Coaching Office Hours, Installment #2: The Agile Manager

Welcome to our second installment of Coaching Office Hours with Davisbase! Last installment, we spoke with Jeffrey Davidson on the topic of change. If you missed it, be sure to check out his insights on the topic of change here!

Our topic today is about management and leadership, specifically the role of the manager in an Agile transformation. The role of management has often been overlooked in Agile transformations in the past. Fortunately, it is now receiving far greater attention and support as seen in the SAFe framework, conference talks, and myriad articles and papers around the web. The message to management is changing from “give the teams some training and coaching and get out of the way” to “you are needed as a key enabler and an active contributor for the success of the transformation”.

At Davisbase, we’re committed to helping not just the teams become Agile, but their management as well. So today we are speaking with Scott Frost, Agile Coach & Trainer, to help shine some light on how you as a manager can be a key enabler and active contributor to your organization’s Agile transformation.

DBC: One of the most common challenges in an Agile transformation is the changing role of the team manager. First, though, help us understand why the manager role needs to change.

Scott:  In past Agile team implementations, it was all about the teams: good Scrum, skilled Scrum Masters and inspiringly focused Product Owners.  But when we talk about Agile “transformation” today, we are talking first and foremost about leading broader organizational “systemic” change, which can only be done by the managers and supervisors (and their managers and supervisors).

“People are already doing their best; the problems are not the people but are with the system.  Only management can change the system.” ~W. Edwards Deming

If managers have not had this type of leadership experience, then they should read John Kotter’s book, “Leading Change”.

DBC: Now that we better understand why the manager’s role needs to change, how does the manager role change in an Agile transformation?

Scott:  In three ways.  Decentralize many existing decisions you make today; become a Lean-Agile Thinking-Teaching manager; become a servant leader.

First, a manager needs to recognize that in a Lean-Agile transformation it is not enough to commit your teams to change: you have to openly hand them decisions you used to make and coach them how to make them – never assume they know how.  Do not use ubiquitous, management fluff-words like ‘empowerment’ that will do nothing but make your teams roll their eyes, whether in front of your or behind your back.  Instead, take immediate and tangible actions to let them know you are taking responsibility for the change.

Second, become a Lean-Agile Thinking-Teaching manager. Read several Lean-Agile books and take a class or two, then buy some books for your teams (or subscribe them  to Safari or Scribd).  Acknowledge that, as a manager, you may not be educated enough to help LEAD the change, then take action to correct your knowledge gap because the responsibility to lead cannot be delegated: to develop your people you must develop yourself.

Finally, become a servant leader.  Agile leaders are there to help remove impediments, take a long-term view, and create a culture which anchors everyone in Agile principles.  Agile managers should provide structured problem solving workshops and teach their teams to find and solve their own problems, then they need to get out of the way.

DBC: What are some things to focus on getting right and some pitfalls to look out for as a new Agile manager?

Scott:  Focus on enabling behaviors. Changing a culture is done by modifying the principles and habits of the organization.  At whatever level a manager may reside, there are people to be developed, inspiration and alignment to missions to be fostered, and knowledge workers to be motivated.  It is not enough to have an “IT Strategy” to move an ineffective culture toward better and sustainable habits.  As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Culture is systemic.  Remember: only management can change the system.

DBC: How can Agile managers help all team members regardless of their positional rank or power become leaders in the agile transformation?

Scott:  Leadership is a task, not a title or a role.  I like to use the analogy from the Matrix movies:  In the first movie, Keanu Reeves goes to see the Oracle for the first time and marvels at a little girl bending a spoon with her mind.  She tells Keanu that the trick is, “There is no spoon.”  In other words, the constraints he places on his own mind create impediments to accomplishing his objectives inside the Matrix.

It’s similarly true for Agile managers:  you must first let go of your prior cultural and organizational biases that leadership is granted through title or position.  Leadership is a task which is freely picked up by the best person for the task at a given time and handed to another person for other tasks.  Anyone may perform a leadership task just as any manager may serve the teams, irrespective of organizational reporting structures.

DBC: Last question – what didn’t I ask you about Agile management and leadership that I should have?

Scott:  Dean Leffingwell, author of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), promotes being a lifelong learner.  Leffingwell says, “Lean-Agile Leaders are lifelong learners who help teams build better software systems through understanding and exhibiting the values, principles and practices of Lean, systems thinking, and Agile development.”

So is that accomplished by a one-time read of a collection of books or a couple of classes? Well, that’s a start, but not enough.  Fundamental shifts are taking place in our industry.  I find it amazing that literature from the 80’s and 90’s are still so under-read yet very relevant today.  Even so, there’s an endless list of new works being published which an agile manager should challenge themselves and their teams to read. How about setting a goal of 2-4 books a month?

What?  Is this guy kidding?  Nope, no joke.

If you have experienced success in Agile teams then you know that one of the fundamental tenets of Lean and Agile is to continuously bring to light the issues and impediments of a team or a team of agile teams.  If the impediments are continuously and evermore increasingly complex, how does a good Agile manager stay ahead? Yep, that’s right: always be reading, learning from others, talking to peers, and challenging your own knowledge.

If you have team issues,read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni If you do not understand flow-based systems and lean principles, read Don Reinertsen’s Principles of Product Development Flow.f your teams struggle with basic scrum, read Jeff Sutherland or many other Scrum authors. If your teams are discussing Set-based Design or Emergent Architecture, read Dean Leffingwell’s Agile Software Requirements and The Lean Machine by Dantar Oosterwald…..and the list goes on and on.

Final thoughts: trust your people to make good change and trust yourself to stand alongside them and assist.  Take the journey. Seek mastery and purpose. Enjoy the ride.

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Alright, that’s it for this month! Thanks to Scott for his time and keen insights! You can continue the conversation on Agile management and leadership with Scott on twitter @getfrosty and Davisbase @SolutionsIQ. Check back soon for the next installment!

As always, we hope you find this series relevant, informative and helpful on your journey to becoming Agile. We would love to hear from you so you can help us make it even more relevant! Submit your questions or suggested topics on Agile transformations to us via twitter @davisbase with hashtag #askDavisbase, or via email at  

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