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  • Matt Turner

Office Politics are everywhere, get involved!




we agility practitioners shouldn’t ignore it, we should be Office Political Activists


Happier covers customers, colleagues, citizens, and climate, as it is not about “more for less” at any human or climatic cost. It is high levels of customer advocacy and colleague engagement with a positive impact to society and the one planet we live on. It is a more humane way of working.”


Pg 6, Ch: A Sense of Urgency, Para: What this book is about – Sooner Safer Happier


In late 2013 I was sat at my desk at my then employer talking through the improvement processes, policies and culture I had cultivated in my department to a seemingly interested party. This interested person was what we normally termed back then (and there) a “contractor”.


The conversation turned, as it usually did, when I met with contractors and showed them my secrets (they were not secrets and I was the absolute opposite of secretive) to continuous improvement, continuous transformation and continuous change… “this is brilliant, why aren’t you a contractor, you get paid much more money and the best thing is you don’t have to get involved in office politics”


…and there it was again, “you don’t have to get involved in office politics” …


At this point I think I made some mention about another meeting and excused myself.


A year later, I embarked on my career as a freelance lean agile practitioner, and what I have often termed in the intervening years as an Office Political Activist.


It seems to me what that person was inadvertently saying was I’m not here to change anything.


Now ok, he wasn’t a self-professed agile practitioner, he would probably have called himself an ITIL Service Manager, but I really don’t think that lets anyone of us off the hook.

As the excerpt from Sooner Safer Happier above implies, we are part of something bigger. Whatever we choose to do or choose not to do, every day, in work and out, can and will have an impact, on society, on the planet and on humanity… and we should consciously consider that, continuously.


As we have witnessed, party politics around the globe are at a particularly volatile state… the authors of Sooner Safer Happier point to the works of Carlota Perez to inform us how the previous 4 Industrial Revolutions (inc., Age of Steam & Railways, Age of Electricity & Engineering, Age of Oil & Mass Production) all had inflection points around the middle of the period creating a spell of democratisation and deployment of the technology discovered in the first half of the revolution. The years prior to these turning points all seem to have shared in equally volatile politics as we are experiencing now. Then as a species, humans, whose brains are wired for survival, have been able to work out ways or patterns to increase greater good behaviours (incentives) and decrease harmful individualistic behaviours (threats) to replace the previous antipatterns that have almost led us to the brink on numerous occasions.


Jon Smartin his recent DevOps Enterprise Summit talk “Organising for Outcomes” speaks to the changes that have occurred since the invention, by Richard Arkwright in 1771, of the first factory system at scale. This factory and resulting technological and management paradigm turned workforces from craftspeople into unskilled labour, in fact children who were small and cheap represented 75% of staff at his original Compton Mill in Derbyshire UK.


View the talk here at itrevolution.com (or on our YouTube channel) and watch Jon describe how very little has changed in terms of managerial, financial and administrative mechanisms for reaching explicit business goals. These mechanisms can also be termed policies and whilst many are explicit, many more are implicit, received wisdoms and orthodoxies that encourage people to utter those dreadful words, this is how we’ve always done it.






How we’ve always done it since Frederick Winslow Taylor pronounced “the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is fit to handle pig-iron as his daily work cannot possibly understand the science”


Policies are the rules by which organisations govern behaviour, and make actions politic (sensible and judicious). Over the years many actors, in many countries, have worked to make the most dangerous business practices unlawful. In terms of child labour, working hours and health & safety, Arkwright’s policies would be deemed hazardous in most places today.


Yet still, in this age of digital revolution, policies around collaboration, accountability, prediction, might still be described as pathological… serving mainly to keep knowledge workers in a state of unnecessary anxiety and often mental ill-health.


