March 9, 2023

Special Agile Roles: Are They needed?

During their second conversation with , the Managing Partner of , hosts  and  explore the reasons behind Cliff's belief that, although special Agile roles have long been the norm for Agile adoptions, their...

During their second conversation with Cliff Berg, the Managing Partner of Agile 2 Academy, hosts Matt Perez and Jose Leal explore the reasons behind Cliff's belief that, although special Agile roles have long been the norm for Agile adoptions, their helpfulness might be questionable, or we might simply be missing something.

Let's find out!


Jose Leal (00:04):

Welcome to I'm Jose Leal with my co-host Matt Perez. And today for the second time, we've got Cliff Berg coming back to us. So, it's Agile 2 and interview number two. So, you're into twos today. How are you doing, Cliff?

Cliff Berg (00:24):

I'm good. How are you?

Jose Leal (00:26):

Good, good. Nice to have you back.

Cliff Berg (00:30):

Thank you.

Jose Leal (00:31):

We really enjoyed our conversation with you last time, and digging into, you know, both of us had some experience with Agile and distinguishing Agile from radical, trying to understand what those two things are and learning what you're doing with Agile too. So great opportunity to look a little deeper and learn a little bit more from what you guys are doing and also from your experience in the field.

Cliff Berg (01:03):

Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you, Jose.

Jose Leal (01:06):

Do you want to just for folks who didn't see the first episode, just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Cliff Berg (01:12):

Okay. Well, first I'll mention what Agile 2 is. You know, you may not know if you're watching this, you probably know what Agile is in case you don't. Agile is, I would say it's a movement that started about 20 years ago in the IT community. And it kind of grew out of that. And it's permeated a lot of different areas, mainly product development companies. And although it's been used in lots of domains. But the Agile community evolved a set of ideas that some of them, some of the ideas were a little bit problematic and there's also a lot of splintering that occurred within the Agile community, but the core ideas were sound. And so a few years ago some colleagues and I put together a team of 15 people to kind of revisit it and take a more science-based approach.

Cliff Berg (02:08):

And what do we know about behavioral psychology and cognitive science about how people think and how they communicate. And leadership theory is a lot of research in leadership and operations research. You know, we talk about lean, but you know, what's the, you know, how do things really work? And so, we came up with what we ended up calling Agile 2 and wrote a book about it. And then I formed a company with some people, some of those a subset not in order to create a, some kind of certification scheme or something, but to help organizations to actually achieve real agility. So we use these ideas. We also use a lot of other ideas. We're partnered with a company called Human Synergistics that has a very effective, very robust organizational culture model. We use a lot from leadership.

Cliff Berg (03:07):

One of us is an organizational psychologist. So, you know, we take an approach that we, an inquisitive approach where we try to understand people's situation and help them to achieve true agility, often having nothing to do with so-called agile methods. It depends on their situation. I have a long career in different aspects of engineering. I was an electrical engineer, I was a nuclear engineer. I have a degree in operations research and industrial engineering as well as some other things. And I also had a very successful startup in the late nineties that grew to about 200 people. And we built things that worked at scale, mission critical things. And I ended up writing a book called High Assurance Design, which described a very agile approach to conceptualizing and building systems but in a flexible and learning based way that systems that have to work. And I've been involved with the agile community since the movement started. My company at that time adopted extreme programming which I personally don't really relate to, but people at my company wanted it, and I trusted them, and it worked well for them. So that's about empowering people to do what works for them. And I've been writing and involved in the agile community ever since.

Jose Leal (04:44):

That was great. That was great. I think you did the an even better job this time. So that's you've gotten good at this.

Cliff Berg (04:50):

I'll take your word for it. Cause I don't remember what I said last.

Jose Leal (04:55):

It just seemed like you really wrapped that up both with your personal experience and the radical piece, or pardon me, the agile piece. So, one of the things that Matt and I have been trying to do with this podcast is to learn about what's happening out in the real world and how it matches with the ideas that we've been do, you know, curating and testing and building through radical. And so, one of the conversations we had last time that piqued my interest in having another conversation with you was our view or your view of organizational hierarchy. And the need for that. I wonder if we could start there. What are your thoughts on the chance that organizational hierarchy or is going to morph into something different or disappear altogether as it is today?

