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Functional Managers and Executives Are Failing Agile Teams

What's to Be Done?

13 August 2013

Eric King

In the last decade, organizations across the world have seen a huge shift toward Agility. The reasons and motives behind the decision to adopt Agile methods are as simple and/or complex as the organizations themselves. With an ever-expanding global economy, a great deal of pressure has been placed on managers and executives to embrace Agile. Two integral aspects of this pressure stem from continually evolving competitive forces and a heightened sense of customer demand. Managers and executives see Agility as the method to meet and potentially exceed these pressures. Yet, with the best of intentions in mind, managers and executives often fail the very Agile teams they have created, which, in turn, causes a demoralizing shift in the employee base. Unfortunately, the people who fill these roles often don't realize they are failing until the talent base walks out the door.
This article will provide some historical viewpoints and offer suggestions on how managers and executives can prevent Agile failure and start a transformation process toward Agile leadership.   

Functional roles fail Agile teams

Regardless of whether the company has just started incorporating Agile methods or has been practicing Agile for years, it may discover that existing management structure is not equipped with the skills that will allow Agile to thrive. Many of today's functional managers and executives do not possess the spatial awareness to know that something is inherently wrong. With good reason, the decision to move an organization to Agile must come with a deep and unwavering commitment to continually exploring its limitless possibilities. Yet without being consciously aware, many functional managers and executives fail to transform. They fail by falling into one or more classic organizational traps:
Trap 1 - Thinking that the traditional job description doesn't need to change is the first trap that people may fall into. Regardless of the framework (Scrum, Kanban, FDD, etc.) being implemented, managers and executives who don't create Agile-based job descriptions are failing the Agile teams from the very beginning. Sure, many of them can talk about Agile and may even know some of the basic principles, yet they can't sustain a meaningful conversation about what Agile is and isn't for an extended amount of time. Why? Because they don't have the hands-on experience learned from running Agile-based teams, due to a hands-off approach. We'll talk about the pitfalls associated with "downward delegation" in Trap 3 below.  
Trap 2 - Organizations fail to evaluate the abilities of their management structures in order to determine who is best suited to lead the Agile change initiative. Without an in-depth management and executive assessment, companies will again fail Agile teams from the beginning. This assessment should be considered the necessary cornerstone to ensure continued success. If conducted correctly, the organization may be very surprised to find out where potential Agile leadership exists.  
What's more, Agile is all about change. Agile and change management are not the same, but they do share many similarities in both form and structure. Unfortunately, Agile isn't for everyone, and that includes all levels within the organization. Without a solid determination of behavior and personal characteristics, companies will choose functional managers to champion Agile. The end result may take months or even years to come to fruition, but Agile will eventually falter or even fail at the organizational level.
Trap 3 - Delegating down via the traditional chain of command is the third classic trap that functional management falls into with Agile. Downward delegation is nothing more than moving pieces around on the chessboard. There is absolutely no value in delegating down unless the management involved has a vested stake in the outcome, and I'm not talking just about corporate goals or pay incentives. If the management is selling a delegate-down approach using Agile, the C-Suite should be asking why these positions are needed in the first place since the roles are now a non-value-added overhead expense.  
Trap 4 - Irrespective of the managers' and/or executives' tenure and titles, Agile requires true leadership. Initially, many managers and executives are intent on getting Agile off the ground, only to slowly and methodically begin drifting away. Out of the four traps listed, this is the one that's truly an Agile team destroyer. There is no better de-motivator than to see key organizational members with a perceived attitude of indifference and apathy.  
It goes without saying that multiple traps exist within the confines of any company. Yet, in order to continue forward with the Agile journey, it's critical to discuss some of the key characteristics that can help managers and executives begin transforming. Some of the initial transformation items will be reviewed in the next section.

Nine preliminary steps toward Agile transformation

Any decent manager and/or executive should be able to recite the company's value proposition in at least three points. If they are a little more than decent, they'll be able to put dollars, numbers, or percentages into the mix. The same can be said and/or anticipated for Agile leaders as well.

Below are some suggestions that may help the organization begin a journey toward Agile leadership transformation. Each of the following suggestions could sub-sequentially be the building blocks for an Agile leadership scorecard.

