agile managers

Practical Advice for Managers in an Agile Shop

In my last blog post, I wrote about the side effects of manager as Product Owner.  In it, I talked about how I believe these roles should be filled by different people.  So if the manager isn’t directing the work, what’s s/he doing? How does a manager help his/her people when they’re distributed across multiple teams?  The Scrum Guide is silent on the topic, and although I offered up some of my own opinions in Managers in an Agile Shop, I didn’t offer much practical advice.  Let’s fix that.  Today, I’ll bias my advice toward the actionable, and I think it all can summarized in these wise words by Ed Catmull:

It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks.  It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.

Observe the Whole

Attend your reports’ Scrum events, for instance.  As a Scrum Master, I’m always eager to have guests, and my asks are simple:

  • Retrospectives are a team-only affair; no managers allowed.
  • Come to observe, not to participate.

It gives me an opportunity to ask the manager at the conclusion for thoughts, and it gives him/her an opportunity observe the dynamic between report and team.  However, it doesn’t end there.  It shows reports that the manager’s interest in the process, it provides a manager with insight into systemic issues when multiple teams mention the same hurdles, and it provides the manager with opportunities to cross pollinate ideas from one team to another.

Counsel. Guide. Nudge. Never Dominate.

One on ones are for reports, not the manager.  So who does most of the talking in your one on ones?  You?  The manager?  Why not find out?  Subtly–or not–time how much each of you has the floor.  As a manager, I enjoy asking questions from a place of curiosity to probe and improve my reports’ ideas, and I hope my reports are doing most of the talking, not me.  I also hope our dialogue is open enough that they’ll tell me to shut up and listen if I’ve forgotten myself.

Further, I think we should use this time to understand the passions, goals, and motives of our people.  Find what drives them and offer up ideas that help them grow. Ask them to commit to some course of action, write those actions down, and ask them about it at the next one on one.  If their goals are too broad or unreachable, help them decompose them into something more meaningful, impactful, or actionable.

Try this.  At the next one on one, bring an index card with you.  On one side, ask them to write a goal that they’d like to accomplish before the next one on one.  On the other side, collaborate to identify action items for each of you that work toward that goal.  When next you meet, walk through those action items together and repeat this loop ad infinitum.

However, only use this technique if we’re providing time for them to accomplish this goal.  If that slack time doesn’t exist, carve it out.  If we’re unwilling to do so, is it really that important to us?  After all, the alternative is asking our people to spend less time with their families at our insistence.

While several other tips come to mind such as gemba walks and how to apply systems think in conversation, I’ll stop here for today.  I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Until next time.

Do you want to get notified when new posts are published? Leave your email below.

2 thoughts on “Practical Advice for Managers in an Agile Shop”

    1. Thanks for the kind words, John. I certainly prefer to write shorter posts. They force me to focus my message, and I like to be cognizant of my readers’ time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *