How to identify an ATO: Agile Toxic Organization

Photo by Pablo Stanic
Photo by Pablo Stanic

Agile has grown in popularity over the past decades. Agile tells us that working in small teams and making rapid changes based on user feedback are important. This may sound great on paper but there is a big problem with Agile Organizations nowadays: They still encourage communication breakdown, blame-oriented cultures, missed morale, and other toxic behaviors which go against what makes agile teams work well.

An ATO is an Organization that has “adopted” Agile values, practices, and frameworks in paper or “by the book”, but still has a typical hierarchical organization with a toxic culture far away from agile values and principles. Managers in an Agile Toxic Organization often make decisions using the same practices of command-and-control leadership
leaving aside the values ​​and principles of a servant leader. This can cause conflict between the teams and people in the organization, which are operating as self-organizing units, and the upper management who still believe in the old ways of doing things. This conflict can cause issues in value delivery and lead to burnout among agile team members because they are not able to function effectively.
Agile Toxic Organizations are full of people who don’t know how to work together for the greater good = Value to the customer.

They lack transparency and clear communication channels, and there is no one facilitating conflicts when they inevitably arise. The dysfunctionality of these organizations is so prevalent that it often gets ignored or tolerated by management or even worse, by their big and extremely costly external consultants.

In simple words, an Agile Toxic Organization is an organization that is largely ineffective in delivering value to its customers using agile ways of working but is also destructive to its employees.

An ATO shows characteristics that distinguish it from healthier Agile workplaces:

  • A toxic organization typically has a strong focus on strategic compliance and less focus on people, teams, and their agile ways of working. It is obsessed with receiving value (money, market, etc). They do not have a focus on delivering value continuously, iteratively, and always better to their customers.
  • There is a strong desire to find fault and blame individuals or teams for it, instead of focusing on shared responsibility to solve these problems in a systemic and holistic way.
  • They function as a large collection of silos that only speak to each other when one needs something from another.
  • Communication is poor in ATOs, as leaders are often more concerned about being right than being an effective communicator, coach o or facilitator.
  • Also, you can see a high number of people who have personal agendas that do not coincide with the Organization's Purpose. (Egosystem vs Ecosystem).

Agile Toxicity is a set of symptoms that may indicate an unhealthy environment for agile teams. There are many potential causes for these symptoms, and not all of them are necessarily related to agile ways of working. However, certain conditions are more likely to occur in dysfunctional agile environments:

  • A lack of transparency leads to a habit of keeping important information from each other, like status reports or project plans. If you’re not sure what people are working on or how far along they are on their work, your team members might feel that they cannot be fully transparent with one another.
  • Lack of trust leads to unsafe environments for teams to share their ideas or speak up when something doesn’t seem right. People are afraid to be vulnerable and get hurt.
  • No REAL ownership. If no one feels responsible for making sure things get done correctly, then there will be many unaddressed problems. Value Owners refuse to think holistically about the system and continually change scope without understanding the impact that their changes will have. Instead, they focus on feature delivery at all costs (and then complain when everyone else on the team has to work overtime because of scope changes).
  • Facilitators insist on their personal agendas, instead of seeing the team as a system. Typical of facilitators who do not facilitate and only accompany the problematic value delivery of their teams. It is necessary to understand the role of the facilitator and their ability to offer neutral and inclusive environments for continuous improvement.
  • Everyone refuses to communicate directly with each other. They use email instead of talking face-to-face or joining an online call.
  • Fear of failure leads to everyone on the team is afraid to fail by sharing an idea that might be wrong.
  • Leaders focus on process over people and their ways of working to add more value.

The “Agile Toxic Leader”

The Agile Toxic Leader is a common type of leader seen in Agile Ways of Working. These leaders talk about and promote the Agile Values. They encourage everyone to be more collaborative and to be self-organizing… But in practice, they have a very different approach to leadership:

  • They are extremely controlling and micro-manage their team members. They often blame people for the problems that occur, usually by saying it’s because someone didn’t do something correctly.
  • They may give vague or confusing goals with little context on how to achieve them.
  • They don’t listen well and don’t accept responsibility for their mistakes but instead point the finger elsewhere while they continue doing things their way.
  • The team members might say that they are “working agile” but they aren’t happy or productive, which actually makes them less agile than if they had been working in a traditional way.

We have discussed the toxic agile organization and the role of the toxic agile leader. If you are an Agile Coach in an ATO help people to look at their leadership style. As a Coach, Mentor, Facilitator, or Trainer, remember that the solution for these kinds of toxic agile ways of working is often servant leadership and a real understanding of what it takes to “be” and “do” agile in an ethical way.

Remember that ATOs and their leaders destroy people and teams. And you, as an Agile Coach have the noble purpose of:

Collaborate with people, teams and organizations in a creative and stimulating journey based on trust, openness and flexibility, using Professional Coaching, Mentoring, Facilitation, Training and Agile Values ​​and Principles, to help them “Be” and “Do” Agile in the best possible way. — www.agilecoachmanifesto.org

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