People Managers Play a Pivotal Role

Months ago I had a realization in our transformation that we had neglected an important piece in our Agile transformation.  People Managers.  We paid attention to Scrum Masters, BSAs, Developers, Testers and everyone else BUT the People Managers.  At some point in the future I will reflect on the learning from this experience and I’m willing to be this will be in the top 3.

There’s a great deal that changes for the People managers.

  • Their people are in teams now – accountable and committed to their team. Not their manager.
  • The team is responsible for and owns the “how”.
  • The escalation path is different and (most of the time) no longer involves the manager.
  • The team is empowered.  This means they make decisions.

All of the above can feel very foreign and uncomfortable for a manager.  Particularly those who have a difficult time trusting the team.  It’s made even more difficult when the manager isn’t on board with the transformation to Agile and is resistant to the very idea of the major change in approaching work let alone the change to how they manage.

Let’s complicate this by having a matrixed organization.  Think of a 7 person team where no more than two people report to the same person.  Now, imagine that 3 of the managers are not on board with the transformation.  What does that look like?  It’s ugly.

  • Managers pull the team member out to work on other projects limiting the velocity of the team.
  • Managers disagree with the team approach and cause churn by making this known and questioning it.
  • Managers don’t reward the team member for their team contribution and success.
  • Managers can’t empower their team member to make decisions.
  • Managers don’t know what to do and so they look for something to do.

In a nutshell you have a hampered team, a hampered transformation and, I’m willing to bet, unhappy people managers.  So, what do you do?  Honestly, I don’t know the entire answer.  I know what NOT to do.

  • Don’t assume your people managers know why the transformation is happening in the first place. Make sure the what and the why are clear.  People need a goal to rally around.  Managers and non-managers.  Make sure the vision is communicated and, more importantly, shared.
  • Don’t assume your managers know how Agile works.  I hear, from many managers, that they know what Agile is.  They get it.  If they’re saying that the odds are good they don’t.  TRAIN YOUR MANAGERS!!  Then, get them coaches.
  • Don’t wait when you hear from teams the impact their managers are having.  Listen and take action.

So, I could have said that in a more positive way but, I didn’t.  Look at how powerful this group is.  Imagine how much they can help push the transformation.   They are in a unique position to influence up and down.  Harness that power.  Leverage the knowledge they have to solve some of the systemic issues your organization is facing as it implements Scrum.  Leverage the voice they have to the executives to help clear the way for the teams.  Teach them how to work with the direct reports in a different and collaborative way.  Help them walk the walk so the team members will too.

Remember that, above all else, Agile is a mind shift.  It’s a difficult one to make but, there’s a group of people who, if approached right, will make the shift much easier.


2 thoughts on “People Managers Play a Pivotal Role

  1. You’ve got this exactly right. IMO, managers of people become considerably less valuable in a fully agile product-focused organization, and their unease shows. All individual contributors and their peers can see clearly what impact they are or are not having (via stories completed as a team, releases completed, or even tasks completed as an individual).
    I think the actions you’ve suggested above are a good start. I agree they may not be complete. It could be that the final answer is to eliminate layers in the organization structure. Check out “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers” on HBR: It’s not agile per se, but it’s a compelling discussion of a “self-organizing” company.

  2. Thanks for reading, Jacque! I definitely don’t believe what I have written is comprehensive. I’m still learning and thinking about this topic. I need to think a bit more about managers being “considerably less valuable”. I believe they’re still valuable but, in a different way. Sounds like a potential blog topic for me in the future! I do agree eliminating layers is a good idea but, I think that’s a good idea whether you’re Agile or not. Also, let’s face it, People managers have day jobs and often wear this hat on the side. Their day job changes which means they can devote more time to developing people, supporting the teams and working towards continuous improvement for the organization. I don’t believe GOOD people managers are recognized for that particular contribution and maybe that’s part of the transformation as well… Lots to think about on this topic though. As always, it’s good to hear from you!

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