Sorry, Emperor Palpatine. Bad luck, President Snow. A lack of agility is destroying your empires.
The Star Wars and Hunger Games franchises are great examples of why top-down, hierarchical, and siloed approaches to managing people and projects don’t work. They may have worked in the past, but technological disruption is constant and accelerating at a rate unlike any prior revolution, and businesses in the Information Age need agility if they are to survive.
This article explores the ways in which those movies reveal the inherent lack of agility empires suffer from, and why businesses should shed all imperial tendencies if they want to compete in today’s environment.
The easy way to rule
Historically, empires were the easy way to rule. Democracy was too tricky, too scary, too uncertain. After all, they say too many cooks spoil the broth, don’t they? Better to vest all the power in one person or group. And then, well, it’s so much easier just to have one system and set of rules for everyone, isn’t it? No need to think about people’s individuality or culture. No need to listen to anyone else. Quicker, simpler, better.
Except that not many people like being subjugated, or having their creativity and individuality stifled. People need to be free. And that’s the ultimate reason why empires fall.
But empires don’t just fail because they make people unhappy and rise up against their overlords. They fail because of their strict hierarchical structures, their inflexibility, their inability to adapt quickly to change. In other words, they’re not agile and, in fact, they’re the reason agile practices came into being in the first place.
Empires love waterfalls
Empires rely on top-down hierarchical management, which has traditionally been very successful, both in politics and in business. No surprises, then, that the first framework created for software development was based on this top-down hierarchical approach: the waterfall model. In a waterfall environment, management dictates to the software team exactly what to build and when. The development lifecycle is a linear, step-by-step, and rigid process, with every phase planned and defined at the outset and every stage needing to be completed before moving on to the next. And deciding power is rarely delegated to or distributed among team members, but resides with management.
The main advantage of the waterfall model is that it’s easy. Easy to use, easy to manage. Empires like easy. But the risk that the end product doesn’t meet expectations is bloody huge. And that’s because there’s no opportunity to incorporate feedback, new ideas, or go back a step and improve something.
Agile was born to counter this inflexibility, to make software development an adaptive and iterative process, with a focus on delivering minimum viable products (MVPs) as quickly as possible and on trusting team members to do the jobs they know how to do. In truly agile environments, hierarchies are flattened. Management climbs down from their ivory towers and jumps into the trenches with everyone else. Instead of asking, “When is this product going to ship?”, they ask, “How can I help you make sure it’s released on time?”
Star Wars: why top-down approaches fail
Empires might seem easy, but when there’s only one person or group wielding all the power, that’s a lot of decisions that need to go through them. That makes decision-making mighty slow. Businesses can’t respond to today’s opportunities if the managers are still mulling over yesterday’s. There’s another problem. Decisions made by power-hoarders are often ineffective because they aren’t the best people to make them. And we haven’t even mentioned the danger of silos. Strict hierarchical structures deliberately keep teams in the dark, and this lack of transparency and visibility is a very common reason why projects fail.
Take the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. Here we have a huge, sprawling organization, paralysed by bureaucracy, crippled by silos. If the Stormtroopers had any understanding of what was going on above their heads, then maybe they’d have been able to stop Obi-Wan Kenobi from taking down a tractor beam a few feet away from them.
The Galactic Empire is controlled top-down by the Universe’s worst micromanager, Emperor Palpatine. His approach is to bet everything on the big-bang launch of the ultimate superweapon, the Death Star. The first Death Star, in particular, has all the hallmarks of a failed waterfall project. It took thirty years to make and when it was finally ready, it had a great big honking design flaw that allowed a plucky teenage rebel to blow it up. A flaw that should have, and would have, been obvious to an agile team.
To give the Empire its due, it at least tried to be a little more agile with the second Death Star. They were able to release an MVP in good time, namely a “fully armed and operational battle station” with a functioning superlaser. And that was before the structure was fully built and in a fraction of the time it took to get the first one up and running.