Wikipedia describes office politics as “the process and behaviour that in human interactions involves power and authority” also known as workplace politics and organizational politics. Going on to state, “It involves the use of power and social networking within a workplace to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals. Organizational politics are self-serving behaviours that employees use to increase the probability of obtaining positive outcomes within organisations. Influence by individuals may serve personal interests without regard to their effect on the organisation itself. Some of the personal advantages may include:


  • access to tangible assets

  • or intangible benefits such as status

  • pseudo-authority that influences the behaviour of others


Through patterns encouraged by Better Value Sooner Safer happier and the concepts discussed in Organising for Outcomes Jon and the team here at Sooner Safer Happier offer alternatives to the silo structures that make it difficult for ordinary likable, loving and professional people to behave in a cooperative and collaborative manner. Actively creating a new and better system does not ignore the politics, it creates a new type of workplace politics. It enables more people to cooperate across broader spheres of influence, helping those within the working environment to contribute in changing their world of work, by redefining policies, redesigning processes and placing more power, equally and with equity across a more inclusive set of people.


Autonomy.


Control.


In the hands of everyone, safely. Gulp. Might sound a bit militant to some…but that’s where it all began…


…At its conception Agile was a manifesto. A manifesto being a written statement of the beliefs, aims and policies of an organisation (especially political parties). This manifesto was created by practitioners as a means of inspiring, attracting and mobilising other practitioners to form what was essentially a labour movement.


Not all labour movements are about revolution and the language of agility is centred around evolution. I expect this may be due to things such as “the wisdom of crowds” and even the “collective trauma” that reverberates down the generations from those past 4 industrial revolutions.


We may still be someway off Perez’s inflection point but with software agility giving birth to DevOps and DevOps (and other portmanteaus and hybrids) giving birth to business and holistic enterprise agility, this message is travelling across the boundaries that the “division of labour” put in place when it elevated efficiency above creativity in the 18th century. It feels like we are, or should be, a little more enlightened now.


Better Value Sooner Safer Happier is a set of patterns and principles to help guide practitioners and activists, in how to break down those barriers and unlearn those Victorian orthodoxies, replacing them with something credible that people can get behind, vote for, put in place, and benefit from.


Agility is about starting movements; in Sooner Safer Happier we often use the “diffusion of innovations” model of adoption by Everett Rogers which describes an invitational and generative means of attracting people to your cause or behaviour or product. The first followers are those with an appetite for naturally trying something new, and it is these people, who are known and trusted by the majority who can invite the rest to join in. No coercion, no imposition. Social proof.





Another strategy for creating a positive movement is Communities of Practice encouraging “legitimate peripheral participation” (Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger) where voluntary learning and teaching can be done in a social context. As Cass Sunstein suggest in his 2021 talk “How Change Happens”… these communities provide the social ingredients that help movements grow and ideas spread; they help create safe environments for people to rid themselves of the preference falsification that psychologically unsafe workplaces encourage, it brings together people with diverse thresholds for change (a la Everett Rogers), and creates social interaction which not only enables availability and information cascades but also curates an echo chamber necessary for the group polarisation effect needed to give people in the community the courage and affirmation to try things previously seen as against the grain or worse still heretical.


These are the same conditions and frameworks that spawned political movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gender and sex equality… and they create the same motivations in people to buy cool products by the coolest producers such as Apple, Nike, Beats, Louis Vuitton and others.


Steve Jobs said politics wins in weak companies and the best ideas win in strong companies. I don’t think you can build a strong company by ignoring those politics. If we want customer advocacy and colleague engagement we need to engage in the politics and create something that allows people to generate and support the good ideas. If it’s the type of politics that are dragging you down, impeding your progress then try to understand that your impediments are the path. Only by tackling the issues can we take control of them.


It is this desire to shake up the status quo, to reframe what people might want and what people might vote for and decide to do differently that makes agile practitioners and agile coaches office politics activists.


We stand on the front line and we move in the corridors of power, we go up and down the hierarchy and across the boundaries of silos and specialisms. We win and lose elections as policies are selected and shown the door, but what we absolutely shouldn’t do is take the money and not try to change anything.




by Matt Turner, 27/10/22

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