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Is the Agile Ship Sinking?

Business cycles are always brutal. They are the ultimate test of any business fad. These days, Agile is all the rage. Many of my friends and colleagues in the software development industry are experiencing what I would call “crunch time.” Belts get tightened. Times are challenging. Everyone has to work harder!

In good times, Agile practitioners talk about removing fear from the calculus that goes into daily decision-making. All of the experts agree that fear stifles creativity and productivity. This begs the question: When layoffs are imminent, do companies intentionally use fear to motivate people to work harder? Or is fear just an unavoidable byproduct?

What if a company needed layoffs but wanted to preserve the great Agile working environment they had spent so much time and money to build? You know, the one in which fear of repercussions from making mistakes had been vanquished. Your opinion about the perfect layoff might depend on your experience on different sides of the equation.

Managers who must make difficult choices have a different perspective from those whose professional careers are about to take a turn for the worse (at least in the near term). Widespread layoffs in the industry only compound the fear. A single company layoff in an otherwise strong sector means your next job is right around the corner. It’s a different story when you compete with hundreds of others for the same few open positions.

Managers have two basic options:

  1. Warn people that layoffs are coming

  2. Drop the bomb all at once

I recently watched a video from a leadership expert who pointed out that most people don’t know how to judge outstanding leadership. He pointed out that senior leaders often face problems with no good solution -- just a few bad ones. Their job is to pick the “least bad” one. When the dust settles, and the armchair analysts review the results, it’s easy to point out all the bad things from that decision. But what about the choice not made? How bad might things have been? We can never analyze the path not chosen with any accuracy.

With this in mind, I would choose option #2. My reasoning is this: If only those required know of an impending layoff, all layoff candidates will continue to function without fear. When the bomb drops, those chosen will be gone, and those remaining will be safe. Losing coworkers is undoubtedly not pain-free. Uncertainty about workloads or other types of restructuring will leave the remaining employees on high alert. Transparency can go a long way at this point in the process.

After such upheaval, leaders may find it tempting to abandon Agile principles and fall back to the old bunker mentality. Many a business fad was abandoned for the tried and true command-and-control approach. We now know for sure that Agile practices produce better and faster results. Staying the course in trying times feels counterintuitive, but it’s the right thing to do in this case.

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