But the planet killer still met its spectacular demise after only one iteration. And that’s because the Empire’s siloed and bureaucratic nature, and unwillingness to tolerate or even acknowledge failure, doomed it to repeat past mistakes. And so Death Star II fell at the first hurdle to a bunch of furry teddy bears.
The Hunger Games: why teams shouldn’t service their leaders
In The Hunger Games, the districts of Panem are ruled by the autocratic Capitol and its leader, President Snow. Snow says that the Capitol is Panem’s “beating heart” and that nothing can survive without it. Each district supplies the Capitol “like blood to a heart”.
The problem is, a system where the team services the leadership like this doesn’t tend to work out too well. Teams who simply obey orders barked at them from high places with no opportunity for autonomy or creativity end up resentful of their leaders and how much control they have. The fact that President Snow considers himself above everyone else is what leads his districts to rebel against his rule.
The modern business environment requires leaders who check their egos at the door and work with their teams to get the best out of them. Leaders who are willing to ask questions more than answer them, and delegate decision-making to the people better equipped to make them.
Evoking the words of Katniss Everdeen, if your team burns, you burn with them. Of course, those words are just as true the other way round. If your team flourishes, you flourish with them. Too often, leaders believe they serve only the bottom line, not realizing that long-term investment in the supporting players facilitates the bottom line.
Why flatter hierarchies are better
The Rebel Alliance in Star Wars is a much more agile organization than the Empire. The rebels aren’t hung up on who’s in charge and no one’s using fear of being force-choked to keep others in line. On the contrary, the Rebel leaders leverage people and interactions, trust in their teams, and allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. Their adaptive and iterative approach is what leads Luke Skywalker to abandon conventional methods, switch off his targeting computer, and use the Force to fire his torpedoes into the Death Star’s main reactor.
The rebels in The Hunger Games are similarly agile. Nowhere is this better on display than when Katniss is recruited to be the star of their propaganda videos. The first video is a failure because, well, Katniss isn’t an actress and doesn’t do well with lines written for her. They realize that to get the best out of Katniss they have to film her in a real-life situation. As a result, Katniss crafts a spontaneous and rousing speech, inspiring the rest of the districts to join the revolution. This demonstrates willingness on the rebels’ part to adapt quickly, to try something and fail, and try again, and in particular, to capitalize on a team member’s individual strengths.
Give more power to more people
Empires are bound by tradition and convention. They don’t really change, because they can’t. But things that don’t change… die.
Businesses shouldn’t worry about too many cooks spoiling the broth. They should worry about too few cooks making it boring and bland so that customers lose interest. Sometimes a new and unexpected ingredient can transform it for the better. But the only way of discovering that ingredient is by breaking down silos and flattening hierarchies. Listen to other people’s ideas and you might just hear a better one.
Team members want autonomy. They want to be creative. Most of all, they want to be useful. The fewer barriers in their way, the better for them and, ultimately, the better for the business. The sad fact is that in many business environments, team members are prevented from doing all the things they could do by overly complex tools. They can’t be fully autonomous and self-organizing because they need to turn to an expert for help.
For instance, how many Jira users are there who have to turn to a programmer to create a report? Native Jira reporting isn’t exactly alive with options and most Jira users need reports that are more specific and targeted to their needs. But the software their organization has in place to build more customized reports requires knowledge of a programming language—and that’s something they don’t have. As a result, the programmer who has to compile the reports for the user becomes an overlord hoarding the knowledge, visibility, and control of the company’s data. Just like an empire. And just like an empire, decisions happen too slowly because users aren’t being equipped to make them.
This is why Atlassian partners are building software that everyone can use straight away. The future of technology in business is intuitive platforms that don’t require you to undertake a computer science degree or week of training. Only when the walls between the developers and the business users have been broken down can an organization’s imperial tendencies be swept away.
Then, only then, agile will you be.
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Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.