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What role does management play during the Agile transition?

What role does management play during the Agile transition?

Welcome to part 11 in our agile coach interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of agile coaches in interviews and client engagements.

What role do they want to play?

This is an interesting question because it presumes that managers have a role to play in the adoption of an agile framework within a product development environment.

Agile purists would go as far as to say that managers aren’t a necessary component of an agile framework and that teams should be striving to become autonomous and self-managing.

I would take a slightly more nuanced position and suggest that line managers and leaders have a valuable role to play in the adoption and sustainability of an agile team environment.

Management is good. An organization needs to be great at managing and allocating resources, executing against a plan, and delivering value to customers. Management plays an important role in ensuring this happens.

An organization also needs to be great at innovation and product development. A need to identify what problems customers need solved and what products best serve them in achieving the goals and objectives they value, as well in helping them get valuable jobs done.

This tends to require knowledge workers who are experienced experts, and we transition into a role of leadership rather than project management in these.

Agility, in essence, is a mindset and culture of transparency, inspection, and adaptation.

We think something might be true, we design an experiment to prove whether that assumption is true or not, and then we set about building the thing to learn through the process and identify which elements work and which elements need to be present for it to work.

A manager can play an important role in helping to create an environment where that can happen.

A manager can run interference for the team, work with powerful stakeholders throughout the organization to secure resources or remove impediments, and help the team document their journey in a way that is scientific, measurable, and valuable.

Managers are ultimately responsible for supporting the team in achieving agility and continuous improvement. They are there to work with the team and people throughout the organization to support a culture and environment of innovation, product development, and collaboration.

In a traditional project management environment, a project manager tells people what to do and when to do that. They also gain agreement that the work will be done within X cost and time constraints.

In an agile environment, managers don’t perform this role.

They are not there to tell the team what to do or how to do it. They can’t because they don’t have the necessary experience or expertise in building the product or solving the problem to do so.

In many cases, the manager would be the least qualified and competent person, technically, within the environment and so it makes no sense for them to make decisions about the work that needs doing nor are they able to accurately estimate how long that work will take or how much it will cost to deliver.

They are invariably ill-equipped to manage the environment or dictate outcomes for the team.

In a complicated environment, such as civil engineering, where we have blueprints and formulae for achieving an objective, management works great. Project management works great too.

In a complex environment where we don’t know the answer upfront because the problem has never been solved before or the product has never been built before, traditional management falls over.

In complex product development environments, the process needs to evolve through continuous learning and adaptation. A manager can’t enforce something that needs to be fluid and adapt to the environment. They can’t insist on specific tools if those tools no longer serve the customer’s needs.

It can’t be a rigid, command and control environment because Agility is key to success.

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