As a child, most of us are taught to respect authority — whether directly or indirectly — in school. We obey our parents and we obey teachers. If we don't, out comes the wooden spoon.
This learning carries on throughout life (for most people). We respect police, our managers, etc. It gets so ingrained that all it takes is for someone to be dressed in a manner that garners respect — a uniform, a suit, a lab coat, that we blindly follow.
In the 60s, when ethical standards were lax, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment. He wanted to know, after World War II, how people could do atrocities to other people. Was there something different about the Germans that made them more callous than everyone else? To test his theory, he conducted an experiment.
The experiment was simple. There were two subjects: a teacher and a learner (and the technician in a lab coat who would conduct the experiment). The teacher and the technician were in one room, and the learner was in another room, strapped to a chair so they could not escape and hooked up with wires. The experiment was simple. The teacher would ask a question to the learner, specifically about word pairs. If the learner answered the question incorrectly, the teacher would press a button, administering an electric shock to the learner, the premise being that the learner will learn the word pairs more quickly with a pain incentive. (Did I mention that ethical standards were lax in the 60s?)
Well, as the learner kept getting answers wrong, the electric shocks grew in intensity. 15 volt increments up to 450 volts. 30 incorrect answers.
At those voltages, the learner would scream, plead for the teacher to stop. The pain was so intense.
Now, if the teacher started refusing to participate, the lab technician would say, "please continue." If the teacher refused a second time, they were simply told, "The experiment requires you to continue." A third time, they were told, "It is absolutely essential that you continue," and finally, if they asked a fourth time, they were told, "You have no other choice; you must go on."
There was no coercion; the technician spoke in a calm voice. If the teacher refused to comply a fifth time, the experiment ended.
What do you think you would do in this experiment? Well, 65% of teachers participants reached the maximum of 450 volts. Many teachers were uncomfortable doing so but still continued, eventually, when asked to. It got to the point where the learner was in so much pain that they passed out — or worse. This experiment wasn't conducted in Nazi Germany — it was at Yale University in the United States.
If you are absolutely horrified by now, take comfort. The learner wasn't really under pain. They were an actor. There were no shocks given. The teacher was the only subject of the experiment.
So, why did the teachers continue? Simply put, psychologically, they put the responsibility for their actions onto the lab technician. Any consequences of the teacher's actions were considered borne by the lab technician. That is how that 65% of teachers administered a fatal electric shock to a learner.
What does this have to do with Agile? Well, with traditional management, you have a heavy command-and-control mentality. The person in charge, the manager, directs their underlings towards what needs to be done, and the underlings blindly follow. The underlings may have some say, but ultimately, the responsibility lies with the manager (whether in actuality or simply psychologically). The underlings rely on the manager's direction.
Yes, they may speak up if they think something is wrong, but if told, "that is the way we are going to do it," they will go along if told enough times. It takes a special person to give it their all and dissent when they feel they are right. Most people won't speak up at all. They will just "switch off" and do what they are told.
In many Agile methodologies, especially Scrum, there is no real leader. With Scrum, there are three roles. There's the team, and the Product Owner, who isn't in charge of the team. They are only in charge of the what is made. Then, the Scrum Master is there to help and guide the team. They do not direct the team. They do not command the team. There are no leaders in the traditional command-and-control sense. The team needs to be self-organized.
Giving the team this responsibility means that there is no one to shirk responsibility to. You cannot say, "Something went wrong because we followed the manager." Everyone in the team has a say and everyone in the team is responsible. Everyone in the team needs to participate in the decision-making process. Everyone in the team needs to be at the same level. There's no hierarchy. The team itself — not a "leader" within the team — is able to choose its own destiny on how it accomplishes the task. In other words, they create their own purpose.
I know what you are thinking; this can turn into a Lord of the Flies situation. The team goes off on a tangent, all hell breaks loose, and you have complete anarchy. Nothing gets done.
Well, I doubt this will happen. Most people try to do the right thing. Even those in unskilled jobs try to do the right thing and try to do an honest day's work. If you still don't think this will work, remember that in Scrum, there is the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master is there to guide the team back on target. In Toyota, from what I have read, there are traditional manager roles, but the managers there don't manage in the traditional sense. They guide their workers rather than command their workers. Still not convinced? Look up NUMMI.
Working this way can become very powerful for a company. Your workers are now no longer there to just complete tasks assigned. They are there to accomplish a goal in a manner that they chose. They are there to learn and grow. They have a purpose and a level of dedication that you would not normally see.
Just remember: Don't abuse it. This is a very delicate balance. Start bringing in command and control policies and people become disillusioned again. The whole thing can fall into a heap and you might be worse off.
Let me know what you think in the comments. If you work in a command-and-control situation, do you "switch off" and do what you are told, or are you actively involved? If you work in a team that has more control of its destiny, do you find you are more involved in reaching the goal or have things degraded so much it feels like a Lord of the Flies situation?