1. Provide recognized value to the teams. This may be the number-one area where executives and their direct reports are failing the most. Those aspiring toward Agile leadership must go beyond making bold-brush statements and publicly declaring that the company supports Agile. They must have something definitive that gets provided back to the teams and that the teams recognize as value added. Without this, the individual teams may continually improve, but there will come a point where they'll feel as though they are on an island. The value gained from their involvement must be specific and recognized throughout the organization.
Agile definitely encourages managers to know when to get out of the way. However, getting out of the way from the functional roles and responsibilities opens the door to countless possibilities toward making positive impacts at the team and/or organizational levels.
2. Push Agile in Human Resources. If the value piece above is the number-one area, then Agile in HR is a very close second. Since HR is normally the first point of contact for people joining the organization, Agile principles and education should be an integral component of both their strategic and tactical vision. This change in approach will take a definitive commitment from the leaders to help educate HR on what Agile is and what it is not. Otherwise, at best, the HR department will search for keywords on a candidate's resume and not have the skills needed to provide the best candidates for consideration.
3. Continually experiment with Agile. Agile is about perpetual improvement. Regardless of the framework that the company uses, constant experimentation should be taking place at all levels in the organization. This is not to say that everyone has to be a change agent for Agile, but experiments in Agile should be encouraged and anticipated at all levels within the executive, management, and even team structures. Simple examples of experimentation are:
  • Running multiple Agile frameworks within the organization to see which ones are the best
  • Blending multiple frameworks into one
  • Periodically changing frameworks at the team level in order to gain new insights and perspectives
Continual experimentation with Agile at the management and executive levels will also percolate down to the team level. The company may even be surprised to find that the teams embrace continual experimentation while still meeting and/or exceeding commitments.
4. Make a direct customer difference. There are many levels in traditional organizations where management never actually sees the customer. Agile challenges functional managers to think and act differently. Do all members of the management teams actually interact with the customer? Is it acceptable that only sales and implementation departments are "client facing"? If there isn't some "good thing" that is happening for customers based on effort put forth, then management may be failing both customers and Agile teams. Earn cultural credibility by creating multiple direct lines into the client base. The Agile teams will appreciate the efforts and begin to recognize management as Agile leaders instead of functional managers.
5. How are managers and executives enhancing the Agile culture? This goes way beyond making sure that teams are co-located. Agile is all about people, and everyone in the organization helps build the culture. Yet without perpetual cultural refinement and evolution, managers may lose sight of the Agile teams, and the teams will lose respect for managers. Take, for example, the way the organizational culture interprets Agile-based commitments.
  • What good things happen if commitments are met?
  • What bad things happen if commitments are not met?
If the answer goes no further than, "You get to keep your job," then it's time to take a long, hard look at the organization's culture, as Agile is about growth and learning as opposed to fear or intimidation. As such, some management and executive teams have stricken the word "accountability" from their vocabularies and have replaced the word with the points above. The word accountability, as expressed by many managers and executives today, has overtly negative connotations.
6. Storm with Agile. This means that the organization is continually pushing the Agile envelope. The company is on the cutting edge of what is happening in the Agile community and managers are constantly bringing back items to talk about and discuss within the organization. If the management team doesn't believe that they have the time for this role, then make sure that others in the company are appointed to lead this change. If this doesn't happen, then Agile teams will see managers and executives as non-value added. If the company is storming with Agile and can cite specific examples, transformation will occur. If not, then the company may fall into one of three categories:
  • Conforming: The company is just doing what has always been done.
  • Boring: The Agile team will see managers and executives as noncommittal.
  • Snoring: This literally means that the company is asleep at the wheel and is missing the benefits of Agile.
7. Agile either takes root at the company or it does not. Agile is a definitive journey toward both self- and organizational discovery, and every company has to start somewhere. For some, the most logical place to start is within the IT department, yet this is only scratching the surface. Managers and executives could and should be pushing the Agile methods into HR, sales, and marketing and constantly exploring where it would be useful for the company's continued growth.
Don't, under any circumstance, believe that Agile is just for IT. There is huge potential for the Agile methods and various frameworks across the organization.
8. Prove it continually. Earn credibility from Agile teams by removing impediments both internally and externally. Figure out new and innovative ways to get Agile teams in front of the actual customer and vice versa. Grow the Agile teams through continual and perpetual encouragement, and the management team's skills will also grow. By continually proving "worth," both internally and externally, a monumental step forward will be taken in the transformation process.
9. Educate and proliferate. Management and executives should be leading the Agile education efforts within the organization. Leading means being actively involved in Agile through stewardship and continually pushing the continuum forward. It does not mean that managers and executives should teach each and every class, but they should make an active commitment toward attending and encouraging Agile development across the entire organization. Agile guides (aka instructors) should come from every part of the organization, and they should be mentored by an Agile CLO (Chief Learning Officer).
Management teams have been hot on metrics and scorecards for years. For most organizations, if it's not measurable then it's not real. Encourage the company to create its own transformation scorecard by electing to incorporate the nine preliminary steps above into the journey. Each of the above suggestions can be turned into dollars, numbers, or percentages as part of the key Agile metrics that the organization deserves to get from the management and/or executive team. Or, if none of the above resonates with the organization, don't hesitate to create an entirely new set.
The Agile transformation process is a commitment and a journey. Enjoy everything that the journey has to offer!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.9 (7 ratings)


Warren Jones, CSM, 8/14/2013 6:22:36 AM
Terrific article Eric. Functional Managers probably have the most change to come to grips with when transitioning to Agile frameworks. It is sometimes difficult for them to be change agents when they are left questioning their purpose in this new world. You have often several suggestions that not only provide meaning to their position, but also further the adoption, and continual improvement of Agile within the organisation.
Sekhar Burra, CEC, CST, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 9/21/2013 10:11:52 AM
Excellent article Eric, this is mostly in line with the toughest practical problems that we face in an agile transformation.
Bob Galen, CEC,CALE,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 9/23/2013 6:55:42 PM
Hi Erik,

When I first read through the article, my lens was one of an experienced agile coach who has struggled with leadership in agile transformations. So the lessons and advice resonated with me.

However, upon a second review from the perspective of a leader or manager, I think the advice is somewhat heavy-handed and over the top. It's the typical agile rant against traditional leadership and management. Far too often we stereotype them and marginalize them.

I actually don't think either of those extreme views is all that helpful. I'd like you to re-read and re-think this article from the perspective of a competent leader in an organization. Would you truly appreciate your own perspective and advice? Or would you be insulted to some degree? I suspect the latter. For example, your #1 - "Provide recognized value to the team" seems awfully narrow and one sided to me. Sure we need to be recognized by the team, but there's probably a whole lot of other "stuff" going on as well ;-)

I'm not trying to be harsh. I'm actually trying to encourage you to be a bit more empathetic and respectful of "management" and a bit more balanced. I suspect the management and leadership folks will get more out of that --- and possible be more willing to partner in the transformations.

Thanks for considering this POV and for contributing this to the community.


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