Middle Manager Magic of Engagement

As agile organizations aim to attract top talent, and grow its people through autonomy, mastery, and purpose, there is pressure on the middle manager. Ok, you’re a middle manager thinking, “That’s nothing new!”

The white paper “What Moves You” published recently by the Business Agility Institute points to more change for incentive and rewards programs, and middle managers will be asked to help. In many cases, the pressure is in the translation of the well-intended, yet lofty vision set by organizations. For example, how does autonomy translate to leading a highly technical team of software engineers who have cross-functional, complex work? How can the middle manager balance the pressures from above with what might have been promised to recruit top talent?

Your position may sometimes feel stuck between high-level vision and the reality of getting the work done. After all, teams are where the actual value is delivered to the customer, not the rewards and recognition programs. Leaders who practice business agility now have a unique opportunity to make a significant, local impact on motivating teams and individuals. And, yes, practice is the right word, because Agile leaders today are continuously improving themselves.

There are three approaches to making local impact that middle managers can reflect upon and iterate into their practice:

  1. Develop a Team Flow Mindset
  2. View the Training Budget as a Learning Investment
  3. Reshape Career Development Conversations

1. Develop a Team Flow Mindset

Think about team flow as more than just delivery of work; it’s also about team collaboration, problem solving, and talent growth. Through iterations over time, a middle manager can make a tremendous impact on improving team flow. Remember the Aggregation of Marginal Gains?

Removing impediments for the team that they cannot remove themselves and making a path for opportunities are the most common and effective contributions of a manager in an Agile organization.

For example, how does your team collaborate? Do they get time with the people they need? Are their meetings and agile ceremonies effective and intentional? Spend time with your teams to learn if they are collaborating well.

A team flow mindset also means balancing talent in the name of long-term growth. Do you have highly skilled team members and very junior members? Perhaps one highly skilled team member is carrying much of the load for the entire team, and there is no time to transfer knowledge to others? Maybe two experts have been holding things together for years, attending key meetings that make them mostly unavailable to the rest of the team. Highly skilled team ghosts. They are not bad team members; they are caught in the high demands of technical subject matter expertise. The team level usually suffers the most in missing this person’s technical and product context, and so they seem invisible.

So many times, managers and stakeholders steal from their team’s future flow in the name of promising a short-term delivery. The truth is, your team flow is only as good as your weakest link. Commit to the future of your team by making the time for your team to grow its knowledge, even if it means you have to promise less now. You have more room and creativity to make this happen than the swirl of work around you leads you to believe.

You have more room and creativity to make this happen than the swirl of work around you leads you to believe.

2. View the Training Budget as a Learning Investment

Scarce training budgets and a team of top talent have created difficult conversations for managers. Inspired by an Agile portfolio philosophy, consider flipping your thinking from a training budget to a learning investment.

Looking at the amount of money you have to invest in your teams’ learning might change the perspective of what is most important.

Try these questions:

  • What do I want to invest in my team’s learning this year?
  • What does the team want to invest in learning this year?
  • What are the constraints to the team achieving this investment?

The example questions above use a year as a measure, but maybe a year is too little or too much of a measure. Embrace the new possibilities created when the constraints of time and dollars are removed.

For example, perhaps this investment gives each team member eight hours of personal development time each month. It’s unrealistic at the local level, until it’s an investment in team growth. Most organizations have a vision and mission focused on growing its people, and likely, attracting top talent. By practicing true leadership, you can make the connection between this vision and the learning investment, and then carry it forward. Relentlessly connect your team to the learning investment. Help them commit to the time, encourage them to propagate the knowledge gained, and make it a consistent part of your team.

Most organizations have a vision and mission focused on growing its people, and likely, attracting top talent. By practicing true leadership, you can make the connection between this vision and the learning investment, and then carry it forward.

Also energizing and beneficial to the entire team is to encourage conference talks locally and nationally. Not everyone is comfortable in front of an audience, so consider working in pairs or even a small team. This turns a daunting, solo experience into a confidence-boosting team event. Many conferences offer free admission to speakers, and some even cover travel costs.

Every organization has its constraints, so get creative. Choose a local conference to begin with. Promote the value of this work in organization, with a goal to get sponsorship for a larger event. Start a YouTube channel within your company’s guidelines. Explore pairing up with an unlikely partner, for those relationships can offer incredibly creative ideas.

3. Reshape Career Development Conversations

Give your highly talented team members a voice in their current state, and desires for the future. There are many right ways to have this conversation; I offer an example inspired “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It can be a great tool for career development conversations.

This image is for explanation purposes. You wouldn’t show this graph within a career development conversation.

 

How to use it

Some preamble:

  • This tool does not replace any conversation; it supports it.
  • Ideally you would use it once a month with each team member, but barring that, use it no less than twice a year.
  • Use a unique graph for each team member.
  • Don’t used it to measure or track anything over time. It’s merely used to spark discussion over time.

Within the career development conversation, introduce the graph above as a tool that you will use over the next several sessions. Draw it in front of them during that first meeting, or if your art skills are suspect, draw it ahead of time.

State the reason for the graph: I’d like to use a simple tool to guide the start of our career development conversations over the next several months. It’s not a performance tool, but a confidential conversation guide for us. There is no right or wrong answer.

Ask the team member to put a dot on where they think they are right now. The dot is relative to skill level and challenge. You might get a “What do you mean?” response. Reassure the person that this is not a test. Ask them to simply put a dot that best represents where they are today in terms of using their skills for the work. For example, if you don’t have enough skills for the current work, you may put on dot in the “Overwhelmed” sector. Not enough challenge for the skills you have? You may be “Bored”.

Once you have the dot, you have a place to begin having a meaningful conversation within a career development context that is far richer than the worn-out question, “So, how’s it going?”

Once you have the dot, you have a place to begin having a meaningful conversation within a career development context that is far richer than the worn-out question, “So, how’s it going?”

The next time you meet, pull out the graph again, and ask them to re-assess. Remind them of the key points of using this tool, including its confidentiality. Any changes? A new dot is now a new starting place for another career development meeting.

Example of what the graph might look like after two career development conversations.

 

When each person on the team is given the opportunity to grow their skills and be challenged in a way that isn’t paralyzing, the entire team benefits. This improves team flow. While your team may take a few years to balance skill and challenge, aiming for it now using incremental steps will set the path for success.

This image is for explanation purposes. You wouldn’t show this graph within a career development conversation.

 

Putting it All Together

The three ideas offered here give middle managers a great starting place to effect change, but don’t let them limit your creativity. Remember, the team delivers the actual value to your customers. The Agile manager focuses on helping the team and the people within it.

One of the greatest objections to the work described above is “I just don’t have time for all of that work.” No doubt there is far more work to accomplish than there is time in a day. That will never change, but you can change how you lead through it.

No doubt there is far more work to accomplish than there is time in a day. That will never change, but you can change how you lead through it.


Read “What Moves You”

In this white paper – produced and released by the Business Agility Institute – we learn how Agile organizations tap into the intrinsic motivations of their team members. These include a combination of meaningful forward-looking incentives and backward-looking rewards designed to complement each other. Learn principles and practices you can start using today to motivate your own team!

Read “What Moves You”