Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

Are managers needed in Agile development, or do they get in the way?

In Agile development, teams are self-directed. Are managers even needed or do they just get in the way?

As the Agile software methodology becomes increasingly popular, some groups are wondering how they fit in. Do “self-directed teams” really need a manager? Skip Angel of BigVisible Solutions answered the question, “Where do managers fit?” at a concurrent session at Agile Development Practices West 2011. We hear also from leaders at Oppenheimer and Management 3.0 author, Jurgen Appelo, on the evolution of management as we move to Agile development.

Old-style management

In his presentation, Angel started by describing some of the characteristics of old style of management that was popular during the industrial age. At that time, organizational charts where there was a very clear hierarchy of management were popular. Some of the management beliefs at the time were:

  • If I do not drive my people constantly, they would not get on with their work.
  • I sometimes have to fire somebody or tongue-lash them to encourage others.
  • Leaders have to lead by making all key decisions themselves.
  • I find that most people are not ambitious and must be forced to raise their sights.
  • I keep my distance from the team since it is necessary for effective command.

Newer-style management

Over time, management theory changed and new ideas were introduced such as the idea of ‘radical management’ from Stephen Deming. Concepts such as feedback loops were introduced that would allow for iterations of planning, doing, checking, and acting, and then repeating the cycle for continuous improvement. Management thinking evolved into beliefs such as:

  • If somebody falls down on the job, I must ask myself what I did wrong.
  • I should sometimes take a back seat at meetings and let others take the lead.
  • If I ask someone for their opinion on an issue, I try to do as they suggest.
  • People should appraise their bosses as well as be appraised by them.
  • Anyone can have creative, innovative ideas if they are encouraged.
You can get the best out of your team by applying my six views of management 3.0: energize people, empower teams, align constraints, develop competence, grow structure and improve everything. That last one includes improving yourself as a manager.
Jurgen Appelo, author of Management 3.0 


Agile: Power to the programmers

Angel spoke of some of the feelings he experienced in the early days of Agile. The mantra of the popular XP methodology was “Power to the programmers. Everyone else stay out of the way.” With Scrum, too, Scrum Masters were tasked with “protecting” the team from management or others who might assign tasks that would take them away from their commitments to the team.  “I hear we’re ‘chickens’ now and cannot interrupt the team,” think managers who are confused about what their role is in an Agile environment.

Catalyst leadership

In his presentation, Angel talked about how managers in an Agile environment were “catalyst leaders.” He explained catalyst leaders were needed “to be able to look at how the team is solving problems and help jump in and say, ‘here are some things that you might not be thinking about.’ It’s helping encourage the team members to take the time to really collaborate together, to have quality and to be able to have time to feel like they can make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.”

Some of the attributes of a catalyst leader that Angel emphasized included:

  • Inclusive and collaborative – This is not the same as needing to reach a consensus. Collaborative means working together to ensure all voices are heard and making decisions that are best for the team rather than in a command and control manner.
  • Flexible and adaptive – Catalyst leaders have to be willing to change and to work towards continuous improvement by evaluating at regular intervals and adapting. This is done in Agile through the retrospective process.
  • Self-reflective – The catalyst leader needs to recognize that he doesn’t have all the answers, but to take responsibility for continuing to learn.

Angel explained that managers in Agile environments also needed to look at what was needed at an organizational level and determine ways that they could help their teams stay focused. They can determine at a higher level how they could help delight customers and achieve the highest quality. They also could help become change agents for the larger organization, helping to change the culture to one of learning, rather than a culture of fear.

The right amount of engagement

At a recent Software Quality Association of Denver (SQuAD) meeting, leaders at Oppenheimer also spoke of a successful Agile transition and the role of the manager. In their model, they deviated from traditional Scrum, and included the role of a “Delivery Agile Manager” on their Scrum teams. These were formerly software development and QA managers who now needed to learn how to operate in an Agile environment.

There have been some growing pains, as it’s been difficult for the managers to change from being the primary decision makers. This has been true not only for the managers, but for the former project managers turned Scrum Masters.

Bridget, a former PM turned Scrum Master says, “The biggest challenge for me was going from a command and control position to saying, 'What do you guys need?'  The team makes the decisions. [Even if I think they’re making a mistake], I have to let the team learn the lesson rather than telling them what to do.”

Doug, a former QA manager, and now Delivery Manager at Oppenheimer says that during the transition, some managers may have been too engaged, while others may have been too distant. It’s a tough line to draw, and the delivery manager role continues to evolve for their organization as they strive to find the right balance.

Management 3.0

Jurgen Appelo, author of Management 3.0 – Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, describes this evolution of management.  In my SSQ interview with Apello, he said, “As a manager you can get the best out of your team, whatever project they’re working on, by applying my six views of management 3.0: energize people, empower teams, align constraints, develop competence, grow structure and improve everything. That last one includes improving yourself as a manager.”

We need leaders

As organizations transition to Agile, many of the roles change, including that of the manager. However, Angel reminds us, “We need leaders. We need people who are catalysts to make these changes stick. The more people who will act as change agents, the more successful the adoption will be. We need people who are championing the cause.”

Dig Deeper on Topics Archive

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.