Managing in Real Time

September 9, 2011

As I was talking to a fellow manager last year at the Give Thanks for Scrum event organized by the Agile Boston user group, we both noted how Agile management was about management in real time. What did we mean by that?

As teams get comfortable and productive with Scrum (that's what we use), they start decreasing their sprint lengths. If a team is working with one week sprints, everyone needs to be crisp, focused, and productive – every day. This means that those providing external support to the teams – such as removing impediments that are outside of the team’s control – must have that same crisp, focused, and productive mode of operation. If you take too long in removing an impediment, an entire sprint can go down the tubes.

As a supportive manager for a highly productive team, you need to get out of your office! You can’t be of value to a team by managing from a distance or relying on management reports to run an Agile shop. There are always bumps in the road with software development that require productive Agile teams to make critical, in-flight adjustments; and that requires you to be available in real time. Otherwise, your participation will be too late.

And besides, teams don't have time to generate volumes of management reports. They’re busy getting the work done. Do you want to understand what is going on? Don’t ask the team for a report; go to their area and look at their “information radiators” that they use to manage their work. Attend a daily stand up. Talk with them.

Being a participative presence on the floor is also a great way to understand how people and teams approach issues. You can observe how they are thinking and approaching challenging circumstances and help them chart a course through unclear territory. In doing so, you will be provided with valuable insights on what they need to learn as individuals and as a team.

Don’t feel that you have to solve all the problems that a team is experiencing, either. Sometimes you have to guide them towards better performance. I’ve had “impediments” raised to me that really were within the team’s ability to solve, and a dialog with the ScrumMaster helped to steer the team towards solving problems on their own.

Other times, teams need to understand what questions they should be asking to define the problem more clearly so that the solution “presents itself.” Participate with them in working through the thought process without offering the solution – teaching them to fish, so to speak.

It’s about developing and enhancing the improvement capability of people. People and teams need to understand the dynamics of Agile development and how teamwork, monitoring and measuring their own progress, technical practices, etc. combine to create a highly productive, sustainable, self-directed and satisfying work experience.