Illusion of Control – You never had it

I recently had a conversation with a functional manager that was concerned with the transition of her organization to agile.  It wasn’t any tool or process or the manifesto but the perceived lack of control.  She wanted to know how to maintain the illusion of control.  “How can I manage my team when they get to pick their tasks and decide how to do it themselves?”

Agile coaches the world over have heard this question.  It is one of power.  If a manager empowers their team to be self-organizing, how will they control their team members and the work being done?   Part of the cultural shift of any agile framework is the changing of the illusion of control.

The illusion of control is a very interesting thing.  We use it all the time. For anyone that has ridden horses for any amount of time, you understand that you are merely asking the horse to go left, go right, speed up, or stop.  Sure, you can incentivize the desired behavior, carrot or stick, but in the end, if the horse, an animal that outweighs you at least 4:1, doesn’t want to do it, nothing you can do is going to make it happen.

Teams are the same way.  You can’t actually control them, as a manager, only influence them using various carrots and/or sticks.  This the illusion of control.

In this specific case, this manager couldn’t really come to grips with the fact that the level of control she thought she had was an illusion.  She assigned tasks, asked daily for status updates, and “ensured” they were on-time.  As you could imagine, quality was a huge problem.  The team constantly cut corners, did not do reviews or unit tests, just to make these deadlines the manager set.  Again, the illusion of control prevails.

I asked her to consider a huge intersection.  Six lanes meeting six lanes.  Two left turn lanes each way, plus one right turn lane each way.  Meaning this was nine lanes meeting nine lanes feeding into eight lanes and eight lanes.  Anyway, you cut it, it is a huge intersection with a lot of cars.

Now, pretend you are in control of every single car going in and out of the intersection for eight hours a day.  You must control every car’s speed, direction, timing, etc. and always and keep them from backing up, crashing, going the wrong way, or creating any kind of unsafe bedlam.

The manager stared at me with her mouth open a little, “I can’t possibly do that.” Which, of course, is completely accurate.

Instead, why do you not create a system that allows the cars to take care of themselves?  Use some paint, some lights, some colored gels, and then just let the cars inside of these simple guidelines, control their actions on their own.  Create a box, a safe place for the cars to travel through the intersection.  In other words, enable them to succeed, by empowering them.  Do not control their activities, control their environment so they can take care of themselves.  Remove obstacles (blocks/impediments) and keep the flow management (WIP limits) but let the cars pick their own path (planning/estimating).

This concept can be very difficult for a lot of front line functional managers.  Changing from the role of controlling to guiding, from managing to leading.  It is not a loss of prestige or power, it merely shifts the control to some place it is not an illusion: the team.  Instead of spending time and effort “controlling” something that cannot be controlled, spend your time guiding and removing obstacles so the team can succeed.

For a fun, and demonstrative, distraction, try Trafficator.