Managing the Agile Way

July 5, 2011

When I step back and consider our implementation of Agile development and what it takes to achieve a truly beneficial Agile adoption, I feel that ultimately, management is THE significant factor as to whether the organization will reap many of the benefits the Agile offers.

Agile isn’t just something “for the development teams.” Management needs to look beyond a specific framework and understand the operational and behavioral changes that should accompany an Agile adoption. Failure to do so will severely limit the organization’s potential for improvement.

Does your organization work something like this?
  • Management operates at arms-distance from the actual work, managing through reports and meetings.
  • Information “flows up” and is typically filtered to represent performance in the best possible light.
  • Management judges performance after the fact, but doesn’t involve itself with shaping the solution beforehand by directly partnering with those who are performing the work.
  • Management is about meeting checklists and perceived performance, not actual performance.
If this sounds like your organization, Agile SHOULD bring change.

You might be asking, “But isn’t Agile development about using autonomous teams that don’t need management?” Not really. Agile development’s use of autonomous teams doesn’t mean that managers won’t be involved.

Management needs to support autonomous teams, which is not the same thing as simply keeping out of their way and letting them “do their thing.” It may sound contradictory, Agile management is actually about becoming closer to the work.

From a management perspective, it’s all about getting the bureaucracy out of the way and working with those who are performing the work, making decisions based on the actual situation at hand. One part of accomplishing this rests with the teams. Teams need to provide an honest, visible assessment of their work via task boards, burn-down and burn-up charts of their actual velocity and progress not only so that they can manage their own work, but that others – like management – can quickly and easily assess where the team stands.

The other part is on management. Management must engage with the teams in their setting. This means walking to the team’s area, reviewing these “information radiators” and talking with those on the team, not having them generate reports for your reading pleasure in your office or at formal status meetings. By understanding exactly where a team stands – for real – management can be more effective in helping and supporting teams.

In order for this to be successful, people must feel comfortable with being open and honest. Management must eliminate the “blame game” and operate from the mindset that people intend to do a good job, and that problems are opportunities to improve. First and foremost, the priority should be to examine and correct problems as a systems issue, without faulting the team or individuals.

Having said that, I’ll point out that sometimes a “systems problem” is one of organizational learning; people haven’t learned why certain things are a part of a given system or framework and discard them inappropriately. They may ignore the advice of experts.

But as long as you are striving to continually improve by asking yourself what can be improved upon, you will eventually come back to what you overlooked or discarded. Management’s role is to understand this dynamic and to be a part of setting the tone for continuous learning by both expecting it and leading by example.

And of course, not all problems will be systems problems. There will be performance problems with individuals, and these must be dealt with. The great news about Agile is that the open, transparent environment gives non-performers no place to hide. Problems at all levels are revealed with Agile: organizational bottlenecks, lack of training, underfunded initiatives, too many projects, and the organization’s unwillingness to set priorities and stick to them, to name a few.

Another big area of change for managers is that Agile performance management itself is more demanding. It is more demanding because you are not assigning tasks and having people report back to you. Your direct reports are a part of an autonomous team that manages their own work.

This means that in order to gain insight on what your employees are doing you have to engage in regular conversations, perform some unobtrusive observing, and solicit candid feedback from their peers. To be successful, individual performance management in an Agile context demands the same openness and honesty expected of teams.

If your performance planning and review process feels adversarial versus collaborative, where people come away feeling let down and de-motivated, then as a manager, this is a great place to invest your time to affect change. The performance management process should be a collaborative, supportive of the employee and geared towards building trust and better performance; and with Agile development there should be a team first, individual second mentality – although this does not mean the individual performance in not assessed.

The open and honest Agile environment should move performance management into more of a partnering dialog about your employees’ career objectives, experience, strengths, preferences, and training based on the needs of their actual work, observation, and mutual agreement on developing their future potential. As a manager you need to encourage and position people to grow by team placement, broadening their experiences with different roles and expectations that are in line with their abilities, experience and career objectives, and then working with them every step of the way so that they can succeed and grow.

If this weren’t enough, the other significant change with Agile development is the need for real-time management. As teams get comfortable with shorter delivery cycles, the need for management decision speed in terms of business priorities, hardware, software and staffing required to support an Agile team increases, as is the speed in helping a team overcome any other impediments that are outside of a team’s control. Managing through reports and meetings means that there are built-in delays in addressing issues that become too costly with Agile.

Agile management is about:
  • Managing in real-time, with the individuals and teams, not through meetings and reports.
  • Assessing true progress and status directly from the teams and not through filtered, biased reporting.
  • Being close to the work, and participating with individuals and teams to help them overcome obstacles and reach their team and career objectives.
  • Focusing on actual performance, not checklists.