Cliff Berg (05:56):

Well, I don't think it can disappear. I mean, you know, would you really want to be in an organization where, you know, it was a free for all? Because what happens then is hidden power networks emerge, and some people are in, and other people are, you know, do you want to be out? You know, and to be in, you have to, I mean, this is how organized crime works, frankly. You know, it's very evolutionary, very organic, and the people who are, who behave in powerful, aggressive ways win and rise in the implicit hierarchy, even if it's not explicit. So, I don't think anyone really wants to work in an organization that doesn't have structure, because structure is there not just to help organize, it's also there to protect people. You know, we have rules, like, you know, the so-called hallway conversation can be good if it's like in the moment.

Cliff Berg (06:59):

And, people are generative, but it can also be very bad if it excludes people. You know, the so-called decision made on the golf course or decision made in the men's room. That excludes people because it goes outside of, you know, a lot of these rules are here to protect people as well. There is always structure, whether it's explicit or implicit. If you start with no structure, structure will evolve over time and you'll end up with structure, whether it's explicit or not. There will be structure, there will be a power hierarchy within the organization. There will be.

Jose Leal (07:40):

Absolutely. We agree with that. I think the question is, should that hierarchy be an imposed one, what we call a fiat hierarchy, where the individual at the top has the privilege and the right and in some cases, the mandate to impose their will throughout the organization?

Cliff Berg (08:05):

Well, you know, before I answer that, because it kind of sounds like a loaded question, you know, like, you know, do you favor autocratic or not? You know, it's not like that. It's all about behavior. You know, it, organizations, almost every organization has a CEO. And that's for a reason, you know, because it provides accountability. It provides also a touchpoint. It provides, you know, the face of the organization. That person often is a strong advocate for the organization, which is very important. But you know, organizations have other leaders too. Intel is a famous case where there were three people who led that company, and at various times, each of them was CEO o for some period of time. But it really was that three, those three people. And they were very different types of leaders together.

Cliff Berg (08:55):

They combined the leadership traits that were needed to run the organization. How people behave when they have authority is the issue. You know, people who are at the top in a relative sense at the top of some group can be very toxic. Authority is dangerous. It's, you know, if you give someone a specific role in authority over something, they can very easily misuse that and make things miserable. But authority also can be very useful and very powerful if the behavior is good, you know? And so, if you have you know, it's like the case of the benevolent king. There's nothing more effective than a benevolent king. The you know, the dilemma is how do you know you're going to get a benevolent one? And you know, that's the challenge.

Cliff Berg (09:55):

You know, in an organization, what you want, what makes an organization effective has very little to do with the structure. It has almost 98% has to do with the behavior of the people who have influence in that organization. Whether it's, you know, author through influence, through authority, or just influenced because they're persuasive. You know, and the influence, you know, the way that people behave is very much determined by who gets given authority and by what incentives are created. And that's very much generated by the behavior and attitudes of the people at the top. You know, if the people at the top promote people who have positive leadership traits, that tends to permeate everything and the organization then behaves in a very healthy way. And, you know, positive leadership traits include empowering others, you know, so an organization that has hierarchy does not equate to an organization that's autocratic not at all.


Matt Perez (11:15):

Autocratic, is not autocratic is not desirable? Is that what you're saying? Or,

Cliff Berg (11:21):

I'm sorry, what's that Matt?

Matt Perez (11:23):

Are you saying that autocratic is not desirable? I'm trying to understand what you saying.

Cliff Berg (11:30):

No. To work for someone who's autocratic, you know, autocratic is, you know, someone who just gives orders out and doesn't listen. You know, someone who never asks for your opinion, someone who thinks they knows it all, know it all. You know, that's toxic behavior. An organization that is run by autocrats generally will not survive long today, because today you need the brains of all the people, and you want people to feel empowered to share their ideas. And you want discussions to be high quality. You want the best idea to win, not the favorite idea of the leader. You know? So, you know, you want the behaviors to be such that you know, if there is a team lead side, let's take a simple case, you know, where you have a group of people and there's a team lead, whatever that means, you know, it might just mean that person is like, gets people organized or something, but whatever it means issues come up and they, people identify those issues right away.

Cliff Berg 12:36):

By the way, this is happening, what should we do? And there's a discussion, and the best idea wins. And it's like, you know, someone like, could be the team lead says, well, what if we do this, what do you think? And other people say, no, that won't work because of this. Oh, you're right. And then someone says, what if we do this? Huh? Yeah, well, that will lead to that and that that might work. And then, but then what if the discussion goes on and now it's been an hour and, and there's no consensus? Because some people say, we should do this. That might work, but I think it'd be better if we do this. And the, and some people want that, and they kind of can't agree they think we could do this or do that. Those are the two choices that might work.

