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An IT Manager's Role in an Agile Organization

Ah, the elephant in the room. As more organizations start looking to go agile, no one ever really says what the IT manager role is. During training, teams see the diagram that depicts how the Product Owner owns the prioritized backlog items, teams groom user stories, plan and commit to their sprints, followed by demo, retro, and repeat. That resonates with most people. Out of all the teams I’ve worked with, I’ve only had one person (who happened to be an IT manager) ask, “so, where do I fit in that picture?” 

An IT Manager's Role in an Agile Organization

My first response was to ask “well, what do you do now?” We went through a condensed list of things:

  1. Guide and help their employees' career paths through one-on-ones, assessments, and training
  2. Assign work to the team
  3. Weekly status from the team
  4. Work with business partners to ensure that the technology within their systems could support the business capabilities that they will be asked to deliver

I said “great, now which of those things require you to manage versus lead? And which would you rather do, lead or manage?” Those things that we think we need to manage, they are no longer part of our activities. We are asking Agile teams to be self-forming and self-managing. Let them assign themselves the work. Let the team track their work. 

Managers will still do the following:

  1. Guide and help their employees' career paths through one-on-ones, assessments, and training.
  • In fact, with self-managing teams, you’ll see the natural leaders step up. Cultivate and encourage those that do. You’ll see some people that really churn through the work (by observing daily standups). One person commented that they were surprised at the amount of work that a particular team member did every sprint. They didn’t realize how much they contributed. They had always been so quiet. Scrum is all about transparency; very hard to hide from your work.

2. Continue to work with business partners to ensure that the technology within their systems could support the business capabilities that they will be asked to deliver.

  • Will I have enough capacity to support what the business will need next year? Do I have the right technical skills on the team to support those new business capabilities? Managers should be “playing” in this strategic space rather than spending time assigning work.

How do managers get their weekly status updates? Attend sprint planning sessions and standups. Attend, don’t participate.

Understand, the transition can be difficult. Most managers became managers because they showed the ability to solve problems and get work done that was assigned to them. They are high performers. So it makes sense that when they became managers, they will look to assigning work to team members who they feel are like them. Managers need to stop managing their people and look to guiding and leading. Help your team to be self-managing so they can focus on the tactical execution. 

How do we do that? Change your approach. Instead of using language like “I need you to do <xyz> in order to <fix/improve/build> this <thing>”, try asking the team “what are some ideas around how we can <fix/improve/build> this <thing>?” A few years ago, my 5-year-old daughter started wearing shoes with laces. Every morning, I would have to tie them. Eventually, she wanted to do it. It was a frustrating two weeks. A good 20 minutes every morning was spent with her trying to tie her shoes. It was frustrating for both of us. I desperately resisted the urge to just finish tying it for her. But I knew if I did that, she’d never learn. I kept encouraging her and after a couple of weeks, she had it down. Teams are the same way. They’ll figure it out. It will be frustrating and you’ll want to step in and solve, fix, and task things. Don’t. They too will figure it out. 

Remember, stop managing and be a leader.

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