How to Be a Manager in an Agile Organization
Dear Coach Josh,
Last month our CEO sent out a memo stating that our company was now an Agile company. I know what Agile is, but I don’t know what to do now because I am a manager. I have heard that Agile no longer uses managers and I have been reminded of this by some of my employees after attending a training session. Help!
Scared in Scrum
Dear Scared in Scrum,
Go get a cup of coffee or nice chamomile tea and know this – nothing in Agile calls for the removal of managers or leaders in companies! This isn’t the French Revolution! Now, did you get your hot beverage of choice? Good! Since that is out of the way, let’s look at what has changed, what this means to you, and what this means to the people the company has entrusted you to lead! But first, a little background.
Agile has its roots in a time where developers sat in small cubes in back rooms and banged out code while project managers, business analysts and the like (the people persons) worked with the customer directly. These PMs and BAs then brought back well-thought-out documents and plans, handed completed specifications to the developers, and returned to their tracking of projects and talking with the customers. Resource managers, then, focused on creating and enforcing rules, acted as subject matter experts (because they once were developers or the like), and held the organizational bureaucracy together. Then came the Agile Manifesto and the meeting in Snowbird. Developers were done with being relegated to the dark corners of the cube jungle and started working directly with clients, PMs were banished from the land, BAs stopped writing massive documents, but managers were still there! Even though some agile frameworks completely leave managers out of their thoughtful methods, companies didn’t know what to do with managers. And it seemed the boys in Snowbird didn’t either.
Many good folks have spent time talking about the role of managers, and this blog is just the latest in a litany of attempts to explain what managers do now.
Managers are no longer managers; they are leaders of leaders.
It may seem like semantics, but there is a huge difference between a manager and a leader. The good ole dictionary defines a manager as “a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company”. The word even derives from the Latin which means “to handle”, specifically, “to control or handle a horse.” A leader on the other hand, comes from a word that means “to guide or conduct,” and can be defined as “a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or group.”
In an Agile organization, we ask everyone to be a leader. We ask team members to organize themselves and be responsible for their work, their relationships, and their own improvement! In the old days, the “head” of a group of people or team did not stay in the back of the group giving orders, rather they were in front and the first one out among many. This concept is reaffirmed in stories of Alexander the Great, George S. Patton, and some of the greatest military and strategic champions throughout history. This means that Leaders of Leaders are there to help guide individuals by bringing them along with them. Do you want your folks to become stronger in their core competency? Then show them by example what that looks like through your actions and open up a path for them to improve. Do you want the people to learn to communicate more effectively or create a more cohesive team environment? Then YOU make that change first. One of our clients, after doing some training with our own Bob Woods, converted their entire floor to a more open space to facilitate communication and collaboration. While that was impressive, the most impressive change was that this Sr. Leader actually moved himself out of his office into one of the desks among the teams. The reason? He wanted to be in the midst of his people and let them know that collaboration was important. This was a not-so-subtle notice that he needed his folks to take up the initiative of collaboration across teams and start to communicate more and is an example of a Manager-to-Leader moment.
Agile Leaders surround themselves with people that are smarter than they are.
There is a saying, “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” It can be attributed in bits and pieces to people from Steve Jobs to clinical psychologist Natalie Frank. The underlying wisdom in this is that, as a leader, if you are the smartest person in the room, the focus is no longer on those you lead, but on you. And this is not good. In Agile organizations, this is amplified even more with the focus on teamwork. Teams are looked upon to deliver both business-as-usual work as well as innovative solutions for the customer (whether internal or external). As a leader, our job becomes to build the people within the teams to become more effective, efficient, and successful.
“But what does this look like tactically,” you might ask, “how do I make this happen?”
There are several areas of growth that teams can and should focus on. And as a leader, it is your responsibility to pave the way for this growth. Here they are:
21st Century Skills
The whole concept of 21
Century Skills is centered around the trend of people entering the workforce not having the holistic intellectual and emotional growth necessary to compete in the today’s marketplace. While there are multiple flavors, one prominent educational group defines four primary categories – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and Collaboration. These are a must if your team members are going to grow!
Improved competency in existing technologies and introductions to new technologies
Back in the day, I was a “self-taught” IT guy. I learned how to break networks in order to figure out the best way to architect them. But when my leaders sent me to classes, it filled in all of the holes of knowledge that I had and exposed me to the wisdom of the trainer. In an Agile organization, training on doing the existing work better or on new technologies is not something that happens after I finish my 40-hour workweek, it is part of the continuous journey of improvement. And as an Agile leader, it is important to reiterate this to your leaders and make sure the value you place on education in the workplace is evident to those you lead.
Yes, you need people to replace you. One of your primary responsibilities should be to work yourself out of a job. In order to do this, training people on how to be good leaders is a must! There are tremendous resources for leadership training such as John Maxwell or the Center for Creative Leadership.
Agile leaders are change champions.
Admittedly, this is more of a “rah, rah” point but it’s important nonetheless. As the teams focus on delivering products and improving themselves they need people to continue to drive for change and improvement within the organization. In the past, success was measured by how well people met the processes and followed the rules of engagement. In Agile organizations, leaders are charged with reducing organizational waste, removing processes that slow innovation and delivery, and consuming changes in products and in practices as the organization evolves. I once heard a leader state that if you wanted to see productivity go through the roof, ask your people what rule/process gets in their way the most and remove it.
So, Scared in Scrum, as you can see there is plenty of room in agility for leadership! Does it mean there is change in your future? Absolutely! But it is exciting to know that, as a leader, you are a necessary part of a growing, changing, and improving Agile organization!
Your Biggest Fan,