Cliff Berg (13:18):

And then should you vote, I don't know if voting is a good approach, maybe, but at some point, you've invested enough time discussing it, and you need a decision on what to try. You need a decision on what to try. And if the group doesn't, groups of people are not good at quickly making a decision. And so very often it's very helpful to have someone who is the designated leader who says, okay, we've talked it through, here's what we're going to do. Let's try it and see what happens. And then once we try it, we can revisit it. You know, it's not a closed issue, you know, that's not autocratic. That's decisiveness and decisiveness and empowering people go hand in hand. They're not opposites. They go hand in hand because empowering people is asked, you know, getting them to think of ideas letting them try it, letting them try it in their way. But still, there need to be decisions in a timely way. And you need, you know, a good leader knows when to decide and when to back off and say, do what you think that there's a, they need to know when to do each of those.

Matt Perez

Okay. That's part of, here's just, here's the thing that I'm struggling with. I founded a company in 2007, was completely self-managed. There were no titles, there was no leaders, there was no anything else. And by what you're saying that it shouldn't exist. It should have been, it should have gone to the worst case, which is what you assumed. You assumed that, oh, there's a three for all, there's no decisions and stuff like that. And you're not alone. You're not the only one that makes that jump. That people make that assumption that there’s if there's no strong leader that there's going to be a free for nothing between this or that. And at least my experience is that, not, is there's a lot of chasing between, there's a lot of stuff that people must learn, no question about it. And but it doesn't result in chaos. It doesn't result in non-decision making and stuff like that, not having an imposed structure. That's to me, that's a fact. I lived with it for 15 years. I'm still living with it. And the company's now up to, I think 900 people or something like that. It's a lot of people do.

Cliff Berg (16:15):

They still have no structure?

Matt Perez (16:17):

Yeah. There's what you call structure, meaning a boss, a vice boss, and vice, vice boss and, they're all bosses because all imposed, but it's still self-managed. And so, I you know, how do you put this together? And my answer is by accepting shades of it, not chaos and complete happiness or something is what you call structure and what you call decisiveness. You need those two, no question about that. But you need it to be, you don't need it to be imposed.

Cliff Berg (17:19):

Well, you know, I don't know the specific situation, but you know, in my experience in a group of people, there are a few who emerge as the leaders. And, you know usually there's one with a little group around them. And when you have a large organization that divides up in the many groups, they emerge. And you end up with lots of groups, and there's some people who have influence across groups, they develop, I would wage a thousand dollars that there are people in your company that have substantially more influence than the average person in the company. I would wage a thousand dollars. That there are people who are de facto leaders to a very substantial degree.

Matt Perez (18:14):

And you'll be right. There's not an infinite amount of people that take on that role. But it's not imposed and it's dynamic. So for some things, this person has more influence for some other things. This person has more influence and stuff like that. And so, it doesn't come out of me telling, oh, you are the leader, but rather than saying rather than this person speaking up a certain way and having more influence and stuff like that, and oftentimes that influence comes to be places where you least expect it. Sometimes the most junior person is the one that is the most influential about it which you wouldn't discover deal. So anyways, how's your company organized now? I mean, are do you have an imposed structure or,

Cliff Berg (19:15):

No, we don't. But you know, I founded the company, so I tend to, you know, have final say when I want to, but you know, I never tell other people how to do what they're doing. We have a lot of discussions about things. You know, when, you know, clients sometimes will email me and say, can we talk? And I talk to them one-on-one so they can be transparent about everything.

Matt Perez (19:48):


Cliff Berg (19:49):

You know, what if they have a complaint about something which hasn't happened yet, but it could happen.

Matt Perez (19:55):

Yeah, yeah.

Cliff Berg (19:56):

You know, going back to your company, you know, that kind of situation can be effective. But I would point out that it in my experience, it tends to filter. You tend to end up with the people who develop influence tend to be the ones who are more expressive and more influential in their behavior. They tend to be the ones who network, the ones who make their case the ones who are conversational you know, the outgoing ones. And that tends to filter and silence a portion of people who just are not inclined to make their case in a forceful way.

Matt Perez (20:48):

So again, in my experience, and from Bursoc is a Dutch company that does healthcare and stuff like that. What happens is that other people learn. They see what's going on. They get more relaxed about the whole thing, and they learn how to communicate. So it's not so much that they get stifled, but that they get to learn from other folks as well. And the touch company where, what they do is have I think thousands of people now in the Netherlands,

Jose Leal (21:28):


Matt Perez (21:29):

10,000. And they don't, they don't have a particular boss. There's small groups of nurses in neighborhoods. And what happens is the other people learn to express themselves and more assertive and stuff like that. Which is usually something that we learn not to do in the system that we live in.

