What Makes an Effective Agile Manager?

Imagine you are a software development manager in a company with a waterfall SDLC. You advanced to the position of manager by exhibiting ambition and technical excellence. You have grown your sphere of influence by adding more positions that report to you. You have been successful directing a large group of developers, assigning work to them and instructing them on how to improve their skills.

Now your organization is undergoing an Agile transformation. Your people are now members of self-organized, empowered teams. They are learning new skills from each other. Someone called a “Product Owner” prioritizes what the team will work on, organizing and managing the Product Backlog and representing the customer in the development process. A ScrumMaster removes impediments, escalating issues to ensure that team productivity and quality remain high.  Suddenly there does not seem to be a need for all the things you, the manager, did for your reports on a daily basis! Is a manager even needed in this new agile world?

It’s common for traditional businesses not to recognize the critical role of managers in transforming to an Agile mindset. Effective Agile managers are critical to successful Agile transformation and thus business agility. Watch our webinar “The Path to Business Agility” to learn more about the WHY and HOW of business agility and how to start your own journey.

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Where Does the Manager Fit in the Process?

In the past five years or so, the need for Agile management has come into clear focus: people don’t need managing, but processes and the overarching system do. The Agile Manager is a caretaker of the human system and helps the organization in the following ways:

  • They address impediments that ScrumMasters have escalated to leadership.
  • They determine whether team members (new and existing) need training and in some cases in what areas. They are invested in the growth of teams and team members, so that everyone can be successful in their role.
  • They escalate to executive leadership organizational changes that need to be addressed upstream and downstream to ensure that the bottleneck to delivering customer value is removed completely not simply moved to another department (e.g., QA, Ops, etc.).
  • They research and provide new resources that address team needs and help them achieve high performance.

All of these are systemic issues that Agile managers can help address. As organizational complexity increases, the need for caretakers of the system become more accentuated. Traditional managers must stop haranguing people and start wrestling with the processes (or lack thereof) that assist in production. As I said in this video, “It starts with [Agile management] supporting self-organized teams and providing the teams everything they need to succeed”.

“Today’s Companies Need Leaders, Not Managers”

In “The Third Wave of Agile”, SolutionsIQ Chairman Charlie Rudd discussed how Agile shines a spotlight on traditional management and its shortcomings: “…The role of the manager needs to change to support the emerging needs of empowered Agile teams.” He also calls for the role of management to be redrafted to account for the explosive growth of Agile teams.

Too often, though, management is an obstacle to long-lived, sustainable Agile transformation and the real business benefits it yields. This is because the traditional value system of a manager does not align with Agile. At the root of the problem may be the fact that Scrum doesn’t define a role for management. This problem has been resolved in the intervening years and where once teams shouted, “No managers!” they are now shouting, “Agile managers!” As Jeff Sutherland puts it in “Endangered Species? Management’s New Prime Directive”:

“What teams really need from managers [is] help, facilitation, leadership… As the manager in my company, I’m really a coach to the company. I’m a team member. I work on a team. If there’s a ScrumMaster needed, I become a ScrumMaster for a while. If there’s a product, I help out with the product.”

In short: “Today’s companies need leaders, not managers.”

What Does It Take to be a Leader in an Agile Enterprise?

In simplest terms, an Agile manager is a leader. In an organization with multiple layers, you may have many managers, and many leaders above them. In a flat organization, you may have no managers — but you always have leaders. The only true distinction between a manager and a leader is the scope of their influence. What individuals do with their influence and control epitomizes the difference between an Agile organization and a traditional organization. Further, much of an individual’s motivations is revealed in how he or she communicates with those that they influence and control.

Agile is built on the fundamental notion that people are at the center of every enterprise and, hence, the key to the enterprise’s success. For Agile leaders people are not the cause of the problem but are part of the solution. An Agile leader has completely different, human-centric tools at their disposal. Effective communication becomes crucial to aligning values across people and teams and throughout the organization. A taxonomy for helping others succeed emerges when the manager becomes a servant leader dedicated to making others better at delivering real business value and also to be fulfilled and happy in their work.

Some of the tools and techniques for being an effective Agile manager (and all around better human being) are discussed in our webinar “Agile Managers: Redefine Your Role”, including:

  • STOP micromanaging people
  • STOP perpetuating communication anti-patterns (e.g., hearsay, ad hominem)
  • START facilitating discussions and conflict resolution
  • START shepherding human systems
  • START employing advanced communication patterns (e.g., assuming good intent, Perfection Game, high advocacy/high inquiry)
  • START thinking in terms of spheres of Control, Influence and Concern

Something else managers and leaders should start and stop, according to Solutions Consultant Tirrell Payton? START giving teams problems to solve and STOP giving them solutions to implement.


It may seem like Agile is attacking management, but Agile actually is offering management and managers an opportunity to contribute to the new solution space that has arisen out of the increasing complexity of today’s world. Agile empowers managers to make teams and organizations better at delivering customer value by leading well and using new communication tools. Agile aims to eradicate traditional ways of thinking, being and acting that give managers the false sense that they are “more important” than their reports. Agile managers and leaders are so crucial to Business Agility that we have incorporated it into our Agile Transformation Solution. Without buy-in and modeling from Agile leaders, no enterprise can successfully achieve sustainable systemic change.

Agile Managers Webinar

Being a manager in an Agile organization is completely different from the traditional role that most are familiar with. In our webinar “Agile Managers: Redefine Your Role”, SolutionsIQ’s William Rowden invites management and leadership to upgrade their human operating system and provides some tools and techniques that leaders at every level of the organization can use to empower people and bring more value to the organization.