Can Managers Lead Agile Teams?

If we are going to start treating managers like grown-ups… and start asking them to behave like agile leaders… and giving them a real role on an agile team… let’s begin by exploring why we excluded them in the first place. Maybe if we can take a step back and think about the original problem we can find a more inclusive solution.

Here is my take…

Agile excluded management because people are sick of being yanked around. They are tired of managers telling them what to do… changing their mind… and then deciding that they want everything according to the original schedule. People are tired of being treated like cogs in a machine and being moved from project to project and team to team like interchangeable parts. People are tired of being micromanaged and having to check their brains at the door.

People are tired of building low quality software just to meet unreasonable schedules… to meet unreasonable budgets… imposed by unreasonable Dilbertesque managers. They want to be connected… they want to be treated like whole… thinking… feeling… creative human beings. They want to be treated like people that have something more to contribute than just two hands and a social security number. People want to do meaningful work and be part of something bigger than themselves.

I always imagine those early Scrum teams sitting around going… hey, this is a bunch of crap! These managers can’t make up their minds. Just put us devs in a room… leave us alone… and let us write some code. Give us one person… we’ll call him a Product Owner… and we’ll build whatever he wants. Oh… and by the way… we need someone to go and run interference and fix stuff for us. Hey you… come over here and be our Scrummaster. But none of you people can tell us HOW to do our work… we are going to self-manage and self-organize!

Think for a minute about what is really being said here:

The Product Owner is the personification of a well aligned business. The Product Owner is the team’s answer to getting yanked around. They are the product manager, the project manager, the business analyst, the UX designer, the UAT tester, and in some contexts the dev manager. Can’t get the business to make up it’s mind? Well… we’ll make it simple for you… Frank gets to decide. He can go argue with himself… we are going to build some software!

The Scrummaster is there to make sure the team has everything it needs and that any impediments are out of the way. Tired of petty, controlling, micro-managers… tired of being bartered between teams like a head of cattle… let’s take away all of Sue’s positional authority and call her a Scrummaster. The Scrummaster is everything good about management… explicitly leaving out the stuff we don’t like.

But wait… now that we don’t have all these project managers and dev managers… who is going to tell us what to do? Well… I guess we will. We will be self-organizing and self-managing. We’ll take charge of our own destiny… our own careers… and earn the right to be left alone. We’ll plan together… meet every day to talk things out… and review our work with the Product Owner. When we are done.. we’ll figure out for ourselves how to get better and improve.

Sounds nice huh?

The problem is that all these managers that used to be in charge didn’t go away… they still work for the organization. And guess what… they liked being in charge. They got paid well for it… it was good for their egos. Why do we think these folks are just going to go away without a fight!? Not giving them something to do only encourages managers to resist… and that resistance puts all our agile goodness at risk.

Product Owners fundamentally address the organization’s alignment problem. What if we could use our managers to help really get our organizations into alignment? What if the business could really articulate what was important and managers could clearly communicate what it was that their teams needed to build… would the need for a single Product Owner be so important? Somehow I don’t think so.

What about Scrummasters? If we could teach our managers to be servants of the team… to be real leaders… to be facilitators first… would we still need a separate role? What if… once we solved the alignment problem… and managers were no longer given unreasonable deadlines… unrealistic budget constraints… and more work than their teams could handle… they started behaving in ways consistent with a Scrummaster but retained their positional authority? Would that be all that bad?

Going into organizations and telling them that each team has to have a Product Owner and a Scrummaster in addition to a traditional manager doesn’t fly in most organizations. Telling managers that they no longer have authority over their teams because their teams are now self-managing really isn’t going to work either. Personally… I think we need to slot our managers into one of the two roles… priority and business alignment (the PO) or the management and issue resolution (the Scrummaster).

We should allow for and embrace their positional authority and incent them to encourage more empowering… self-organizing behavior in their teams. Many managers will be able to rise to the occasion… many of them are already there. Those that can’t need to be coached and developed just like any other employee of the business. Those managers that cannot or will not change then have the option to stay or move on to a more command and control organization.

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