The Three Things Managers Need To Do in an Agile Organization

Agile enthusiasts often say, “Hey, if we’re Agile, we don’t need managers because our team is self-organizing.”

That may be true in a very limited perspective of what managers do and what self-management means.

In most of the organizations where I work, managers are still a real thing and provide real benefit if they do three critical things. And so when I’ve worked with teams of managers, we find that the backlog is sorted into three categories.

  1. The first category is to provide greater clarity about why we’re doing the work and what the most important work to do is. Now you may notice, if you’re familiar with Agile approaches, that providing greater clarity overlaps with the role of a product owner, which would be a team level role. And that is true. We usually want the management team to provide vision-level clarity about why we’re building this thing and the general direction. The product owner should focus on finer details.
  2. The second category is to create greater competence within the organization. That can mean good hiring or skills development, anything that adds more capability to the organization. What’s missing in a lot of Agile teams is there’s not a lot of focus on how do you mentor people, how do you help people develop and grow? If we’re leaving that up to someone like an Agile coach or a ScrumMaster, or we’re relying on self-driven growth, that’s, in my opinion, not as effective as having somebody who’s been there and done that, who’s an effective mentor and an effective helper in your development and growth. Managers play a vital role there.
  3. The third is improving the system around the team, around the individuals. In most organizations that are taking an Agile approach, we have a real focus on creating teams that are self organizing. We find that, within the bubble of the team, we can do a really good job of improving that system, within the team. That’s a pretty limited perspective on what is needed to deliver value to our end customer. This requires more than a single team in almost every instance. There are some narrow instances where the team is able to completely deliver value on their own without any dependency on anything else. But that’s a pretty rare situation. We want management to focus on how we improve that system. Just like there was overlap in the create-greater-clarity role of management with the product owner, there’s overlap in the improve-the-system role with the ScrumMaster. And often, especially for team level ScrumMasters, they’re going to focus on that improvement within the team and then they’re going to come to the manager with parts of the system that they wish were better, that they’re having a hard time doing on their own.

I encourage you to think about how these three responsibilities — create greater clarity, create greater competence, and improve the system — might give you some ideas of what you could focus on and — this is how we’ve used this in a lot of teams — the work you should stop doing, the work you should start delegating to the actual teams doing the work.

I hope this has been helpful for you. Share it with any friends that you think might find it useful. Thanks everybody.

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