The Manager Role is Different in an Agile Environment

I’ve been looking into how the traditional hierarchical, “command and control” management came to be and also at what motivates individuals and high-performance teams with the purpose to discuss the role of the manager in an Agile environment.

Most of the Agile frameworks don’t tackle this topic, which creates quite a few issues when implementation time comes. Inspired by Toyota’s management philosophy – the Toyota Way – lean software development has a more in-depth look at the role of management and leadership in agile teams.

What the lean movement captured, which many other frameworks fail to do, is the fact that an agile transformation requires a major cultural change, that takes a long time to effect. During this entire change process, management has an essential role as they need to deeply understand and lead the change itself.

I’m going to spend some time looking into the behaviours of a Lean Manager, then I will conclude with the profile of the Agile Manager.

The Lean Manager

There are more leadership books than there is time to read. But I won’t recommend any of them. Instead, I’ll propose you read a novel, you’ll enjoy it and will understand the complexity of being a lean manager: The Lean Manager, by Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé (father and son, not brothers, as I mistakenly presumed). The book is interesting (especially if you enjoy reading Ayn Rand), it has an exciting story, real characters and it does a better job at teaching you how to become a lean manage than most management books.

My biggest learning from lean and the Toyota Way, which humbled me tremendously, is that we are wrong half of the time. The challenge is to figure out which half 🙂 .

Toyota harnessed the intellect of each of their employees to become the automotive leader of today. The Toyota Way is based on two pillars: continuous improvement and respect for people. But even before that, Toyota makes it clear that the customer comes first in every single decision they make, and every product they build.

  • Continuous improvement consists of:Challenge: have a long-term vision of challenges one needs to face to realise one’s ambition; look rather at what you need to learn than at what you need to do. Then challenge yourself every day to see if you’re achieving your goals.
    • Kaizen (continuous improvement): there is no such thing as “good enough”, no process is perfect, so operations must continuously improve, striving for innovation and evolution.
    • Genchi genbutsu: you must go to the source to see the facts for yourself and make the right decisions, create consensus and make sure goals are achieved.
  • Respect for people consists of:  
    • Respect: take every stakeholder’s problem seriously, and build mutual trust; at the same time, as a lean manager, you have to take responsibility for your team reaching their objectives.
    • Teamwork: develop individuals through team problem solving. Develop and engage people through their contribution to team performance. Solving challenging problems together is the most effective way to make teams jell at the same time (the same idea is supported by Peopleware and Powerful, by Patty McCord, former VP of People at Netflix).
    • Direction: people need to know where you’re taking them. You can be as open-minded as you like and change your mind as much as you like, as long as they feel that overall direction is steady.
    • Engagement: people need to be engaged to give their all and to keep being lean. This is how people stay engaged in their work and don’t lose momentum:
      • let each person know how they’re performing, and figure out problems with them. Problems first
      • give credit when credit is due, especially when someone does systematically better continuously
      • let people know in advance about changes that will concern them
      • look for the best use of every person’s abilities; they must have the opportunity to do what they do best every day
      • care for your people, as persons, not employees
      • encourage their development, help them grow.

Beyond lean systems, culture is the final frontier to create sustainable growth. What is Toyota’s culture and what makes it lean? The first and foremost condition is that senior management is fully immersed in the culture and is its biggest promoter:

  • senior management continuously goes to the site and listens directly to their employees
  • lean tools are used every day to visualise potential issues so everyone can ask “Why?” until the root cause of issues is identified and a solution is found
  • problems-first: management gets the bad news from the employees as they created a safe-to-fail environment, where they take problems seriously and respectfully.

Lean management is about learning and constantly creating working knowledge as a byproduct of any management act. A lean manager doesn’t tell his teams “Do as you think best“, nor “Do as you’re told“, but “Let’s figure it out together“.

The profile of an Agile Manager

So, what is an Agile Manager supposed to do, how will he work with a self-managed team and what does the manager of the future look like?

  • An Agile Manager solves problems with the team. He doesn’t tell them what to do, he doesn’t tell them how to do their work, but works together with the team to solve challenging problems.
  • An Agile Manager cares about the team, on a personal level. He gets involved into knowing his team personally and understanding their personalities, approaches, and values.
  • An Agile Manager gives freedom and autonomy to the teams (to a level where the team feels comfortable, depending on their maturity). The team should create their own processes and have complete freedom to innovate on their work.
  • An Agile Manager creates a safe environment, characterised by trust, where the team can openly and passionately debate and discuss ideas.
  • An Agile Manager commits to the team’s objectives and is responsible for achieving them, together with the team.
  • An Agile Manager is a teacher, coach, mentor, conflict mediator, facilitator, friend, and can switch roles based on the needs of the team.
  • An Agile Manager gives the team direction and purpose and helps the team focus on reaching their goals.
  • An Agile Manager has a “customer first” philosophy, understands that individual needs are secondary to customer needs and teaches this to the team.
  • An Agile Manager is entirely committed to continuous improvement, understands that there is no end to learning, innovating, and continuously growing, as a person and also as a team.
  • An Agile Manager communicates constantly with the team, gives immediate feedback and praise and is honest and practices radical candour.
  • An Agile Manager leads by example, his behaviours are according to agile values and principles and is an inspiration for the team.

A brief comparison between traditional – agile manager

Bringing Agile Management to organisations

Below you can find the presentation on lean management I made for two clients. One of the clients is in the middle of an agile transformation, still dealing with traditional management approaches (Client A); the other client is a non-hierarchical organisation that works as a complex environment, with young managers and no stable management philosophy (I’m working to create it with their senior management) (Client B).

Client A’s reaction to the presentation was rejection: “These are nice concepts, but they don’t really apply to us, we work differently“. Even though they acknowledge the team needing to work in fast iterations, inspect and adapt, have direct contact with the customers, continuously improve on their process and have autonomy on how to work (for the most part), they don’t see their role in it nor that they are the drivers of changing the company culture. We’re still working on that.

Client B was mostly curious: “How can we make this happen? And how can we get trained on this?“. Flat organisations, that work in a constantly changing, constantly improving environments find it much easier to adopt new ways of working and understand the necessity to change their approach towards a more inclusive, coaching, mentoring as managers cultural change.

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