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The agile management concept Tight - Loose - Tight

leadership May 24, 2020

Have you ever thought that leaders you have had in your life could have done a better job?

As a person working in a team, do you recognise one or more of these signs of bad leadership:

  • Unclear vision, directions or expectations for the team
  • The team has little freedom or autonomy
  • The leader is micromanaging the team
  • The leader makes decisions for the team without or with little involvement
  • Lack of trust in the team
  • Giving little, not relevant or wrong feedback
  • The leader does not recognise the team for their excellent work
  • Bureaucratic decision processes
  • Not being directly responsible for decisions that the leader made
  • Not being clear about endstates of outcomes
  • Not using data to measure progress towards goals or outcomes

Did you nod to one or more of the above leadership behaviours?

Many of these leadership behaviours are probably quite widespread, causing, among other things, reduced motivation and engagement, lower quality of the work delivered, lower business throughput, and eventually hurting the competitiveness of the business.

Rune Ulvnes, Partner at CoWork AS, saw these problems and wanted to do something about it. Being experienced with agile methodologies he recognised a need to answer a prevalent question on how to organise projects, departments or teams that adopts an agile approach. He was inspired by the book The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor and his work about the authoritarian (Theory X) and participative (Theory Y) management models.

Theory Y made Rune Ulvnes realise that the way employees are treated by their managers was the key to a solution.

Here is a short description of Theory Y from the Agile Talent training by Agile People:



Copyright Agile People. Made by Pia Maria Thorén, Inspiration Director and Agile People Coach.

Rune Ulvnes concluded that there should be less management and more leadership and that teams should be cross-functional and provided with trust and freedom to get the job done.

Rune Ulvnes was faced with a huge challenge. These are some of the symptoms of companies that are striving to make the shift from Theory X to Theory Y:

  • Culture. This is how they always have done it. No will to change. Inertia. A successful transition will probably need HR to lead a cultural transformation. 
  • Bureaucracy. Challenges in profiting on opportunities or not being able to respond timely to market or technological changes, without adding layers of management.
    Leadership incompetence. Not knowing the economic benefits of doing the transition.
  • Lack of trust. Related to culture. Believing that individuals and work must be managed. 
  • Lack of enacted values and principles. There might be values and principles that are related to Theory Y, but breaking them is having no consequences. 

What if there was an ingeniously simple practice pattern that would alleviate most of the challenges mentioned at the start of the article?

Rune Ulvnes introduced the Tight - Loose - Tight Leadership concept in 2014. From management to leadership using Tight - Loose - Tight was his first article about the subject. It caught the attention of the agile community in Norway and quickly became an accepted and popular model.

The figure below summarises the concept:


Some typical patterns:

Essentially, what we want is to move from the bad variants of the various Tight - Loose - Tight leadership styles to a mission command style of leadership.

This is how Peter Merel, CEO XSCALE Alliance, describes Mission Command:

Mission-Command is a leadership style initially developed by the Prussian Field Marshall Von Moltke as aufragstaktik, later known as blitzkrieg. Google embeds it in their "OKRs" – Objectives & Key Results – and Apple in "DRIs" – Directly Responsible Individuals. Instead of tasking people with steps of a solution, Mission Command distributes responsibility for problems along with the authority to solve them and metrics to track them. XSCALE XBA (Business Agility) attaches responsibilities as BDD acceptance criteria per feature to ensure they're cleanly coordinated across capabilities, systems, and streams even in decentralised, distributed or hybrid portfolios.

Using the Tight - Loose - Tight figure above, this shows the similarities between Tight-Loose-Tight and Mission Command:
How is life at work after the introduction of Tight - Loose - Tight? These are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • Life as a leader
  • Life as a team
  • How to implement

Several future blog posts will cover these aspects. Other topics that will be discussed is the relationship to other practice patterns, for example, OKR.

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