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Transforming a Traditional Manager Into an Agile Manager
Transforming a Traditional Manager Into an Agile Manager

Many pundits preach that the agile organization will not have managers – that teams will self-manage and can carry out all responsibilities of traditional functional management. This includes HR responsibilities, major conflict disputes, etc. “The team is self-managing, which includes all management responsibilities,” or so I keep hearing. Call me a heretic, but I’ve never subscribed to the scalability of this model. For most large-scale (esp. global) organizations, this is not a reality. Not only are functional managers not going anywhere, but they are, in-fact, essential to an organization’s transformation to Agile practices. However, their roles will need to change. Whether they embrace or reject this change could mean the difference between success and failure going forward.

To highlight the differences, let’s lay out the major responsibilities of a traditional functional manager:

  1. Handle HR functions (e.g., Hire and fire/lay off, harassment, physical violence, larger-scale verbal assaults, etc.)
  2. Champion causes/break down barriers
  3. Maintain standards (quality, technical, ethical ) across the different teams
  4. Develop employees technical and other necessary skills
  5. Create, manage and restructure cross-functional resources
  6. Execute performance evaluations
  7. Set up work processes (esp. for their team)
  8. Break down and assign tasks
  9. Project manage the team (usually with a gigantic Gantt chart and a weekly status meeting)
  10. Be responsible for the team’s commitment and deliverables

(I’m sure I could have listed another 20 responsibilities but I tried to focus on the top 10. If you feel there are important responsibilities I didn’t cover and a through on whether an Agile manager will retain or relinquish them, please feel free to list them in the comments.)

So what in this list changes? That can be answered by the overarching mental model: The Agile management (as a whole)’s mission is: To do what needs to be done to create an innovative, flexible and continuously-improving environment that will allow teams and Product Owners to succeed. This means creating an organization that is capable of executing Product Backlog changes at any time (including at the 11th hour) as efficiently and with the highest quality possible.

To accomplish this, Agile Managers would still handle responsibilities 1 through 4 – traditional HR functions, develop employees, set up and maintain standards (optionally with the help of Agile technical leads) but will hand over the their project and process management responsibilities (given in steps 7-10) to the ScrumMasters (if practicing Scrum) and feature teams.

But why give up those traditional responsibilities of ownership, assignment and management of tasks? Several reasons come to mind (feel free to add to or contest these):

  • Allows the team to own their commitment, and just as important, own it as a team
  • Allows the team to focus on the greater iteration goals instead of just their individual tasks
  • Empowers them to self-improving

Many managers are concerned this hand-off of responsibilities diminishes their role. I feel it is quite the opposite – that it focuses their role and elevates it to a more strategic level. Instead of being consumed by tasks that teams are perfectly capable of performing themselves (albeit, teams usually need help at first), Agile Managers will now work as a group to see which changes need to happen organizationally – those that we never saw before or saw but were too busy (or un-empowered) to do anything about. This change will let them focus on:

  • Setting up and managing cross-functional teams
  • Creating and managing needed infrastructure (e.g., testing platforms, continuous integration, etc.)*
  • Break down organizational barriers, usually raised by ScrumMasters and teams through Daily Scrums and Retrospectives or similar events
  • Create and manage technical standards across the organization (with the help of teams and technical leads)
  • Creating, training and supporting change agents (e.g., ScrumMasters) within the organization

*Note: I don’t mean to imply that the managers code the infrastructure themselves (although, they are free to do so if they want). I just mean they will look at the largest gaps and create internal teams to work on them as needed.

Item 5 deals with the creation, allocation and evaluation as teams. The Agile Manager still own this responsibility but performs it very differently than they would have traditionally. They don’t design the organization by architecture, layer or component (e.g., the GUI team, OS team, driver team, database team, etc.) but rather by vertical features. Additionally, a set of Agile Line Managers should treat all resources reporting to them collectively as a pool of resources where teams can be “pulled” from, instead of individual resource ownership. This means that Agile Managers will collaboratively assemble the best teams for a group of features and not just have teams by virtue of reporting structure. (I will follow this up with a deeper post on this topic).

Last in the list is item 6, which, like item 4, is also a transformed activity owned by managers. Managers are still responsible to perform evaluations but they will do this based primarily on the team’s performance rather than an individual. It is also a great practice to do this as a team of managers, instead of individual evaluations. (We’ll debate the right performance measures as well as the idea of abolishing performance reviews on another post).

Finally, it is up to the managers as a whole to set the culture to continuously improve and continuously experiment to do so. An Agile manager’s motto should be “It’s OK to Fail”, as long as we do it fast and learn from it toward the right goal. They know that the phrase “I don’t know” is a much better phrase than an uncertain answer based in no data or reality given because one is expected.

The fact is that Managers make or block Agile transformations. There is a lot of talk of top-down leadership and bottom-up push but the managers connect these domains. They are the ones that can greatly accelerate or critically hinder a transformation. Which camp are your managers in?

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