Dos and don’ts of agile management

Managers can support agile teams by managing them in an agile way. But how does agile management look? Do agile teams need managers? Does agile management exist or is it an oxymoron?

Let’s explore the dos and don’ts of agile management and learn how we can lead for self-organization.

At Stretch 2020 I spoke about leading for self-organization. Below you can find the video, slides, and main takeaways of my talk about the dos and don’ts of agile management. I also added a Q&A based on the questions that were brought up by the audience.

Dos and don’t of agile management

There are things that managers shouldn’t do and things they should do when leadings agile teams.

How to NOT manage agile teams:

  • Don’t call people resources
  • Don’t micromanage
  • Don’t put pressure on teams
  • Don’t be a jerk

The term “resources” is used often when referring to people. For a manager, a “resource” is something you need to “execute” your plan, policy, or strategy. That’s fine, but not when people are involved. I propose to call them by their name and don’t call people resources!

Agile teams are self-organized. They expect different things from their managers, and for sure they don’t like it when they are micromanaged or put under pressure. When you’re in doubt if you need to do something, my advice is to not do it and see what happens. Often you’ll find out that teams are able to do things themselves.

If you’re unsure if you are acting like a jerk, ask the people in your team. Check with them to find out what kind of behavior they like and what they hate.

My advice to managers for managing agile teams:

  • Listen
  • Value collaboration
  • Trust people
  • Give them what they need
  • Reward team results
  • Drive out fear

Most of these practices speak for themselves. I suggest using this as a checklist, a reminder of what you as a manager can do to truly help your teams.

Leading for self-organization

Agile is something for teams, right? True, but teams don’t function in a vacuum. As a manager, you can set the stage and support teams who want to increase their agility. The below presentation explores three topics that managers can work on to make teams succeed and increase the company’s agility: Leadership, Collaboration, and Culture.

Here are the slides and video of the presentation that I gave at the Stretch conference.

I got some great feedback from the audience:

“The best presentation so far, thank you so much for bringing this to everybody here!”

“Liked the advice for managers at the end of the presentation the most.”

“Really good content and clear messages, thanks for that! :-)”

Questions from the audience

At the conference attendees brought up questions to the speakers using sli.do. There were many great questions in my session, due to limited time I couldn’t answer all of them at that time. Here’s a Q&A of all the questions that were brought up.

Very smart, very high tech people with poor collaboration skills – How to best fit them into an organisation?

Is it really poor collaboration? Or do they prefer to collaborate in a different way compared to what you are familiar with? Maybe they are more introvert, task or result-oriented. I suggest looking for ways to accommodate them. Find ways that you can collaborate with them. Then again, don’t accept toxic behavior. People should respect each other, even if they disagree on something.

Also, take a look at the situation in which people are doing their work, the environment, the system that the organization imposes on them. Do people feel safe at work? Are people allowed to bring their whole self to work and be themselves in the workplace? Often it’s not about the people but it’s the system that inhibits them to collaborate. Adress the system, not people, if you want to solve collaboration issues.

How would you start to “fix” a current leader who has very bad interpersonal skills and was elected based on tech knowledge?

You can’t “fix” people, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, I suggest having a discussion with the person about how comfortable they feel in their role as a leader. Sometimes becoming a leader is the only way to make a career step, but it’s not what people favor.

I’ve had managers who didn’t want to be in that role. I have people in my workshops where I felt that the way they were talking and acting was incongruent with their function. I try to help them by finding out where their passion is, their real strength. Next, I’ll explore what they could do to switch their role.

Live’s too short to do work that doesn’t fit with you, that drains your energy. Don’t!

How to improve performance in teams that have extremes (e.g. “star player”, low performer, beginner, Mr. Smartass, etc.)?

Making it visible often helps to deal with team behavior. If you are managing the team you can reflect back to show them what’s happening. Don’t judge or try to solve problems yourself, instead provide a mirror and leave it up to the team to decide and take action. You’ll be surprised about things that teams can do themselves when they become aware of what’s happening.

I created a game to explore extreme behavior in agile retrospectives (the Agile Retrospectives Bingo). When I play this in teams they see the damage that can happen when extremes are put into a team and they learn how facilitators or coaches can deal with it.

Also, make sure to draw a limit to the bad behavior that you are willing to tolerate in teams.

How to improve collaboration between teams, so that all teams in a department can work together better?

It starts with the vision, the goal for the department (or product or project). You need a compelling goal to set the stage for collaboration.

Next, set up an environment where people can develop their skills and come up with ideas on how to work together to reach the goal. Open spaces are a great approach to do this. Look for ways to collaboratively solve problems.

What do you think, what are the key indicators that a team is not going to work out?

Signals that there might be problems in a team are when individual behavior takes precedence over group behavior. During the day people are at their own desk except when they have to join a meeting. There’s little communication between people. If there’s a problem, people try to solve it individually over getting together to look for solutions.

Deeper reasons are usually that people don’t feel safe enough, don’t know each other. Managers are rewarding individual behavior and are communicating with people directly, not with the team. Addressing these things is the first step to enable teamwork.

What managers do in an agile organization when agile teams remove most of the impediments?

If you manage to get to this level of teamwork, there’s still work left for managers so don’t worry. The few impediments left where managers have to be involved to solve are the hard ones. They often have to do with cross-organizational barriers or the company goals or culture. Managers should focus on solving these issues, where teams solve most of the other issues themselves.

The other good thing is that it frees up time to look further into the future. What’s going to be next in 3 months or a year? How can we prepare for that? Managers can now work on strategic issues, leaving operational work to the teams to manage themselves.

Collaboration is still key. Even though there’s a different focus in teams and management, they should stay in close contact and reach out frequently to stay involved with each other’s activities.

What do you do if the team performs poorly, but they don’t want to improve, they don’t want to learn?

I don’t believe people don’t want to improve or learn. It’s the same as with change, people aren’t against change but they hate it when change is imposed on them (for obvious reasons). Stop improving people!

In this kind of situation, there are often so many problems that the team doesn’t know where to start. And they might be afraid to make mistakes. It helps if they decide to just pick one or two things that are bugging them and solve those. I often play The Agile Self-assessment Game with teams: it helps them to understand how things are going and decide what they want to improve.

What Is the one thing that you can change when the “fail fast” culture is missing from the agile organization (agile teams)? They fear because of the revenge.

First, I think we should aim for a “learn fast” culture. It’s better outcomes that matter and finding ways to get there. Failure is part of that journey, it’s ok if things go wrong provided that you learn from it.

Psychological safety is a key aspect if you want people to try out new things. Start with finding out how safe people feel, one way to do this is to work on safety in your retrospective. Another thing is to organize activities for people to get to know each other. Adress blaming when that happens, drive out fear in any way you can.

Once people feel safe enough, give them the space to try out things. Stop overloading them with work, there should be slack to experiment. Celebrate successes, reward teams that try out things, and encourage people to share their learning.

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Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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