Agile does not require bottom up product strategy!

February 3, 2018



“We run a bottom up company.  I would not think of telling my engineers what to do!  They have complete freedom to decide what we build and how we build it”, said the CTO proudly.


“Sorry,” I said, “I just don’t buy it.  There are very few places where that actually works.  How do you know you are one of those?”


“Well, I guess you just don’t understand Agile development.” said the CTO.


“How do you know that the engineers know enough to lead your company?” I repeated. “Sometimes, the engineers lead because leadership is afraid of taking charge.”


Yes, sometimes “bottom up” is just an excuse for ducking the leadership responsibility of making sure the company is going in the right direction.   There are some, but very few people who can drive a company’s direction and features. But at the end of the day, it is up to the leadership to make sure the company is moving in the right direction.  It is up to the leadership to know that whoever is driving direction knows enough to drive it.  It isn’t necessarily true that engineers can always do the right thing.  They need to have the requisite knowledge, instinct, and skill.


It is a gross misinterpretation of Agile to think that these methodologies somehow require the teams to drive the direction of the company.  These methodologies want the engineers to be informed and to interact with customers. They want empowered people who rise to the occasion and take on the responsibility of delivering good stuff.  They encourage pushing as much down as is possible.  They want few layers in the organization.


Yes, there are stories of companies that have no layers of management at all. Companies that somehow manage to have all the employees able to know exactly where things should go and drive things in that direction.  These companies are so exceptional, people write books and articles about them.  I have actually never seen one, and I see a lot of companies.


Don’t misunderstand me, I am not being cynical.  It is a good aspirational goal. But until you have created a company that has the right attributes and culture.  Don’t abdicate the responsibility you have as a leader to make sure the company is headed in the right direction.


As a leader you are held accountable for the company’s success. You can delegate it any way you choose, but you cannot abandon it.  You may choose to drive the direction yourself, or you may choose to delegate it to others' in the company that are competent to drive it.  You may be highly involved or you may be lightly involved. But it is up to you to know that the direction is a good one.  It is up to leadership to decide how much risk to take in delegating direction.


One thing I often see, is a company that has had a few years of strong success and has grown, largely because the CEO or the CTO had the vision and drove the direction.  The company has added a couple of hundred employees, among them strong personalities who demand that they now be in charge. Sometimes the company has raised money and its new board gives the leadership the message that they “need to get out of the details and let the team drive it”.


While these people may mean well, they are not thinking about transitions. They are not thinking about the process of getting to a situation where it is indeed possible to delegate the direction.  Those that got the company to its current size did not suddenly become stupid.  They did not suddenly forget the market. The new people did not suddenly divine the subtleties of the market and the customer need.  


If you just hired a bunch of engineers or Product Owners that are new to your market, how can they possibly know where to take the company? How can they possibly know what the customers really want? How can they possibly be entrusted with the incredible responsibility of driving the direction?


If the company wants to drive more of the direction down to the people doing the work, it needs to be planned and executed in a manner that does not put the company in jeopardy.  It needs to be handed off in a way that gives people ownership in a manner befitting their skill. It needs to create a robust culture where real debate can go on between leadership and every other person desiring to drive things.  If you want to drive things, you should be able to have the debate with leadership.


But there is another issue that looms larger.  Leadership should never abandon participation in the direction of the company.  Leadership continues to own the direction and be accountable for its success. Even in the situation where it is delegated way down the organization, leadership still needs to review and influence that direction, as they see fit.  


What Agile does have to say is that people should be left alone to do the job they have taken on.  It is a misunderstanding that this means the must own all there is to do on a product. It is more accurate to say that they should have well defined responsibilities that are broad enough to allow them to get the whole of that job done, to be able to have genuine pride in their work, to be able to do that work without being micromanaged, and that they can rise to the challenge of being a professional because they are being treated like one. That when exercising their professional skills, they are professional enough to engage leadership (and everybody else) in the discussion of what is being built and why.


It is how people are treated, that is the most important part of the Agile journey.  It is that they are not bossed around and treated like they are children. It is the respect for the individual and the challenge of working in a team, that Agile emphasizes. It is about the conversations.  There are teams within teams within teams, all of which should be treated well.  And everyone needs guidelines to truly understand their autonomy.  All in a constructive culture.


At the end of the day, it is more about culture than it is about who owns what.  Have you created a culture in your company where people can really debate and argue about what matters to the company? Have you evolved to the point where the leaders and the individual contributors are able to drive to better solutions because there is real communication going on?  If not, that is the place to start.  Two books that can be helpful in that Journey are Radical Candor and Getting to Yes. 


You can be Agile and still have leadership drive the direction of the company, if you have a truly Agil culture..



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Westerly Consulting, LLC

All photographs by Fred Engel