Rethinking Manager’s Relationship with Agile Teams

In the early days of agile, some pundits (and developers) cried, “We don’t need no stinking managers.”

By now, most people realize that organizations still need management (and people in management roles) after they adopt agile methods. However, if those organizations want all the benefits of agile, managers must also change the way they work.

Managers can play an even more valuable role in organizations as teams become self-organizing and take on more responsibility. But if managers want teams to take more self-responsibility, they need to shift their focus from monitoring the day-to-day work of individuals and let teams grow up.  Here are three common areas of confusing as managers and teams negotiate their new relationships.

Messing with Team Membership

No group is a team the first day they are together.  Becoming a team takes time–time to learn how each person fits in and contributes, time to lean how to work together, time to develop group identity and trust.

If you want the benefit of the team effect, provide the enabling conditions:

  • A clear and compelling goal
  • Appropriate constraints
  • Stable membership
  • Time for the team to gel.

Plucking people off the team or poking people into the team causes a re-set in the team forming process. Mess with the membership often enough, and people will stop trying. When team membership feels like a revolving door, individuals won’t put in the effort to form team bonds. You may get a group that functions reasonably well, but you’ll miss out on the team effect.

That doesn’t mean that team membership never changes. People leave (or are asked to leave) and people join. Hiring new people for a team should always be a joint decision, involving team members. And when people are asked to leave it shouldn’t be mysterious to the team why that happened. (For more on hiring as a collaborative process, see this article.)

Delegating then De-delegating Decisions

As a general rule, delegating decision making to the people who are closest to the work is an excellent principle. Doing so can remove bottlenecks, lead to faster decision-making, and improve customer responsiveness.

Except when it doesn’t, as happens when a manager and a team haven’t clarified who makes which decisions. Or when a manager delegates a decision, but doesn’t clarify boundaries or constraints around that decision.

When managers see that a team is about to make a poor decision, they may be tempted to countermand that decision. Countermanding a decision prevents the problems that would have been caused by a faulty decision. But it leads do a different kind of problem–loss of trust between the team and the manager.  Team members may feel the manager wasn’t serious about delegating decisions in the first place. They may believe that he only delegates decisions on the condition that the team decides exactly what the manager would choose.  Such situations will damage a mangers relationship with the team.

If the team makes a decision that will result in real harm to the company, a manager must intervene. How he intervenes makes a difference. To prevent real harm to the relationship, refrain from blame. Acknowledging that key constraints weren’t clear or communicated will help. Use the opportunity to learn from the mistake, and to set appropriate boundaries for team decisions.

Strategic decisions belong to management. But tactical decisions, course corrections, and decisions that affect day-to-day work belong with the development team. Some decisions fall in between, and require both management and front-line input.

Work with the team to identify which decisions are squarely with the team, which ones you share, and which ones are management decisions. Then set boundaries, about cost, impact, and scope.

For example, when it comes to hiring a new team member, the decision about what skills and qualities to look for in a new team member is probably a joint decision.  The choice among candidates is best done as a recommendation from the team (which you may over-ride at your own peril). But the offer and salary are neither a team decision or a joint decision. Employment terms and salary (in most organizations) are management decisions.

Clouding Team Commitments

One of the secrets ingredients for team success is that team members make commitments to each other to complete their goal. Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. But commitments can lead to conflict, it’s not clear who makes commitments to whom about what.

Fred, a member of an agile team, participated in a planning meeting where he and his teammates committed to deliver six stories during the next iteration.  Then Fred when to the team manager, Megan, to get approval for a two week vacation, starting the second week of the next sprint–as he had done every spring for the last four years.

But this time, the result was a mess. The other team members were mad at Fred, for committing his effort to the team, when he knew he wouldn’t be in the office for half the next sprint.  The team members were mad at Megan, too, for giving Fred permission when they thought he should have talked to them first. Fred and Megan felt attacked–for doing what they’d always done.

Managers are still point-person for matters of company policy. But work commitment a happen between the team as a whole and their product owner or customer. Megan and Fred landed in the middle of that. In the end, Fred took his vacation. The team needed to renegotiate their commitment to the product owner. Megan attended the meeting to explain what had happened to the product owner.

When Fred (gratefully) returned from two weeks at the cabin with his three kids and the in-laws, they all had a sit down. They talked about which commitments the team could make, what the team could negotiate among themselves and where Megan needed to be involved for legal reasons.

I hear managers say they want teams to take more responsibility. The best way to make that happen is for managers to stop acting in ways that take responsibility away from teams. Start with these three areas.  Then, spend some time examining your relationship with the team. What else could the team do that would enhance their autonomy and responsibility? What else are you doing that might confuse the team about how much responsibility they really have?

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