How to manage agile teams: Things leaders can do

The adoption of agile in organizations seems to confuse people on how to manage agile teams. While some argue that managers are no longer needed as agile teams are self-organized, others still see a role that managers can play to support and enable agile teams.

Let’s explore some of the things that can help you as a leader or manager to work effectively with agile teams and make them flourish and grow. And, by the way, these things also work when you’re a Scrum master.

To manage agile teams, I suggest to:

  • trust your people and have faith in your teams
  • listen to people and take them seriously
  • support people and give them what they need
  • foster psychological safety
  • guide your team toward results
  • reward team results over individual contributions
  • be open and honest, and act vulnerable
  • lead by example
  • foster collaboration and communication
  • point out good things and give compliments to the team
  • arrange for team coaching
  • collaboratively solve impediments with the team

Let’s explore some of the above suggestions in some more detail, where I’ll show you how it can be done.

Trust people, listen to them, and support them

People come to work to do a good job. Period. Your duty as a leader is to make it possible. A way to do this is by trusting people, listening to them and supporting them any way you can. Bob Marshall calls this the antimatter principle “attend to folks’ needs”:

[Needs] reminds us that we’re working for and with people, and all people have needs, many of these tragically unmet. Needs are the universal lingua franca of the human race.

Listening is hard, I know. You’ll learn by practising, by paying attention to what is said (and not said) and check your understanding of what’s needed. And to take action to serve the people you work with.

The Antimatter Principle asks us to remember to listen to our own deeper needs – and to those of others – and to identify and clearly articulate what “is alive in us”. Through its implicit emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as others – the Antimatter Principle fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. This is oh-so simple, yet powerfully transformative.

Trust is another challenging topic for leaders. Most managers have been trained to keep control of the situation. Their manager keeps them accountable for anything that happens, so they feel they have no choice but to make sure things go as planned.

And then, things never go as planned. As the Agile Manifesto tells us, “responding to change over following a plan” works better. But to effectively respond you need to collaborate with people and have a trustful relationship where people feel safe enough to deviate from plans.

I trust by default, I start from the assumption that we have mutual trust and that people will do the best they can, given circumstances. I rely on them, just as they can rely on me.

My belief is that trust is not something that should be earned. Instead, I prefer to give trust from the very beginning. Even with someone that I don’t know, in the first contact, which is usually virtual by email or chat. And I encourage you to do the same as a leader or manager. Give space to the people that they work with, trust them to do the job, and trust them to reach out to you if you can be of help.

Fostering psychological safety

Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Agile teams need to be able to learn, adapt, and improve. For change to happen, people have to feel psychologically safe.

Managers can help teams by coaching them in bringing up things that make them feel unsafe, and help teams find solutions for addressing this unsafety. When people feel safe, personal engagement increases. It becomes easier for people to speak up at work. Psychological safety is an enabler for effective collaboration and communication.

Trust is essential to enable psychological safety, but it’s not enough. Trust is primarily about relationships, about how one person views another person. Psychological safety is how team members believe they are viewed by others, the expectations from the team.

Two techniques that can be used when working with psychological safety are gamification and coaching. I’ve created the Psychological Safety Cards which provide a profound and extensive set of phrases that cover many aspects of psychological safety from an individual, team, and organizational perspective. Teams can use these cards to explore psychological safety and find ways to improve it.

There’s much more to say about psychological safety, which I intend to write about in future blog posts. Meanwhile, here’s my InfoQ article How Psychological Safety at Work Creates Effective Software Tech Teams That Learn and Grow if you’re looking for a background on psychological safety and ideas to apply it in teams.

Guiding people toward results and rewarding team results

Managers should make clear to the people that they work with what outcome is expected of them. And then leave it up to them to find their way for delivering that outcome.

In your position as a leader or manager, you can see the bigger context. You know what your company aims for, what customers it serves and how it intends to do that. The goals that your company wants to reach. Use this to discuss your team’s contribution. The result that the team can aim for.

Outcomes are not the same as outputs. Where output is the results of the work that is being done, outcomes focus on the value that is added. Outcomes are what customers want. It’s goals that you expect the team should aim for, not the product that they have to deliver (that’s output).

If you want to see people work together as a team, then you should reward team behavior over individual behavior. Encourage people to offer help and accept help. Support it when someone collaborates to reach a team result instead of sticking to individual work.

Leader, manager, or Scrum master?

What works for leading agile teams as a manager also works for Scrum masters. The Scrum master is a member of the team who should guide the agile teams towards self-organization. This implies giving the team space to decide for itself how to do its work.

The things mentioned in this article about managing teams also work for Scrum masters. They should listen to the team members, trust them, and support them. Foster psychological safety to that team members dare to take risks and speak up. Focus on results and outcomes instead of telling people what to do.

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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