Malicious obedience is a common behavioral response to situations in which individuals know that they have no control over what they work on, how they work, or the outcome they produce. When the incentive/penalty structure emphasizes obedience over all else, people learn very quickly to do precisely what they are told and nothing more, even if they know perfectly well that what they are doing is not the best way to achieve the end goal, which in the software industry is a working, valuable product. A common example, and one that I have experienced on more than one occasion, is when developers write code exactly as specified even when they know that what they’re coding is incompatible with some other part of the system, either because of an initial design flaw or a requirements change that did not propagate to their part of the system in time. Since top-down control values obedience over all else, the developers in question had no choice but to follow the plan, write the code as specified, generate waste, and damage the overall project. “We were just following orders, sir.”
Since a successful project is (or should be) the actual goal, the cure is to apply Agile values and principles throughout – and Scrum is an effective way to implement those Agile values and principles. When people choose their own daily tasks, freely commit as members of a team to deliver a Sprint Goal, and have control over how they implement a solution, malicious obedience is no longer an issue. To put it another way, removing the compulsion to follow arbitrary orders from the equation eliminates the possibility of malicious obedience. When people are empowered to take ownership of their work, the Law of Unintended Consequences breaks down, resulting in innovative solutions, sterling quality, timely feature delivery, and a massive boost to individual, team, and organizational morale.
Looking to learn more about how leadership drives Agile success? We’ve got just what you’re looking for. Our newest white paper, Leadership, is coming soon.