Empowerment is a powerful buzzword, but it also has a meaning. I can remember a Dilbert cartoon to the effect that a company that advertises empowering its employees probably doesn’t. On the other hand, a company that implements Agile well has to empower its employees.
A key strength of Agile is the ability for the people who are close to the issues that inform a decision to make that decision. If decisions have to be constantly vetted by committees of managers the team will be slowed down to the point that it might as well have used a Waterfall approach.
This doesn’t mean that management gives away all its responsibility for the success of the program. This means that management’s approach to meeting that responsibility is different – it’s based on selecting and training good people, then allowing them to do what they’ve been trained to do. If they’re good at it, leave them to do it. If they’re not good at it, put them in a position they can handle and find someone else. But don’t tie up their ability to do the job with meetings and committees and bureaucracy.
Nowhere is this more needed than in the Product Owner. The Product Owner has to be empowered to speak on behalf of the customer to define how the product should behave. In an excellent Agile team, the Team Member asks the Product Owner a question, the Product Owner answers, and the Team Member acts on the information. The cycle is short and sweet, and doesn’t delay progress on the story or the iteration.
If your company is uncomfortable with empowerment, you need to figure out why and fix the problem so you can become comfortable. In future posts I’ll look at some typical reasons employees aren’t empowered.