The role of the Manager in Agile Projects

We know that Scrum teams are a fundamental building block of the Agile way of working. They are where the core work gets done to deliver the remit of the Product Owner. One of the main founding principles behind the Scrum team, is that they are self-organizing teams. However, this does not mean that there is no need for managers in the organization.

What is needed is the right behaviours and manager role in Agile in the right place, at the right time.

How does a Manager’s role differ in vertical vs horizontal management?
Managing in an organization that is fundamentally based on self-organization is not easy. This is particularly true if the managers have learnt their trade in a more traditional top-down command and control hierarchy and are used to waterfall planning. Waterfall teams follow the vertical structure of the organization. Scheduling and performance management is often “top down,” meaning that managers set the pace and the schedule.

In an Agile environment, however, the team is self-organizing. It sets its own schedule based on priorities from the product owner and the available capacity and velocity of the team. The team follows the horizontal flow of the work down the value stream.

Command vs influence approaches of leadership
Managers and leaders have a number of critical roles in organizations deploying an agile approach. These include setting product and service directions, making resourcing decisions, integrating across teams, and helping team members with their continuous professional development. However, where traditional management relies on top-down direct and a ‘command’ approach, management in an Agile environment relies much more on influence and trust. A command culture will hinder a team’s ability to develop self-organizing skills, which are at the heart of the value Agile brings to an organization.

Moving away from managing by control can be difficult for some managers, and learning to trust and influence can take time. However, the change in behaviour lets the manager delegate decisions to the team, freeing them to concentrate on the longer-term issues and strategy, as well as allowing them to focus on eliminating organizational barriers obstacles to the success of the Scrum teams, this in turn helps the team be more productive.

Common pitfalls
With the role of Scrum masters and Development managers clear, with senior leaders driving the vision and strategic direction of the organization or unit, and with self-organizing scrum teams doing the core work to deliver the remit set by their Product Owner role, what is left to do?

In reality, not a great deal! The manager role in Agile is to ‘stay in their lane’ and help make efficiency and productivity a reality, maximizing the teams’ ability to deliver value. Agile managers do this through anticipating what their teams are going to need.

In practice, problems arise for three fundamental reasons:

  • The managers step beyond their role boundary and start doing work that belongs to another role, often the work of the scrum team.
  • Scrum masters don’t give enough time and attention to their glue/co-ordination role across teams.  In larger projects with more than one product stream the Product Owners don’t give enough time and attention to their glue/co-ordination role across product streams.
  • Under pressure, managers revert to traditional top down waterfall behaviours.

Putting in effort upfront to determine what work goes into which role boundary, and then using this framework to design the managers’ jobs in relation to the work of the scrum teams will pay dividends as implementation begins.

In our next post we will build on the Agile management theme further by taking a look at how executives can use agile frameworks to manage their portfolios.