Are Heroes Good for Organisational Agility?

More often I see job advertisements where recruiters are looking for a hero or super star employee for a specific job. In their excitement of reaching out to good candidates they emphasize the qualities like “Super Heroes”, “Specially Talented”, “Super Star” etc.

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While I doubt the effectiveness and reachability of this messaging (because most of the good employees would not consider themselves as heroes) I also see this as a potential blocker in future for a company trying to establish an agile and team oriented culture.

Let’s have a look at some factors why heroes are bad for your organization and the its effective functioning:

There’s a strong sense of achievement along with praises and feeling “special” that can come from saving the day. This too often leads to the ultimately self-defeating cycle of an addiction for the next score of adoration – but it’s never as good as the first time.  Moreover, when organization regularly rewards those who are consistently heroic, it typically creates an environment where everyone wants to be a hero. 

This is at odd with the agile value of collaboration. Agile promotes team work over individual work and the personal mastery (by an individual) is achieved while staying within a team structure. If a team is well trained and is functioning at its sustainable pace (take the example of a well formed soccer team) then there is no need for an individual player to be heroic as the team will use its game plan and playing tactics to score regularly.

The very definition of a hero means that it’s an elite position that is only reserved for a selected few. Organizations with a culture that overly reward such behaviour operate on the implicit assumption that everyone should aspire to be a hero.  But, if everyone is a hero, then no one is. This leads to only the very few getting the lion’s share of attention and rewards, and everyone else feeling like they can’t measure up to an impossible standard. In immature organizations management may perceive that this is how meritocracy works but in reality this is quite demoralizing to the vast majority of people. The bulk of the work that must get done in any sizable organization lies in the hands of the teams and people. Agile’s focus on enabling these teams and people to achieve results for an organization days in days out is what makes a difference and should be encouraged.

In a hero culture often there are heroes working super hard and long hours to achieve results. More often there are underlying process issues which require such heroic behaviors – perhaps there are processes that are broken, under trained staff, poor product quality etc. 

Agile organizations would take a system thinking approach and will improve the overall throughput of the organization. Over time through system wide process alignment and focus on sustainable system wide flow improvements there will be no need for heroic behaviors.

The addiction to being a hero is no different than any other addiction:  While it may ”light up” the pleasure centers of our brains in the short term, it’s ultimately much more damaging than it is helpful. No matter how brilliant, hard-working, and heroic an employee might be, no human being can keep up this kind of driving themselves to the bone pace forever.  

Within Agile a focus on teams and team based planning and decision making creates a culture of sustained delivery and continuous improvement that helps overcome any employee burnout.

A culture that overly rewards heroism often leads to hiding of information, and protecting and building ones “turf”. While heroism doesn’t require this behavior, too many people end up trying to put themselves in a position to be a hero by keeping information to themselves and building/protecting their territories in an overly self-serving way.

Agile values and principles bring transparency, collaboration and open communication to the teams. Teams need to actively sought out information hoarding and turf building behaviors and discourage these behaviors. 

Agile organizations who follow these practices will not only gain the benefits of a sustainable and well oiled working system but also that of a system that is scalable and enjoyable to work, while able to responding to change.

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