The Manager's Role During an Agile Transformation

I have been working in an Agile environment for the past nine years. The one question managers keep asking is, "What is my role after my teams have adopted Agile?" Having worked as a manager, I can say that this is the one question no one could answer satisfactorily.

Deciding to adopt the Agile framework

One of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto is for teams to be self-organizing. However, for this to happen, managers must also be adaptable and understand the value that Agile can bring to teams. The required cultural change takes time, and this expectation is usually not set from the beginning of the Agile adoption phase. While most senior executives are promised that the Agile method will produce results quickly, some are told that it will produce twice the work in half the time. (Many organizations I have worked in embark on a transformation for that very reason.) It sounds like a great plan, and a decision to go forward is sometimes made too quickly. The executives are not told that this change in adopting a new method involves a culture change that can take two to three years to happen, so the results are not immediately visible.

Another struggle for many organizations is that when they decide to transform to Agile, there is little or no restructuring of management positions, which leaves many managers feeling uncomfortable with the concept of a transformation from managing the teams to building self-organizing teams.

What is the manager’s role?

The responsibilities of a software development manager can include:

  • Assigning work to each engineer
  • Following-up on the progress of the work
  • Reporting metrics to senior management
  • Creating a road map
  • Handling administrative tasks, such as vacation approvals and compensation
  • Conducting performance evaluations
Since many managers believe that their job function is a command-and-control position (there are a few exceptions to the rule), it requires a lot of micromanaging to maintain "control" of the employees and their work. There are also managers who have gone to leadership training and want to empower their employees. These are leaders who will successfully adopt Agile because they have already taken the first step toward change, which is to empower employees and help the teams become self-organizing.

The evolving role of the manager involves the adoption of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto. Managers can follow these guidelines to help their teams:

  • Grow the team instead of controlling it
  • Guide and mentor the team instead of having expectations of it
  • Support, trust, and motivate the team instead of micromanaging it
  • Allow the team to work at a sustainable pace instead of having it rush to meet unrealistic deadlines
  • Allow the team to fail fast to learn fast
  • Provide training for continuous improvement
  • Foster an environment that encourages the team to make its own decisions when possible
  • In general, provide servant leadership instead of command-and-control leadership
These guidelines will improve team morale and produce better results in terms of productivity.

On your mark, get set, go!

As the organization undergoes an Agile transformation, it must be ready for a cultural change. This transformative change must be communicated throughout the transformation.

It's a good idea to start the transformation by recruiting an Agile coach, but here’s what you should do first:

  1. Determine the Agile framework. The first part of the change is deciding which Agile framework best fits the organization. It starts with buy-in from senior management. Make sure that they support the effort.
  2. Examine the expertise of your team. After a realistic picture is painted, decide which facets of the organization lend themselves to Agile and draw a line; not every group needs to go Agile. Gather all the team members so that they can decide how the teams should be divided. Give guidelines about including various areas of expertise for each team so that you have several cross-functional team members (ideally).
  3. Educate and train. Start training at the top of the organization, with senior executives, moving down to the management level and finally to team members. Redefine management roles prior to transformation so that expectations are set.
  4. Create a road map. Create a road map to success by adopting Agile in increments (in a Scrum-like way). If someone puts a pie in front of you, you don’t sit down and eat the entire pie in one sitting; it takes many days of eating one slice at a time. Think of this analogy when Agile is implemented one slice at a time! A checklist is a great way to start. Train the teams and then establish a weekly goal for each team to achieve.
  5. Design a plan. Start with user story mapping and design a "plan." Agile does not prescribe that you should have a plan — it guides you to only plan differently. Monitor progress. Several approaches work, but don’t use numbers. Instead, use a model that shows maturity at a team level, which is sometimes referred to as an Agile Maturity model.
Before transforming to Agile, join a few user groups or communities, and talk to people from other companies to get their feedback about lessons they learned, to make your own transformation smoother. Then get an Agile coach to help you succeed with your Agile journey.


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