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6-22 The Manager Limbo of Agile
Where do they go?
Managers don’t “fit” into a lot of the agile concepts and frameworks, so much so that in some cases they aren’t even mentioned. The need for a more traditional manager, someone to define the work and the way work gets done, isn’t necessary for these operational systems. This comes up in my context A LOT, and I would bet that it comes up in other people’s context as well. Let’s take a moment to talk about where the responsibility goes and what happens when you still have a manager in the mix.
Where does the work go that managers were doing?
In many agile frameworks, the traditional role of the manager outlining how the work gets done and supervising gets replaced by team autonomy and ownership. Somewhere along the way, it became the teams responsibility to determine how to best get the work done, which means the traditional “manager knows best” no longer applies.
What else gets shifted away?
Setting/defining goals for the team
Ordering, prioritizing and assigning work
Communicating with customers and stakeholders
We see this concept not only in Agile but in Lean concepts as well, however there is a difference in that Lean talks about a place for the manager to shift from supervisor to coach and leader. The manager becomes the one who…
helps promote the mindset and the behaviors
help remove impediments to value delivery
guide the team on improving flow
In Agile frameworks, that role is often talked about as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach aligned to the team. This leaves the manager role in a bit of a limbo or in the chasm.
Why do “agile” organizations still have managers?
If organizations adopting agile don’t need managers, why do they still have them? There are a some responsibilities that are reserved for a designated manager role in some organizations:
People stuff; hiring, PEs, Salary
Money stuff; Budgeting, Salary
Work stuff: Work prioritization approvals
And what’s special about these things? All of these things are organizational decisions that could have constructs built around them. There can be a build up of structural dependencies that are designed to rely on that role being in place to get to some outcome or generate some output. Structures tied to roles and responsibilities may be more or less formally defined. The more formal, the more likely the role is built into the way of working and operations. In turn, this means the more work it will take to make changes.
Do you need a manager? What does it look like?
Maybe - Maybe not… It’s complicated.
Are you still agile if you have a manager? Sure, you can be.
I like a starting point for managers of having two major responsibilities:
Supporting the flow of value delivery
Typically, if they are still going to be around, they are going to share some responsibilities with Scrum Masters/Agile Coaches/Product Owners/Product Managers, so work that out. I think that managers can look like Service Managers, which basically looks like Product Managers, but oriented around jobs to be done, or perhaps they could shift into a Product Manager role.
If a team or organization are going to have the role, be explicit about the role and what responsibilities are associated with it. If the organization has structural or operational requirements associated with role, look at those those for if they still make sense, or if there are opportunities to shift that to other roles. This could be a good place to start when identifying the standard work associated with the role.
One thing for sure, when a team is making a change to their ways of working and trying to move further toward agility on the spectrum, managers have to understand that it's their responsibility to guide their teams through the messy middle, through the creation of their system. They need to be the ones who are helping to manage the flow of value. Managers are responsible for helping provide direction, shifting into that leadership role, and providing some direction. It seems to be that providing direction, or being directive, can be a dirty word, but I think that there's a balance in that, and there are places where it's appropriate.