Jose Leal (21:58):

I want to get to the topic of the day because we've sort of sideswiped Cliff here a little bit with me introducing that other topic. But Cliff, we've been talking about roles. In essence, we're talking about the same thing. Roles within teams, roles within Agile, roles within organizations. So do we need special agile roles?


Cliff Berg (22:27):

Well now I would say, you know, given, you know, if we don't need managers, then why do we need any roles? Why do we need agile coaches? Why do we need, it's everyone's the same, right? Anyone can have a good idea about anything, so why do we need any roles?

Matt Perez (22:45):

But again, Cliff, you're making a jump. You're going from some people had our assigned certain roles and everybody's the same. And it's not like that. It's not that quick of a jump. There's a lot of chasing between, there's expertise. If I know more about, I don't know how to do X and you know more about agile and methodology and all that stuff, then I'm going to take directions from you. I'm not going to be stupid and go, well, because I have my role. No, it's not like that. So, you have your role, I have my roles, so I'll let Jose,

Jose Leal (23:30):

Yeah. I think the issue of structure that is imposed and the ability for people to take on roles are two different questions.

Cliff Berg (23:43):

It's partly, it's not entirely because, you know, an important role is final decision maker. You know, in, imagine you have a fire department and there's a fire you know, the fire chief plays a very important role because it's an emergency situation. Lives are at stake. And someone needs to be paying attention to where everybody is and what's happening. And so, the fire chief might go on the radio and say, you know, Joe, go to the second floor because there's someone there I just found out, and there needs to be, okay, I'll do that. And that person is doing that with authority. But you know, someone who has authority should also be a listener, you know, because you don't want toxic authority. Authority is a role. And what you want is you want that fire chief to be listening because someone might come on the radio and say, no, don't do that because I'm on the second floor.

Cliff Berg (24:49):

I just got there and I'm closer. And so instead of being a bully and saying, do what I say, go, you know, the someone who gives an order, because there's a sense of urgency, because time matters should also be a listener. And shouldn't micromanage. They should, you know, tell people this is what we need to do and they should listen. Because people have usually better ideas. I think we should be doing this instead. Oh, why do you think that? Let's discuss that. You know, authority, you know, to Matt's point, it's not an absolute either. You know, within an organization, people will develop influence. And what you don't want is you don't want a situation where you have favoring certain personality types. You want to get the best of everybody. And you know, so there is a balance. You do want people to develop, be able to develop organic influence. You do, but it's dangerous because some, that becomes politics. And politics can be toxic or beneficial. It's toxic. If it's self-serving, it's beneficial. If it's making trade-offs that find a compromise that benefits everybody collectively, you know?

Jose Leal (26:20):

In a traditional management structure, you have the same issue. Typically, not everybody applies to be the boss, because there, you know, the boss requires a certain type of personality or skillset. And the organization may have a certain definition of who the boss can and should be in many cases, gender, race, and other issues that are, you know, part of the organizational ethos. And we see that every day in many different organizations. Right. So, it's not the structure that makes it or breaks it. I think, well, I would, is that fair to say?

Cliff Berg (27:07):

I that's true. It's the behavior. And I would point out that, you know, it's, you know, diversity, equity, inclusion requires structure, you know, because people will naturally make decisions that reflect their personal bias knowingly or not. And, you know, so we have rules and policies and decision-making processes, you know, in order to make sure that that we are being fair to people.

Jose Leal (27:40):

Is it possible though Cliff, that we could help people do that from the people rather than from the imposition that we must overcome that no matter what do we have to overcome that by imposing on people? Or can we overcome that by helping individuals to see that in themselves, to see those whatever you may want to call them that, that they happen to, you know, act in a certain way, behave in a certain way that isn't you know, good for them, good for the rest of the community that they're operating in?

Cliff Berg (28:25):

Well, there are two dilemmas, you know, I mean, because you should, yeah, basically you're saying improve the EQ of everybody, which you should definitely do. But that only goes so far. A lot of people are toxic, you know, that's just the spectrum of humanity. And a lot of them work for our companies. I don't mean your company or my company and us, but if you look at the average organization, not everybody has a high EQ far from it. And another dilemma is that there very often are, there are zero sum situations in an organization. There just are, you know, there might be two different products that share something. And you know, one needs, you know, so you might have to make the choice, you get it, or you get it, or how much, and do you really expect that those product managers are going to want what's best for their organization versus their product? They might to some degree, but it depends, you know, there's, you know, how much, you know, and you know, so, you know, if you have a completely self-organizing situation, not everybody makes decisions for the benefit of the organization and expecting that they all will is expecting a lot.

