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Can Managers Lead Agile Teams?

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Can Managers Lead Agile Teams?

If we are going to start treating managers like grown-ups… and start asking them to behave like agile leaders… and giving them a real role on an agile team… let’s begin by exploring why we excluded them in the first place. Maybe if we can take a step back and think about the original problem we can find a more inclusive solution.

Here is my take…

Agile excluded management because people are sick of being yanked around. They are tired of managers telling them what to do… changing their mind… and then deciding that they want everything according to the original schedule. People are tired of being treated like cogs in a machine and being moved from project to project and team to team like interchangeable parts. People are tired of being micromanaged and having to check their brains at the door.

People are tired of building low quality software just to meet unreasonable schedules… to meet unreasonable budgets… imposed by unreasonable Dilbertesque managers. They want to be connected… they want to be treated like whole… thinking… feeling… creative human beings. They want to be treated like people that have something more to contribute than just two hands and a social security number. People want to do meaningful work and be part of something bigger than themselves.
I always imagine those early Scrum teams sitting around going… hey, this is a bunch of crap! These managers can’t make up their minds. Just put us devs in a room… leave us alone… and let us write some code. Give us one person… we’ll call him a Product Owner… and we’ll build whatever he wants. Oh… and by the way… we need someone to go and run interference and fix stuff for us. Hey you… come over here and be our Scrummaster. But none of you people can tell us HOW to do our work… we are going to self-manage and self-organize!
Think for a minute about what is really being said here:
The Product Owner is the personification of a well aligned business. The Product Owner is the team’s answer to getting yanked around. They are the product manager, the project manager, the business analyst, the UX designer, the UAT tester, and in some contexts the dev manager. Can’t get the business to make up it’s mind? Well… we’ll make it simple for you… Frank gets to decide. He can go argue with himself… we are going to build some software!
The Scrummaster is there to make sure the team has everything it needs and that any impediments are out of the way. Tired of petty, controlling, micro-managers… tired of being bartered between teams like a head of cattle… let’s take away all of Sue’s positional authority and call her a Scrummaster. The Scrummaster is everything good about management… explicitly leaving out the stuff we don’t like.
But wait… now that we don’t have all these project managers and dev managers… who is going to tell us what to do? Well… I guess we will. We will be self-organizing and self-managing. We’ll take charge of our own destiny… our own careers… and earn the right to be left alone. We’ll plan together… meet every day to talk things out… and review our work with the Product Owner. When we are done.. we’ll figure out for ourselves how to get better and improve.
Sounds nice huh?
The problem is that all these managers that used to be in charge didn’t go away… they still work for the organization. And guess what… they liked being in charge. They got paid well for it… it was good for their egos. Why do we think these folks are just going to go away without a fight!? Not giving them something to do only encourages managers to resist… and that resistance puts all our agile goodness at risk.
Product Owners fundamentally address the organization’s alignment problem. What if we could use our managers to help really get our organizations into alignment? What if the business could really articulate what was important and managers could clearly communicate what it was that their teams needed to build… would the need for a single Product Owner be so important? Somehow I don’t think so.
What about Scrummasters? If we could teach our managers to be servants of the team… to be real leaders… to be facilitators first… would we still need a separate role? What if… once we solved the alignment problem… and managers were no longer given unreasonable deadlines… unrealistic budget constraints… and more work than their teams could handle… they started behaving in ways consistent with a Scrummaster but retained their positional authority? Would that be all that bad?
Going into organizations and telling them that each team has to have a Product Owner and a Scrummaster in addition to a traditional manager doesn’t fly in most organizations. Telling managers that they no longer have authority over their teams because their teams are now self-managing really isn’t going to work either. Personally… I think we need to slot our managers into one of the two roles… priority and business alignment (the PO) or the management and issue resolution (the Scrummaster).
We should allow for and embrace their positional authority and incent them to encourage more empowering… self-organizing behavior in their teams. Many managers will be able to rise to the occasion… many of them are already there. Those that can’t need to be coached and developed just like any other employee of the business. Those managers that cannot or will not change then have the option to stay or move on to a more command and control organization.
Next Managers are Grown-ups Too

Comments (11)

  1. Andre Simones

    Ahmen! I love your perspective. I was a development manager when I transitioned to Scrum. I brought Scrum into our organization, and I was the scrum master. I know that Ken Schwaber would wag his finger at me, but, you know what, it was AWESOME! Scrum perfectly fit my management style.

    Later, I became an agile coach, and I found out that most managers don't know how to lead as servant leaders. They have the "I'm the boss" mentality. Why? Because they don't know any better. I think companies will just have to face the fact that either a) they can't promote those who are "good" at their jobs into management without TRAINING (huh?), or b) have to hire "tough" and make sure they are bringing in those with the right servant leader skills.

    I would much rather have a manager be a Scrum Master than anyone from the PMO (yes, I said it, hopefully it won't come back to haunt me), since typically, in my experience, those in the PMO are horrible servant leaders.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Mike Cottmeyer

    Thanks for the great comment. My only concern is that we can't leave the PMO out either. Those pesky project managers can cause as many problems as disenfranchised dev managers!

  3. Paul Boos

    These are excellent points Mike.

    One of the first things I try to encourage from the business managers I deal with are for them to decide whether they want to be the product owner or the sponsor (sponsor being the one that puts up the money). I explain that as a owner, they will be regularly involved and be able to make the regular recurring decisions on priorities. If they want to be merely the sponsor, then the first decision they need to make is who will they entrust to make these decisions on their behalf.

