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The smell of a place

The inspiration for this odd title comes from a speech by the late Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal who was a Professor at the London Business School (Please see the reference at the end of the blog).

Do places smell? Hopefully Workplaces, Office rooms and Meeting rooms do not and should not smell. Kitchens, Dining Rooms, Washrooms, Toilets, etc. do smell. So how does a Project environment smell?

In the context of this article, smell is more a metaphor to describe the culture of a place (how one feels, does and reacts in a place) and this is where I unashamedly and freely borrow from Prof. Ghoshal’s extraordinary speech.

For an outsider, it is quite easy to walk into any organization, spend a few hours interacting with people and pick up the “smell of the place”. It is startling to see that people who have been working in an environment for some time become used to and insensitive to the smell of the place. While they may feel the effect of the smell, they feel resigned and helpless to do anything about it and acclimatise themselves to it.

Smell of a bureaucratic place

The smell of an autocratic or bureaucratic place can be characterised by the prevailing management culture. Prof. Ghoshal refers to four attributes; Constraint, Compliance, Contract and Control that characterise rigid and inflexible cultures. These are norms that Managers create that shape the behaviours of people. The smell of a place is most often set by Mid-Level Managers, not by Executive or Senior Managers. Mid-Level Managers set the smell of a place because of an innate desire to be indispensable and they thrive on their self-perceived sense of importance to others.

A few examples of each of these attributes illustrate the culture of anti-agile environments. I have chosen to use the term anti-Agile, for want of a better word, to describe any environment that is not Agile (uses traditional / Waterfall approaches to developing software). Antonyms like rigid, inflexible, bureaucratic, etc. didn’t seem to precisely convey what I had in mind. But you get the idea.

Constraint examples (what team members can’t freely do in the workplace)

  1. Teams cannot allocate resources to projects without the Manager's approval

  2. Teams cannot easily register themselves for training in project skills they don’t have

  3. Teams cannot bring in external professional help, even for a short time, to resolve festering project problems

Compliance examples (how team members are forced to obey rules and policies of the workplace)

  1. Team members are required to enter “time” in a time-management system to get paid. The recording of effort input seems to be more important than the output it is supposed to produce.

  2. Teams are required to create a set of documents for “sign-off” before proceeding to the next step

  3. Individuals cannot speak to a superior’s superior or bypass the command structure

Contract examples (terms and conditions to live by in the workplace)

  1. Teams must follow elaborate procedures for how project finances are submitted, approved and claimed against milestones and deliverables

  2. Vendor or Partners are usually engaged on Fixed price with the aim to have control on Project costs. (Fixed Price contract on variable scope and constrained schedule

  3. Teams must go through end less hoops of complex and snail-paced sign-offs from Legal departments before engaging external help

Control examples (how team members are expected to behave in the workplace)

  1. Team members are required to adhere to a project reporting structure that creates barriers for success but protects the Manager’s power

  2. Teams are subjected to time-consuming and energy draining multi-level approval processes before they can do any productive work

  3. Even though team members are doers and specialists they are told by Managers on how to do their work

  4. Managers want status reports for projects being managed by their direct reports to show “Amber or Red status” and show the same projects to their Bosses as “Green Status”

Smell of an Agile workplace

The smell of an Agile (Flexible, Nimble, Adaptive and Engaged) place can also be characterised by the prevailing management culture. We can again draw from Prof. Ghoshal’s four attributes to characterise Agile cultures; Stretch, Discipline, Trust and Support. Again, these are norms that Managers create that shape the behaviour of people. A few examples of each of these attributes illustrate the culture of Agile environments.

Stretch examples (what people voluntarily and freely do in the workplace to challenge themselves and grow)

  1. Team members picking up additional or cross-functional skills through training and continuous learning initiatives to help the team deliver more with fewer people

  2. Team members committing to measure and deliver real business benefits rather than just do their work

  3. Team members helping others to move the project forward rather than restricting themselves to their defined roles or responsibilities

Discipline examples (what people are still free to do as long they exercise self-discipline)

  1. Team members have the leeway to make decisions that involve costs to the organization (like external training, hiring special skill resources for a short time, buying books, etc.) and yet follow a self-imposed discipline to do the right thing and not abuse the privilege

  2. Team members elect to work from home but have the discipline to produce deliverables as committed

  3. Team members have the self-discipline to plan and follow a daily system to produce work, without being supervised

Trust examples (How people can trust each other and their Managers)

  1. Team members commit to each other on what they will deliver by the end of the day and there is implicit trust and dependability that they will live up to the commitment

  2. Team members trust each other to confide their weaknesses and seek to help each other

  3. Team members trust their Managers and feel comfortable to give them the bad news ad true status regarding project cost and schedule overruns without recrimination

Support examples (How Managers support their teams and team members support each other)

  1. Managers don’t pressurise teams to commit to unrealistic or impractical outcomes. Team members feel comfortable to develop their own plan and commit to the plan with complete support from the Manager

  2. There is a consistent chain of support up and down the hierarchy for both failures and success

  3. Team Members voluntarily pick up the slack and help others who are overburdened


The smell of a place (Culture) can be tiring, frustrating and energy sapping if the prevailing characteristics are based on constraint, compliance, contract and control. Managers owe it to themselves and their workforce to alter the smell of their places to be invigorating, energetic and engaging by encouraging and living the characteristics of stretch, discipline, trust and support. That is the Agile way.


The smell of the place by Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal , 2010 YouTube video


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