Ditching Scientific Management

August 1, 2019
5 minute read

If you want to truly implement Scrum in the workplace, you have to be willing to dispense with titles, to dispense with scientific management.

In the standard product development environment, you might have a middle manager directing a team, a product manager organizing the work, and then some developers, some testers and some quality assurance staff doing the actual work.

But this doesn’t work in the Scrum environment. Instead, you have a ScrumMaster who facilitates a group of team members. Each member brings their own skillset to the table, and those talents, skills and experiences are naturally leveraged appropriately within the team. Nobody has an assigned role with specific duties. This is key.

Everyone Contributes

In the BERTEIG CSM class, we do an exercise where we break up the participants into groups of five or six and have each team produce a comic book. We deliberately put them in an environment where nobody is a professional comic book artist (at least it hasn’t happened yet). This illustrates what a Scrum team is: a level playing field for contribution. You use problem solving, creativity, innovation—whatever it takes. All of that emerges from the team. The the idea is not to impose it.

There is a historical background to this, rooted in something called scientific management. It came about in the 1920s, partly as a result of the industrial revolution and mass production. The idea was very simple: managers are smart and workers are dumb, and therefore managers observe the workers, measure the activities and tell the workers exactly how to do their jobs to make it better and better.

Interestingly, that actually did lead to huge productivity improvements in many cases. But it wasn’t because the workers were dumb. It was because managers, like many human beings, were actually smart. They could spot potential improvements. Managers had the authority. And they asked for the improvements to be made and they were made.

But it’s equally possible they could have asked the workers and they probably would have come up with a lot of good ideas too. That’s just not how society worked back then. And that theory of scientific management, unfortunately, still persists in much of what we learn about management today. It’s implied, though not stated so bluntly: managers are smart, workers are dumb.

Scientific Management and the Project Manager

This concept persists especially in the software environment, where project managers are the kings and queens. Project managers figure it out and tell people what to do. Not every PM may work that way. There are some who are micro managers, some who are team builders and everything in between.

But there’s always the implication that we have someone who manages. We have a functional manager who’s supposed to evaluate the performance based on the function of individuals. We have many levels of management and all kinds of different management titles.

None of these things are inherently bad. In some cases, they’re actually quite functional. But complex product development is primarily knowledge work, where creativity, innovation and problem solving are essential to the success of your work.

Creating an environment with a self-organizing team is much more effective. But there are some assumptions here. Frankly, if you have a team of idiots, it doesn’t matter what process you’re using. You’re still going to produce crap. That is, until the team members learn. And Scrum embraces the idea that everyone can learn given the right environment.

When you hire an intern with almost no experience just fresh out of school, you have lower expectations of them. And that’s appropriate. Then hopefully, they prove themselves and you might hire them full-time.

Zero Assumptions

But the big difference in a Scrum environment is we don’t assume what people are good at based only on the previous role they held. If you were a tester before doesn’t mean you can’t code. Just because you did user experience before doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about databases. And just because you’ve never done French localization before doesn’t mean you can’t learn it.

All this is to say: we don’t know what people’s talents are based solely on credentials, education and the roles they’ve filled in the past. And if we give people the right environment, often they will surprise us. That’s the fundamental idea behind Scrum: a team where everyone learns, everyone contributes and nobody needs to be managed with antiquated notions.

In Scrum, we never assume people are dumb.

(NOTE: true scientific management or Taylorism doesn’t assume people are dumb.)

This article was adapted from a recent Certified ScrumMaster class that Mishkin taught in Toronto. 


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