Polygraph vs. Agile

After the jogging session with my wife today, we stopped at the nice spot near the lake for a freshly squeezed orange juice to regain some energy. The inevitable routine is to check the app on my iPhone how running went. Not particularly well today. But the weather was perfect for a workout.

Lie-Detector-TestTaking the moments of muscle relax, I grabbed the newspapers (so unusual act in the era of new mobile technology). Skimming through the pages, I stopped at the article writing about the company that was performing the polygraph testing (a lie detector) on its employees. The purpose of the testing was to check the employees’ loyalty and how much  are they responsible in handling the company’s properties. The story happens in Croatia and the whole article can be found here.

After the first shock (yeah, I was deeply surprised), I tried to analyse the leadership “performance” in this case and evaluate it with the values we promote in the agile community.

Starting with LEGAL law – I surfed the net to find some sources. In some countries employer use of lie detector tests is limited by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act. It seems – not in this case.

TRUST – more than obvious, trust was not built between the management and workers. And, to my understanding with a number of assumptions I could unfold, there is a strong CULTURE of control – typical for Taylorism in the beginning of the 20th century where high level of managerial control over employee work practices was existed. The command and control culture (see the post about culture) is usually leftover from manufacturing practices in the last century and inability of management to learn and consequently to engage and motivate people.

TRANSPARENCY – if there is a need to check and control employees on polygraph, it means that the whole system is obscure, where information need to be extracted and verified in order to make decisions on a higher level. It further means, that there is a lack of transparency and obviousness which is a prerequisite for every successful and efficient process. Even further, it means that the HIRING process in the company is inconsistent, non-existing or wrong. Why would you hire incompetent people or people you don’t trust?

So, the whole GOVERNANCE is suffering because of the bunch of wasteful management activities being focused on tracking people, instead of creating the environment of visual management. The good example of visual management origins from the concept of JIDOKA – which is sometimes called autonomation, i.e. automation with human touch/intelligence. It gives machines the ability to distinguish good parts from bad autonomously, without being monitored by human. This eliminates the need for people to continuously watch machines. The same principle is valid for the relationship between management and employees. According to Daniel Pink and his great book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us“, the things that creates MOTIVATION are purpose, autonomy, mastery. In this case, it seems that it was easier for management to INVEST a couple of thousand bucks into the polygraph machine, rather than build the high performing environment highlighting the real purpose, educating people and giving them empowerment to perform. It’s an investment shortcut… hm!

The management should go to the polygraph test in this case, to check whether they care for the best company’s properties – people.  No polygraph is needed to detect the lack of contemporary management practices and basics of human psychology to lead 21st century workplace.

Here is the illustration showing distinction between management and leadership:

Managers Leaders fire

The Hardest Thing – The Culture

“What is the culture in my company now?
How well is the culture aligned with Agile?
What problems can I expect due to misalignment?”

With these powerful questions Michael Sahota writes about cultural models in his book “An Agile adoption and transformation survival guide – Working with organizational culture“. To my taste, he well chose the William Schneider’s model illustrating an organizational culture:


Every company has a dominant culture with ingredients of other cultures, especially the neighboring ones. Diagonally located cultures rather collide than complement each other.

The agile culture resides on the left side of the diagram, supported by values like partnership, collaboration, trust, purpose, creativity, experimentation, diversity…

The control culture is characterized by the formal power, process, hierarchy, order, rules, stability, security, standardization…

The competence culture, to my opinion, can be a big trap for leaders and organizations transitioning to Agile. It suggests expertise, specialization, efficiency, craftsmanship, achievement, results, being the best…

Nothing is wrong with that. But, it is not about being the best – it is about becoming better every day. It is about sustaining the culture (and the structure) of constant learning and improving the organization as a whole. Then, the competences are a logical outcome and a beneficial consequence.

Specialization is valid. Becoming an expert and doing the good work is expected. However, if a team or other individual depends on us, our personal expertise, our information and our knowledge, we make the system fragile and vulnerable in a particular point/person. Without collaboration and cultivation, without horizontal sharing of information and learning together, we preserve the heroic culture, the culture of strongly self-oriented individuals and the culture of vertical communication. Here, the vertical communication means the interactions mainly towards supervisors and subordinates, rather than peers. Instead of concentrating the ‘power’ of knowledge in individuals, by sharing, we need to use and motivate every single beautiful brain in the organization and give out the best of it.
Agile principles make this trap visible. This trap is the real test for agile leaders in which, unfortunately, many fall.

The cultures clash in their values and behaviors, striving to prioritize and put different things in focus. The control culture is a culture of things that is still dominant in many organizations (see this post!), not just business organizations, but also social, society and governance institutions. Collaboration, together with Cultivation, is the culture of people, and if those two caltural characteristics prevail, Agile may reach the tipping point and cross the chasm on the agile transformation curve:


The managers/leaders play the essential role in shaping the culture, not just adopting new methods, but rather becoming more adaptive for things to come. Stating this means we have to stay open for any change or surprise and care less about compliances. Therefore, a cultural shift needs a governance shift (people and processes) towards a dimension of distributed knowledge, distributed power and distributed decisions.

The Best Way To Shutdown The Org

The Best Way To Shutdown The Org

rulesLet’s talk about rules!
In the big organization, but also a small one, rules are important part of structuring the operations and impose behaviors. Sometimes they are also called policies, directives, orders, requests, guidelines, instructions… All of them have a common purpose to streamline and channel actions to have predictable outcomes that produce a sense of control. They help to comply with legal or company’s regulations.
This is OK.
Nevertheless, let’s be a bit critical!

One characteristic of rules is that they often generalize, i.e. aim to cover wide as much as possible and make people acting similarly. In that case, different needs have to compromise[1] (and sub-optimize) accordingly. To take a blunt example: when company wants to reduce travel costs, every department has a percentage to reduce. For customer support and deployment department that would release a bit of pressure of traveling to customers… and will cause slow deployment … and sales (being cynical on purpose here).

The second characteristic of rules is the source and ownership. Management (middle management) is responsible to apply and execute rules, while usually the Human Resources department (and higher management) create them. Well, somebody needs to do it and it needs to make sure about their execution compliance. One “happy hour” example is the working hours policy – well known helper in the SW industry (tell programmers to work from 09-17h).

The third characteristic is that rules are limiting. More rules means more limitations and borders which kills creativity and reduce a need to communicate. It boxes us into our area of responsibility and expertise thus creating the place to locally optimize a part of operations on the account of the whole flow. It creates a need to well specify, document and handover a part of work under our responsibility which is a pretty accurate definition of waste – please see the post about it!

The fourth characteristic of rules is their age. They have tendency to stick and stay as long as the management that created them is there to influence their life-cycle. It goes even beyond…:-(

The next characteristic is the heaviest one and is a consequence of the previous: rules create a conformance culture which goes against continuous improvement and innovative mindset.

The next characteristic… perhaps it’s enough!

The following quote well illustrates where the company following the rules is heading to:

If you want to shut down an org, the best way is for people to stop working. The 2nd best way is for everyone to just follow the rules.

[1] By definition a compromise is the worst solution.