners will enjoy. Likewise, it takes a manager (authorized by shareholders) to steer self-organizing teams in a direction that delivers value to the shareholders.

Figure 2 The gardening metaphor

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