Jose Leal (30:05):

Well, but we've been doing the traditional way of managing, and I mean, recently we've seen evidence of what happens at major corporations. We laid off thousands of people here in the valley where a handful of people made a decision to lay off tens of thousands of people, not their own managers, weren't aware of the fact that they were being laid off that the team members were being laid off. They were, they were laid off via email overnight. Those are examples of, of the types of organization that we have. And these are, in some cases, they are the pinnacle of what we consider a good corporation. A Google or a Facebook or you know, someone like that.

Cliff Berg (30:59):

Yeah, but you know, these are apples and oranges because, you know, why does hierarchy have anything to do with that? You know, those companies have a crisis financially, and they had to do something about it. And so if there were no hierarchy, then what would happen? They, so a company that has no hierarchy will never have layoffs.

Jose Leal (31:29):

No, I wasn't referring to whether they should or shouldn't. That's a different equation because they're not, you know, they made 33 billion last year. So, I don't think that's much of a crisis. But it is fair to say that we have had a system for many years and that system also has not necessarily perfected itself. And there isn't, you would think that by now we kind of figured out how to use that kind of top down organization to overcome a lot of these issues.

Cliff Berg (32:13):

It's not a system, you know, it's not about the system, it's about the culture. You know, if you look at the US politics and government, it's the same system as it was 50 years ago, but it's a lot more messed up today because the culture has changed. You know? It's the same in organizations. It's, you know, you can take a hierarchy or no hierarchy and, you know, the culture of that, of the people, the culture of that organization is very, you know, very much predictive of how it will behave. You know that organizations that have hierarchy can be like apples and oranges. You can have two organizations. They both have the same hierarchy and they behave completely differently. You know, hierarchy is not the issue, right? It's not the issue. The issue is the, the cultural norms. It's the behavior and attitudes of the people who have influence, whether it's influenced through a positional authority or influenced because they're persuasive. It's the culture of those people that determines the behavior of the organization. You know? It's a behavioral issue. It's not, the hierarchy is not the problem.

Jose Leal (33:40):

Okay. No, I hearing you loud and clear, I appreciate that, Matt, I was just going to, if I may, I was just going to ask one thing, because the culture is then at the personal level, right? We don't impose culture. Some organizations have tried that. It hasn't worked very well,

Cliff Berg (33:59):

But, well, it's not a matter of impose, you know, it's, you don't, you can't impose culture, but you can create culture. You know, the people who've you know, Sayta Nadella is famous for shifting the culture of Microsoft. It took 10 years because it's a big company, but you absolutely can shift culture intentionally. It’s not just like a complex adaptive system that evolves on its own. You know, people forget that evolving systems evolve because the ones that that evolve poorly die, you know, you don't want your company to die. You know, you, you want it to evolve. Well, and that requires intention. You know, someone's got to be driving you know, and David Marquette wrote his book, Turn the Ship Around, you know, what he describes as not like just a no hierarchy place. What he describes is he empowered people. He taught them, he coached them, he taught them how to think out loud. He changed the culture, he set expectations, he let people figure out how to get stuff done. But he stayed the captain, he still made decisions about things.

Matt Perez (35:17):

He had to say the captain, it was the military. And so, with that, I'll leave the last word to you Cliff, because I must announce the next guest, which is Phil Johnson speaking of emotional intelligence. He's the CEO of Master of Business Solution as an emotional intelligence company. And we'll find out more about it next week when we talk to him. And by the way, this company is in Canada. I don't know what that means, but it's just here. So, with that, I thank you very much for rolling with all the punches so far. So well and thank you for sticking with us for a second time.


Cliff BergProfile Photo

Cliff Berg

Managing Partner

Cliff is Managing Partner of Agile 2 Academy. He co-founded the Agile 2 movement ( and was the lead author of Agile 2: The Next Iteration of Agile. Cliff helps organizational leaders to define and execute strategies that will increase agility. Previously Cliff was CTO and co-founder of Digital Focus (purchased by Command Information in 2006), a 1995 startup that grew to 200 people in five years and adopted Agile (eXtreme Programming) in 2000. Cliff has been a nuclear engineer, an electrical engineer, a programmer, and architect, an entrepreneur, and an executive. He has masters degrees from Cornell in Operations Research and Nuclear Engineering, and is an avid reader of books of all kinds, including mathematics, biochemistry, and psychology.