    I also encourage them to be a part of each Sprint Review and if things look to be not going right to talk with their PO. Since I am a manager myself over the CSMs, I try to engage every time this is happening to ensure that the PO still remains empowered. Usually the only time the sponsor and PO get out of sync, is because the communication breaks down sometimes between them.

    As the manager of the CSMs, I often sit in on Reviews and Planning sessions to see how they are doing and then offer mentoring advice. This is sort of the equivalent of managing by walking around. I also try and take as much admin stuff off their plate as I can, so they can stay focused identifying and removing impediments. Of course, if it is organizational, they can bump it to me to handle or I can work with the sponsor if it is more a business-oriented impediment.

    It would be more ideal in some cases for first line business supervisors to be the POs; it is usually their money being spent and it lowers the misinterpretation of intent that can occur with a worker-bee being the PO.

  4. Mike Cottmeyer

    Paul… what are you guys doing with the dev managers???

  5. Scott Bellware


    I prefer a Lean model of a learning organization. Trying to retrofit a traditional managment model into Agile is still just swinging the pedulum to an opposite extreme. It can be either successfull or disasterous.

    A fully self-empowered team without a good manager can just as quickly devolve into a self-determining and self-entitled team as it can evolve into a great product development organization. I prefer an organizational protocol that leaves a little less to chance.

  6. Mike Cottmeyer


    I think I agree… but not sure what you would do with the dev managers already in place. Do we fire them and start over? Can they be 'trained' up a bit to become managers in an agile organization… or a lean organization for that matter?


  7. Andre Simones

    I should probably clarify my comment about the PMO, I think I was a bit hasty :-) I didn't mean to imply that we should always get rid of the PMO.

    In my small world, the PMO typically consists of task-masters, who don't really care about "touchy, feely" stuff (they joke about agile being touchy, feely). They would much rather "crack the whip" to get things done. And, if your not "cracking the whip", you suck as a PM.

    This is tough, what do you do when there is a group/person you want out of the way who is in power and could become a significant impediment? Include them? Yes, you have to, otherwise you're doomed. They need to be educated, sold, coached, mentored, and willing to change.

    Also, there are some functions that are still necessary that Scrum doesn't really address, i.e. financial reporting, budgets, vendor relationships, and misc. corporate "stuff" that eventually may dissolve as agile becomes ingrained within the organization. The members of the PMO, who's skillset does not (currently) include facilitation and servant leadership, can definately help in this area. And hopefully they can be coached to become great servant leaders. And, of course, those who are servant leaders can definately become Scrum Masters.

  8. Mike Cottmeyer

    Thanks for the clarification… did you notice my accidental alliteration? Pesky Project Managers… Disenfranchised Dev Managers. Hey! Accidental Alliteration… that's one too…I am on a roll this morning!

  9. Paul Boos

    As a Dev Manager myself, I perform two useful roles (IMHO):

    1) I take care of as much administrivia as I can that the organization wants to put on PM/Scrum Master or the development team AND
    2) I keep myself in tune with new concepts and techniques and serve as the mentor for improving the skills of PM/SMs.

    Alas, the teams under me are the only ones doing Agile here, so the rest of the Dev Managers fit the more traditional role as manager.

  10. Scott Duncan

    I think this paragraph of yours says it for me:

    "Many managers will be able to rise to the occasion… many of them are already there. Those that can't need to be coached and developed just like any other employee of the business. Those managers that cannot or will not change then have the option to stay or move on to a more command and control organization."

    There may be a role for people in agile whose title is "manager," but it isn't being a manager in the traditional sense. As you say, some folks aren't going to want/like the transition or be able to make it.

    To me, the trick is whether the organization above the first (or first couple) of levels of manager wants the transition. If they don't, or don't really care, the message will be that managers should likely not try.

    Now using the "right" language to help them decide the transition can work, certainly makes a great deal of sense. But being a Scrummaster or Product Owner isn't being a Project Manager or Development Manager as generally expected in an organization.

    I have experienced "tech" (including analysis) leads, being convinced to become Scrummasters because it will give them "management" experience. They feel they want this because the organization is structured to require a move to management as the next step for tech folks.

    In the Bell System, I say numerous tech leaders take on the supervisor role because that was the only choice they had. Some succeeded and others were unhappy. Some of the latter dropped back to a tech lead role, others became more miserable.

    Agile asks that organizations adopt leadership over management, when it comes to relationships with agile teams. There are still strategic roles for management, but tactical, day-to-day supervision of teams isn't the model. That’s not what a Scrummaster or agile coach is there to do. It's not what a Product Owner is there to do.

    If the transformation you describe can occur, then what you say about POs and Scrummasters is more likely to work. Problem is, I see the jump made over the transition period.

    Agility isn't about acting in a rush; it's about acting with urgency, i.e., with regular (daily) concern for how work is going, how can the work approach be improved, and what new learning we can pursue in doing so.

    By gosh, it's Deming all over (sort of). Guess he knew what he was talking about.

  11. Mike Cottmeyer

    Scott… as I've read the comments… and all the talk over Twitter on this post… I almost wish I would have focused less on the word 'management' and more in the words 'positional authority'.

    In real life, managers do lots of things. Some are technical leaders, mentors to the teams. Some deal primarily with HR and development plans and the such. Some deal with organizational impediments, training plans, and the like.

    I think what I am really exploring here is the idea of 'is there room for positional leadership on the team or does it have to be off and outside the team'??? To build on that… I think there is room for positional authority on the team provided we are coaching managers toward a more participatory decision making style of leadership.

    If we can get that… I don't think the positional authority thing is that big of a hang up… or at least it shouldn't be. Thanks for the great comment… you guys are keeping me on my toes today!



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