When agile fails: Hierarchy and roles

This blog post is part of the When agile fails series. This time I’d like to share my experiences of sticking to a traditional organisation hierarchy and misinterpreted team member roles.

Sticking to hierarchy

I don’t believe in the concept of truly and completely horizontal organisations. However, I belive in only a few to no levels of middle management. When using an agile methodology in a team, hierarchy should no longer exist. SCRUM aims for this flat organisation structure, as every member is equally important. Thus roles like the SCRUM master or product owner are part of the team, and on the same horizontal level with the developers. The roles are not about authority, but more about the scope and mindset.

Said that, giving people titles and labels that imply authority should be avoided. There’s no more lead developer, team leader or chief architect. It’s all about the team, the collective, the common goal, which is achieved together without any form of hierarchy. The team should be self-organising and knowledge is shared on a horizontal level.

At first, a lot of agile teams have problems with this concept. They try to be agile, while sticking to the traditional hierarchy. That doesn’t work. While authority roles such as a team leader or lead architect were important in the past, the same lead titles will now harm the team spirit.

Stick to a flat organisation level! Avoid hierarchy and authority titles to improve the team spirit.

Misinterpreted roles

Giving different people in a team different roles is not essentially an agile thing. Though, misinterpreting those roles in the agile world can be huge and disastrous.

If we talk SCRUM, then we all know the terms SCRUM master and product owner. Honestly, I don’t really care about role names. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against names per se. I just don’t care if you call someone a SCRUM master, SCRUM leader or simply Karen. I also don’t explicitly care for the role itself, because it’s just a label.

However, I care about the mindsets! As mentioned before, the mindsets are the most important thingy in an agile team. People can’t simply be tagged with a label and from there on they’re working under that label. People need to have a special mindset, and based on that mindset their role falls into place. For the sake of simplicity, SCRUM gives those mindsets names, such as SCRUM master and product owner. It’s that way around, not vice versa.

A lot of the time I see teams focusing on labels such as SCRUM master or product owner. They’re so focused on those labels, they forget about the required mindset. Some teams also assume the transition from waterfall to agile is straight-forward and 1:1, so they simply rename their project leader to SCRUM master and the team leader is now called product owner. It might work for some teams, but most of the time it just doesn’t work, because guess what: Yes exactly, the right mindset is missing!

Choose your SCRUM master and product owner wisely by focusing on mindsets instead of labels! 

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  • Reply

    Misinterpreting those roles in the agile world can be huge and disastrous

  • Venkatesh Reply

    Hi Dominique,

    Can you pls share some thoughts on how an organization which currently follows a hierarchical structure (Engineer, Sr Engineer, Lead Engineer) can shift to scrum having a flat structure ? What will happen to the titles ? how will their contributions will be evaluated during salary raises ?


  • rolling sky Reply

    The roles are not about authority, but more about the scope

  • In most traditional workplaces, people are obsessed with job titles like Sales Manager or HR Assistant, and prefixes like “junior” or “senior” that go with them. Unfortunately, in an organization full of bright people, operating within a strict hierarchy of titles creates a big problem: work becomes less about getting things done and more about egos and politics.

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    You’ve probably heard of someone at work getting a promotion based more on social affinities than on qualifications. This happens because managers and supervisors have the power to treat people as pawns on their corporate chessboard. What begins to happen in our traditional MegaCorp is that in the full knowledge of this dynamic, employees start to focus more on sucking up to their superiors than on producing exceptional, promotion-worthy work.

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    I agree, I truly believe that authentic leadership does not involve a sort of “towering” over those within the given community or team but actually serving them and what they can bring to the table in order to help build the team up in all of its uniqueness and strength together.

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    Having a leaderless organization sounds really great, and it appeals deeply to that part of us that is always thinking, You’re not the boss of me!, but it turns out that it doesn’t work very well.

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    One of the things most of us dislike about bad hierarchy is that people at top of a power structure often get treated with a lot more respect as individuals than folks at the bottom.

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    Hierarchy is good in other things and bad on some. We have divided opinion, but you have a pretty good points tho. Thanks for a new perspective.

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    When using an agile methodology in a team, hierarchy should no longer exist. SCRUM aims for this flat organisation structure, as every member is equally important. Thus roles like the SCRUM master or product owner are part of the team, and on the same horizontal level with the developers.

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    Having the right mindset for the role is critical and so it needs a thorough planning for choosing.

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    Horizontal organizations are not effective nowadays. What is actually being followed is the hierarchy structure so that the chain of command is properly implemented.

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    Having a team oriented environment is important. It makes everyone feel as though they have a place in contributing to the goals of the company, but vertical organization/hierarchy is needed.

    I like the point of this article a lot. Have hierarchy, keep it simple and effective, and introduce horizontal structures where they’re useful.

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    Hierarchy is necessary. No horizontal organization can survive. I like the idea though with keeping middle management as minimal as possible. That makes it less of a bureaucratic model and more efficient.

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  • Shawn Reply

    Hi Dominique. I sent comment yesterday about “When agile fails” but it was not accepted. Anyways, thanks for sharing your story and experienced about this topic “When agile fails: Hierarchy and roles”.

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    Hierarchy and roles fails if the team is not self-organizing. I agree with your statement above.

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