As a team, if we want to transfer to an Agile way of working, we have many ways to start. But as a manager, if I want to be an Agile manager, how can I
start? When we talk about an Agile way of working, a manager’s concern is broader than the team’s concerns, because in Agile, we empower the team to figure out their own way of working, which is to be self-managed. But how can we make sure that the project won’t fail? Is the team capable of success while managing itself? Or is it just too risky? How do I build trust in my teams? These questions are common for managers.
To answer these questions, I would suggest that we think about who knows the work best. When something doesn’t work, who knows about it first and can respond immediately? The answer is always the people who are doing the real work. So why don’t we give them the power to figure out the solution and implement it quickly themselves?
Some people may think that employees are not capable of figuring out the solution by themselves, or that they are not mature enough to work independently. Or they may be concerned that the failures made in the past prove that the team is not qualified. But those failures might have been because of the process we use, the management system, or the controls put on the teams. Those controls could cause them to be blocked and lose their capability (or desire!) of seeking the answer themselves. When something outside of the process or some "exception" happens, teams are accustomed to waiting for their manager’s comments or decisions.
It is the Agile manager’s responsibility to help them bring back the confidence and capability. It is not enough to simply say that the team is empowered. You need help to establish trust in the team, to build its confidence, and then strengthen its capability by continuously working the listen-iterate-learn course-correction circle. The Agile manager should be aware that during this short journey, the team’s performance may not be optimal, and it may make a few mistakes. In the short term, the Agile manager must balance the client’s expectations, and give the team more or less space for trial and error while it works to improve itself. The Agile way of management is less science and more art, and transitioning to become an Agile manager is to become a management artist.
How to become a management artist
Each manager has his or her own journey. This journey depends on the manager’s team, the team's stakeholders, and also on the maturity level of the manager. But there is one standard routine any manager can follow to start with, which is the same core Agile technique that works for everyone:
- Start with just enough information. Don’t overthink it, just try.
- Observe and reflect on what worked and what did not.
- Take small steps to improve your proficiency.
- Repeat steps 1 – 3 again and again.
Below are some other techniques on how a manager can start:
- Take the Agile fundamental trainings with the team. Know the basics of how an Agile team works and gain empathy from the team's perspective. Then, take Agile leadership training to know how best to enable your teams as an Agile leader.
- Find a way how you can observe the team’s work. Sit together with the team and/or participate in its meetings as an observer. The key is to be sure you don’t point blame, and that your presence won’t put pressure on the team to behave in a way it thinks you want to see. You want to observe honest and open interactions, looking for blockers that require your assistance. It’s not easy in the beginning, and the team needs a manager who is persistent in showing his or her trust, openness, and nonjudgmental behavior.
- When the team asks you for suggestions or decisions, don’t be tempted to give it the answers directly but rather ask powerful questions. What other ways could help you accomplish the desired result? What are the risks? If you were the client, what would you feel about the risks? Let the team come up with its own solutions. The key point is to be nonjudgmental of the team's answers, to be encouraging, open, and honest with the team. Once you place judgment, the team will stop thinking about the situation, and it will start to think about what you want to hear instead. The open discussions have been squelched, and you will fail to awaken its capability to seek the best solution itself.
- As a manager, when you feel something won’t work, don’t tell the team directly that it can’t do it. Let the team play back what it is going to do by itself. Ask powerful questions. If the team is still going to pursue a particular course of action, as an Agile manager, you have some choices:
- You can pay the cost. Let the team learn through its own trial and error so that it can grow faster. The lessons that the team discovers itself will pay in dividends for the learning investment. Meanwhile, the team feels your trust and respects it.
- If you think it is too risky, you can stop the team. But by doing this directly, you will loose its trust, it will feel that you are not open, it will stop being courageous, and it will roll back to the state in which it doesn’t take risks and will inefficiently await for your decisions.
- If you must advise a team to stop doing something, it is essential that you show the team your respect for its effort, show it the risks the team took and your concerns, and have a discussion or a retrospective on whether there could have been another way to accomplish the same outcome. The team will understand your view better, be more trusting of you, and ideally will offer different solutions after it understands your perspective. Taking this approach can lead to many possible positive results.
- Step forward when the team needs help with removing blockers or constraints that it isn’t able to solve. Step back when the team is doing its work to let it own the results.
- Don’t reward only positive results and success. Reward the team for its initiative, its courage, its purpose, and even for recognizing a "failure" for the key learnings gained from the attempt. The point is, respect everyone’s work.
As a manager, if you can do all of these things, you are able to show "better control" by not actually controlling the team at all.
Why become an Agile manager?
Some may ask, why do I need to become an Agile manager? I am already a manager. Well, we need to go back to the question: Where does the manager’s power and effectiveness come from? There are two types of power. One type is from achieving a business goal successfully, satisfying clients, and being respected by employees. Another type of power comes from a person’s title or position only.
Obviously, the first type of power is much stronger, building a good reputation and earning real respect from teams, which leads to long-term success in your career and in life. The leadership power in this case is always with you, whether you have a title. And it doesn’t matter which company you work for or which industry you are in — it is a part of you.
If it’s the second type of power — one derived only from a title or position — it is not an enabling power for teams. It is primarily fear based. This will not motivate teams to be their best nor will it lead to long-term success.
The Agile values, such as openness, honesty, respect, courage, and empathy, along with Agile practices that adopt those values, enable you to become the first type of manager or leader. Therefore, why not start your Agile journey as a manager?