Agile and Burnout: The Challenge of Modernization

December 9, 2021

Throughout my career I’ve been a major force for driving Digital Transformation across some of the largest companies in the world. I’ve had the amazing ability to usher in amazing products and services and work with some of the most talented teams in business. However, in the process I’ve also repeatedly burned myself out. I previously pinpointed my own struggles back to value. So how do organizations ensure their biggest change advocates remain energized and supported when they’re on the front lines of driving change?

Agile is All About Yielding Control to Those Doing the Work

MBA’s and modern management theory have revolved around the practice of management. Whether its people or processes, good business management has centered around controlling aspects you have power over to deliver results. All too often this means asserting control over employees and projects.

Agile on the other hand is all about giving your teams the freedom to come up with their own processes and meeting them where they’re at. It fundamentally flips the paradigm of management that instead of commanding from the top, you instead allow your teams to dictate not only what is being done but also how it is being done. In essence, it’s all about servant leadership to those you would traditionally have power over.

This difference in approach requires leaders to yield control of top down management and instead take direction from their teams. This is incredibly difficult on its own as it fundamentally goes against many of the ways traditional business is conducted. For many yielding this control doesn’t come naturally and doing a good job requires constant attention and considerable EQ around gauging team performance. It’s a full time job being a servant leader.

Where it becomes a risk to burnout is when organizations lack the upper leadership teams buy in to this new way of working. As leaders yield control to their teams their management team may be forcing command and control on their leaders. Instead of allowing their leaders and therefore teams the authority to work as needed, they’re instead continuing to rely on old school management tactics.

As leaders then you’re now not only going through the stresses of yielding your own control but now you’re trying to take command and control orders without the authority to follow them through. If you’re doing a good job as a servant leader you’re now working overtime trying to keep your team’s autonomy while simultaneously trying to keep leadership’s desires intact. You’re constantly in a battle trying to coerce teams to meet leadership demands even as your team may need to go in new directions. It’s an exhausting predicament to be in and you’re stuck in a constant loop of either going against your team or meeting the status quo of leadership desires.

Territorial Control Prevents Real Progress

In one pronounced case of burnout I had at a large company I came across a manager who came up through Waterfall project management. In one conversation this person went as far as accusing me of trying to steal their job. In reality what I was trying to do was showcase the team’s desire to work across domain areas to solve pressing problems they identified. I was in a constant struggle with management to stay in my “project” lane instead of addressing problems that spanned areas that had other management over them. This person felt threatened because the team was trying to dictate what should be worked on, not them.

This leader was trying to protect other manager’s domain areas despite the fact they were causing the organization’s most prevalent issues. Instead of coming together as a team to address them they wanted to silo domain areas according to what could be top down managed. This resulted in my team not being able to address pressing business problems but it also drastically diminished the ability for my team to use its budget efficiently.

This further highlights the importance for teams to have the autonomy to dictate what’s getting worked on but even more so drives the inefficiencies of attempting top down control over the work being done in organizations. Instead of allowing teams and other managers to work together on solving issues this leader was instead trying to protect management’s desire to have individual ownership at the leader level.

Looking towards burnout, imagine raising team level concerns daily and using your energy towards trying to do good by the team only to have management come back and tell you it’s not your problem. This isn’t sustainable and not only diminishes leaders’ positive servant leadership abilities but it also more broadly hurts the organization by preventing teams from working on critical areas. Leaders should be incentivized to want to work together on addressing problems, not be pitted against each other over ownership overlap.

Shift Ownership to Problems and Create New Conversations

Most prevalent leaders want to help solve problems. Top down management all too often focuses teams and their leaders on “projects” that inherently put up walls around what can and is being worked on. However, by shifting leader’s responsibilities towards problems or outcomes that organizations need solved, it lowers the silos around set ownership parameters. Overlap will naturally occur but instead of competing against one another leaders are now incentivized to work across their team’s desires that together solve multiples of issues facing organizations.

Senior leadership in this model are then in a constant feedback loop around the most pressing issues facing their organizations. The only way these problems will be addressed is through their teams tackling them and therefore puts the leaders of teams in control of the execution of how they’re being addressed. Management then becomes an enabler for teams by helping remove impediments or helping realign resources against the constant priority of problems needing to be solved. Although they may shift priorities, teams and leaders still retain autonomy to address core issues.

Support and Rewarding Positive Leadership

Most of all leadership teams need to recognize that positive leadership now looks different compared to older management styles. Although advancement towards outcomes remains at the forefront, intangibles such as knowledge accumulation, team dynamics and quality of deliverables all come to the forefront.

Although deliverables may be met, are they able to integrate well with others’ work? Are key contributors growing and staying engaged with their work? It’s all about sustaining the velocity of which work is making its way out the door and to do that it’s all about delivering for your team.

As millions quit their jobs and look to better environments, you have to wonder if the old way of management is really working. Agile has been around for decades now but with it comes a playbook of doing things better. By making changes and embracing new ways of leadership you help prevent the burn out of change agents and start to move your organizations forward. Most critically, you enable your organization to achieve sustainable change.