Managers in an agile shop. It’s an interesting—and sometimes controversial—topic. In fact, Andy Cleff and I collaborated in June on this. We go in depth in his blog post titled Managers and Agile and Riding an Elephant. Since I haven’t yet written about managers in an agile shop on my own blog, I wanted to summarize our conversation. I encourage you to read Andy’s article in full, if time permits.
First, I draw my inspiration from two places:
- Henrik Kniberg and the Spotify example. If you’re unfamiliar, don’t worry. I’ll be referring to and explaining the model in a bit. For more information, see Andy’s blog post.
- Leading Marines. I spent ten of the most formative years in the Marine Corps as an intelligence operative and martial arts instructor. I served as both a commissioned officer and as a non-commission officer, and I was fortunate to serve with some of the world’s greatest leaders.
Having said that, my philosophy is a very simple one:
There is no place for managers in an agile shop, only leaders, coaches, and mentors.
There’s a lot to unpack in those few words so let me explain. If you have questions as you read, I hope you’ll ask them in the comments below.
- Managers become mentors. Most managers already have a responsibility to mentor their direct reports; however, other duties often take priority. These other duties include resource management, arbiters of priorities and solutions, and compliance management. In an Agile shop, these responsibilities are given to others, usually the team. This frees the manager to grow his or her people.
- Managers become team members. In order to be a great mentor, you must practice your craft. Since managers are now freed from the responsibilities we mentioned above, this can become a reality. Spotify calls these people Chapter Leads. Most agile shops expect architects to abandon their ivory tower, and I believe we should expect the same from our managers. However, let’s be clear. It’s only the first line of managers that I suggest becoming team members. Those higher in the hierarchy should not because it’s difficult to think strategically if you’re executing tactically.
- Fosters organic, cross-team communication. As the diagram illustrates, we get cross-team communication for free when managers join teams. As they mentor their direct reports, they can listen for work that impacts other teams. When these situations arise, they can connect teams together to ensure a smoother delivery.
- This isn’t for the faint of heart. Many are going to say my notion is a pipe dream. They’ll say there’s no way an organization could embed their managers into teams in such a manner. I agree that it would require a mature agile shop to do so. Still, it’s far from impossible. In fact, I’m sure a great deal of skepticism also surrounded the Manifesto in the early 2000s.
However, one question remains unanswered for me. How do we determine salary increases in such an organization? I don’t have a clear answer for this yet. Maybe you do. I hope you’ll suggest them in the comments below.
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