July 20, 2021

Agile Happens. So Managers…Don’t Freak Out

Yes, agile happens. 

Or, more specifically: Agile transformations happen, and sometimes there is little you can do about it. You might not have had a say in the decision to become a more agile organization, and it has been thrust upon you. Now you are expected to adjust everything about the way you work and how you manage your team(s). 

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. I’ve written a number of pieces on agile transformations specifically because companies find them painful sometimes. And I will be honest: Middle-management has to take on the brunt of the transformational work—whether or not they had input into the initial decision to change. 

Whereas my last piece in this series was about how leaders could get better buy-in from managers, this piece turns things on their head and explores what managers can do to survive an agile transformation—and maybe even learn to love their new role. 

The Emotional Roller Coaster of Agile Transformation 

When I coach companies through their agile transformation, I find that managers have a whole range of emotions in reaction to agile. Here are some of them—see if any of them fit you: 

  • Skepticism. You’ve heard of this “agile” thing, but you wonder if it really gets results, or if it’s just another flavor of the month from management consulting. 
  • Excitement. Things needed to change, and maybe this is it. You have high hopes and expectations and can’t wait to get started. 
  • Impending dread. Yay, more change is coming. There will be more team shuffling, more meetings, more workshops…all while the work keeps piling up. 
  • Cautious hope. This place won’t change overnight, but maybe there will be a few positive developments. As long as you can keep your job and earn your bonus, you’re in. 
  • Suspicion. Why are they doing this now? More importantly, will you be able to keep your position? Or is this a way to show some of the managers out the door? 
  • Disorientation. What is this new “framework” that leadership is imposing? You might feel like you don’t know what to do, what’s expected of you, or even who to turn to with your questions. 
  • Fear. The idea of change might induce a little panic. Does agile even use managers? If not, will you still have a job? If so, how will your role change? 
  • World-weary angst. “Here we go again….” 

It is possible that you don’t feel any of these…or that you feel a mix of them over time. For example, you might be excited about the change at first, but then grow suspicious or disoriented as roles get reshuffled. You could even feel a mix of two or more at the same time. 

The main point: Transformation (of any sort) is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s an emotional experience. Whether positive or negative, those emotions are in play. That is part of being a human being, working with other human beings. 

Leveling Out the Terrain 

So what if you feel this way? Does that actually tell us anything about what management should do during an agile transformation? 

In a way, it does. Once you’ve identified the emotions in play, it’s much easier to smooth out the path that the actual transition takes. Here are my suggestions: 

Start Shifting Your Mindset 

Think of your work as a set of habits you’ve developed around a set of skills. The skills are not necessarily going to change, but the habits around them will.  

For example, in the past, you might have focused on working through your team’s to-do list. You and your team would hack through that list to make sure you were meeting your productivity goals; you never wanted your team to be “the bottleneck.” (And if something went wrong with a product—like a delay in delivery, or a quality problem—you made sure it was some other team’s problem.) 

That focus on outputs is incredibly common in U.S. businesses these days. But an agile approach has us focus not on outputs but on outcomes. In fact, an agile team might seem less efficient from the outside. But the end result will be higher quality. 

I won’t go through all the mindset shifts you’ll need—you can always find those here and here. 

Once you understand the mindsets required, an agile framework is much easier to understand and accept. What will become apparent, for example, is that the role of the manager will undergo a fundamental change—and that’s a good thing. 

Reimagine Your Role 

You likely didn’t get to be in a manager role by coasting. You worked hard to get where you are. In fact, when I talk to the middle managers in an organization, they are usually some of the hardest-working, most organized, and most knowledgeable people in building. 

Here’s the thing, though: Managers become managers for precisely that reason. They know the technical stuff inside and out; they are productive; they are used to doing the work, and doing it quickly. This translates into how those senior people manage: They set the schedule, monitor performance, and even take on a portion of the work themselves. 

In an agile organization, managers have one task: Making sure their people are able to work as best they can. They don’t get involved in the work or the schedule setting. (A good analogy is to think of the manager of a rock band: It’s clear that the manager is employed by, and serves, the band—not the other way around.) 

This can be disconcerting, at first, if you’ve spent years or even decades shoring up your technical skills. Or if you’ve crafted a style of management around taking the lead in production, rather than playing a support role. 

Agile is an opportunity to decide on which skillset you want to focus. It’s a fair choice: Do you want to be responsible for people, of technology? Don’t think of it as giving up authority, or seniority. Think of it as recalibrating: 

  • If you like getting involved in the day-to-day work, being a manager in an agile organization might not be a good fit. Don’t panic: There is still room for you as a star team member. And you will still have a seat at the table in terms of work that gets done. 
  • But if you like helping to build and support a fantastic team, then being a manager is still your best option. You’ll just need to focus on a very specific skill set: Getting the best from your team. 

Help to Create Psychological Safety 

One of the most important things leaders at any level can do is create a sense of psychological safety for their teams. Team members and managers should feel like equals and partners. They should feel free to be candid with each other. They should be open to problem-solving together. 

Psychological safety is important during any period of change. Team members need to feel free to express their frustrations, and share their ideas, without worrying that this will somehow poison the outcome. Managers set the tone here. For example, are you making a point to actively listen? Do your team members have space to vent? Can you listen without passing judgment, or making someone feel as if they are in the wrong?  

Seriously, Don’t Freak Out 

One last important point. Agile transformations should not be about massive sea-changes. The best agile transformations are a series of small experiments. Take something small, test it, and see if it works. If it does, keep it. Then on to the next test. 

Massive change provokes massive responses. Smooth evolutionary change—small changes, backed by reason and experience—provoke smaller, saner responses. Leadership might think in terms of sweeping change, but it will be management’s job to oversee the evolution of the organization itself.  

That’s a good thing, because it means you can find more ways to get people involved in crafting the change itself. Change, after all, is something people should do... not something they should have done to them. 

And yeah... Don’t freak out. Agile frameworks literally ask us to take things one small step at a time. 

James Nippert

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