Assessing, Coaching and Developing Your Staff

March 25, 2009

As I have mentioned, we have adopted Agile development at my company. One concept that directly impacts my management role is the empowered team. Does this mean that I’m easy street?

Far from it! Just because people are managing and monitoring their own work doesn’t mean they should be cast adrift. In fact, our full adoption of Agile was not a slam-dunk, hands-off exercise by any means!

For some people, transitioning from the old command-and-control environment where tasks were assigned and even worked on independently – with little to no interaction with others – to the more interactive, collaborative Agile team was a major shift.

Some people struggle with taking initiative and action. To this day, I get the “What should I work on next?” question (although less frequently these days). Some people are so used to having work assigned to them that they are uncomfortable with taking on work independently.

Honestly, sometimes this is a play to work on something other than what has been defined as a priority for the team. Early on, I tripped up and collaborated with the ScrumMaster (project manager) and assigned work. It took some extra effort and time out of my management day, but I found that there was a need to coach individuals on what it takes to be a team player, and what their responsibilities were – including picking up work that was defined for the team.

Communication and collaboration skills were a weakness for some individuals as we moved to interactive teams. Others needed help with the dynamics of being a teammate who focused on team results over individual accomplishments.

I’ve also found that as a manager, coaching isn’t always confined strictly to your staff, either. For example, early on in our adoption of Agile, I detected certain disconnects in expectations between the development staff and the management team as a whole.

We had some people on the development side who wanted Agile to be “whatever the team makes of it” – along with zero transparency into what the team was doing. I could also tell by comments made during management meetings that members of the management team did not fully understand key concepts of Agile.

I took up the charge of working with my peers at the management level to craft an “Agile Expectations” document to level-set our entire organization on what Agile was and what we should expect work to look like moving forward. This was distributed to the entire development organization for comment and feedback, and in the end everyone had a deeper understanding of just we had embraced.

This is one example of how a manager must be in tune with changes affecting the organization so that he/she can help to head off difficulties and challenges.

As a manager of people on empowered teams, one other area that can I find myself in an excellent position to contribute is with career planning and advancement. People on empowered teams will still have career goals, and they will need to articulate those goals to someone in order to ensure that the appropriate training and opportunities are made available.

I mentor employees to prepare for a new position, targeting training and work in areas that will help make them stronger candidates when the opportunity arises. I also find that I am in an excellent position to be in tune with upcoming projects that are aligned with an individual’s career goals, and can allocate people to those projects that meet their interests and goals.

As a manager in the Agile world, assessing performance of individuals who are part of empowered teams is a change. I don’t assign people work, but I have to pay attention to what they are working on, and how they are going about it. This isn’t all that difficult.

Regular one-on-ones and a little walking, talking, and observing go a long way towards providing a manager with the essential information needed to have effective coaching conversations. Getting some feedback directly from teammates is also essential, so it pays to have a good rapport with everyone.

The big change in our moving to Agile was the nature of the coaching dialog, migrating away from being task-specific in nature to more of “Here’s how you can become a better player, helping the team to win,” conversation.

Another big area that requires managerial assistance is in coaching at the team level. For people who have never self-managed, you will see sub-optimal decision-making at first. It will take time and coaching for teams to learn how to organize their efforts effectively. I’ve also seen problems where some individuals sit back and allow others to take a larger share of the burden, which leads me to my next point.

Not everyone is prepared for – and can easily transition to – empowered teams where team members actually hold one another accountable. I’ve found that teams in general need help in raising issues and managing conflict constructively. There can be an unhealthy absence of any conflict within teams, which means that frustrations are being surfaced elsewhere or manifested in other, counterproductive ways. There is a need to surface and address core issues that affect teamwork and productivity.

My final point: Make sure that you are spending time with those you deem to be your best. If these people start feeling underappreciated, they may look for employment elsewhere. Paying attention to your high-contributors and ensuring that they are genuinely appreciated is a significant retention tool. These people tend to get leaned on when the going gets tough, and it is in your best interest to not take these people for granted.