Managing Agile — How an agile transformation can be the key to becoming a great manager

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Update: November 24, 2016 – I gave a talk based largely on this blog at the Toronto Agile Community Conference 2016 on November 14, 2016. You can find the slides and notes from that talk here!

I recently had a conversation with an HR leader at a large software company who was interested in hearing how ‘going agile’ has impacted the companies I’ve worked with. Being in HR, they were naturally more interested in the people impact of an agile transformation, as opposed to how agile might shape the company’s products. After getting about 5 minutes into my “well, this is how people’s lives will change” spiel, they stopped me and asked a very fair question:

“So… what do the managers do in all of this?”

Some managers who aren’t sure what they should be doing right now.

Managers as Scrum Masters?

After digging a bit to understand the nature of the question, I discovered that the company was in the very early stages of their transformation. Until now, they had employed an all too typical approach. They trained their managers and team leads as Scrum Masters, and then gave them the responsibilities that go with that role (on top of their existing jobs, of course). It’s common tactic, and I can almost understand why so many companies go down this route.

But it never works out. In the best case, your teams level out after seeing some small level of improvement (the kind that comes with doing regular stand ups, sprint planning… basically ‘following the rules’). In the worst case, you end up with a bunch of confused managers, and team members who can’t voice their concerns at the retro because the person running the thing also carries a giant invisible gun. …well, it’s invisible to the manager. To the team, its about the only thing they CAN see.

To this company’s credit, it sounds like the leadership of the company recognized this and came to the conclusion that they needed a bit of separation of church and state, so to speak. They’re now planning to hire full time Scrum Masters (I much prefer Agile Coaches, but hey, it’s a start!). So let’s get back to the question. What do the managers do in all of this?

Not your job anymore!

Before we can get into defining what the ‘manager’ role can look like during and throughout an agile transformation, I think we need to cover some of the things that the manager is no longer responsible for:
  • Breaking down the work (that’s the team’s job now)
  • Prioritizing the work (that’s the Product Owner’s job now, with help from the team)
  • Dealing with interpersonal conflicts (it may take a while, but with good coaching, teams will mature and learn how to become self-healing)
  • Other “Line Management” activities like doling out specific tasks to specific people (that’s the team’s job)
  • Mandating process (team’s job!)
  • Designing and dictating technical solutions (again, team’s job! noticing a trend here?)

A new opportunity: become a Great Manager

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So, what to do with all this newly freed up time? Any conscientious manager would seize the opportunity to shift their focus to areas that are much more likely to result in High Performing Teams. Areas that are often paid lip service (if not ignored all together) in more traditional management structures…

Personal & Professional Development

Having “a really busy week” is no longer a reason for you to cancel that 1–1 meeting with a key employee. In fact, your 1 on 1 time with your employees can now be focused above the water — that is, helping the employee poke their head above the limited field of vision of day-to-day work and actually explore where they are going in their career [thanks to Casey McKinnon for turning me on to the “Above The Water” metaphor!]. You don’t need a detailed status report from each person anymore, because you are evaluating these things at the team level instead. And so you can spend that time gaining a better understanding of your people and their strengths, so that you can help them to establish bigger picture, career level goals. By placing them in a position to succeed, and then employing a mix of coaching and mentoring, you will be able to make a positive impact on them, and in turn the company at large.

Shaping the environment

You also now have the time to put some thought into the environment you are providing for your reports. You actually have time to think about the floor plan, and where people sit. You can spend time with your agile coaches and teams to determine the set of shared values that will help guide them towards high performance. You have the freedom to plan and promote breakthrough inducing things like hackathons, and foster a culture of innovation.

Shaping the teams

In traditional organizations, managers often need to worry about ensuring their reports are 100% utilized. This often results in people being on multiple teams, or juggling multiple projects — whatever it takes to fill their bucket to capacity. In agile, this isn’t a concern. You can focus your attention on ensuring your reports are on teams that allow them to play to their strengths, thereby maximizing their value to the organization. They’re a member of one team, with one focus. As a manager, you need to deeply understand the vision of your teams, so that you can ensure that each is composed with the appropriate mix of skills. Energy spent on these concerns will yield a far greater return than fretting over how ‘busy’ someone is (or worse, reviewing and approving timesheets).

Eradicating Impediments

Agile, and Scrum in particular, has a pesky little habit of exposing all kinds of problems. Problems that exist within your teams and problems that exist in your company. Now that you — the manager — have access to a list of these problems, you can begin knocking down roadblocks for your team. Your Scrum Master or Agile Coach should be providing a steady stream of problems that need solving, and they will work tirelessly to help remove them. But at the end of the day, you’re in charge. They need you to be a part of the solution. They are now giving you the knowledge and space you need to do just that.

Time to Care


Managers stuck in a command and control environment rarely have the time to care for their employees. Of course, even in an Agile environment there may still a million things managers need to worry about. Hiring, promoting, budgeting, applying for grants, and approving vacation requests — all of these still need doing, and Agile doesn’t necessarily absolve you of those responsibilities. But imagine how much more effective you can be as a manager if you can focus the rest of your time on being a great manager, by caring for your employees!

I’m always interested to hear how companies have evolved the role of “manager” during an agile transformation — if you have a story to share, I’d love to hear it!