What is the Manager’s Role in Agile? | ON THE MARK What is the Manager’s Role in Agile? | ON THE MARK
28th February 2019 Admin

What is the Manager’s Role in Agile?

We know that Scrum teams are a fundamental building block of the Agile approach. They are where the core work gets done to deliver the remit of the Product Owner. The guiding principal 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 organisation.

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 organisation that is fundamentally based on self-organising principles is not easy. This is particularly true if the managers have learnt their management practices and behaviours 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 organisations 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.

Managing work vs management as a role

When implementing an Agile approach and Scrum teams, companies are understandably hesitant to let go of the familiar management roles they’ve depended on for years. They will see this as a foundation of past success. Therefore, it is critical to remember that management is work, while a being a manager is a role. The activity of management will continue to exist. The question to answer is where does this work get done, and in which role?

It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing management as work that must be vertical in order to align with the function area of the team members, such as Design, Quality, Engineering, Marketing, Finance, and so on. However, in an organisation or unit that has an Agile approach, management needs to be a horizontal. The manager role in Agile will need to change fundamentally, recognising that much of what has been seen as a first level manager’s role has now been ‘devolved’ to the scrum team.

Scrum Masters vs development managers

In an Agile environment, Scrum masters and development managers are positioned between senior leadership and individual scrum teams. They work to optimize teams and individuals to deliver the best quality output that meets the unit’s goals. At the highest level, the Scrum master focuses on helping the team build velocity, whilst the Development managers focus on building and developing the team members’ skills.

Traditional Management
The Overlap

Agile management
Evaluating
Assess and deliver development needs

Coaching
Controlling Trusting
Top Down Command leadership Servant leadership
Failure is embarrassing, fear of failure
Feel responsible for team performance

Failure is a learning opportunity
Blame the team Support and advocate for the team
Report obstacles upwards Remove obstacles

Most waterfall teams are manager-centric. They look to managers to set priorities, track progress, and evaluate performance. By contrast, agile teams are self-organizing teams that own their roadmap and delivery. To make this work for larger organizations, scrum masters and development managers must work together to build an agile culture throughout the organization and act as a buffer between teams and C-level management.

Therefore, focus the scrum master on the team’s adoption and implementation of Agile ways of working. Focus the development manager on hiring the right individuals, mentoring existing team members, and ensuring that there is a culture of continuous learning in every team. Both roles by working together will foster effective high-velocity agile teams.

Scrum MasterDevelopment manager
Coordinates most of the inputs and outputs required by the team.Co-ordinate across teamsGive feedback
Agile coachProfessional coach & mentor
Drives the agile ceremonies (Sprint kick-offs, sprint reviews, etc.) and sprint planningChoose when to intervene and when to let the team struggle and learn.
Integrates new recruits into the teamInitial onboarding of new recruits
Optimises the velocity of the teamAsk questions and vetting assumptions during estimation (Never change timelines or scope)

When do issues arise?

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:

  1. The managers step beyond their role boundary and start doing work that belongs to another role, often the work of the scrum team.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Peter Turgoose is a Senior Consultant at ON THE MARK, a global organisation design consulting firm and leader in collaborative business transformation with offices in the US and UK. He is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with over 30 years of experience in applying behavioural psychology for business.

Comment (1)

  1. Peter, This distinction between scrum master and development manager is helpful, but could be expanded a bit more. First, there is also the “organisation designer and objective setter”. This person decides whether an Scrum team is the right organisational solution for the objective at hand, decides which functions will be represented in the scrum team and sets the mission for the scrum team. Second, there is a development manager for each function represented on the scrum team. You give the impression that there is only one development manager for the whole team.

    Thank you for the article. It helped me clarify my own thinking. Andrew Campbell

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