May 11, 2021

Getting Management Buy-In for an Agile Transformation

Before, I’ve written about what leadership must do during an agile transformation—including the hard questions leaders have to ask themselves. 

So let’s say all that has been done. Your teams have been asking for a more agile approach, or at least are open to it, and the leadership is all on board. What about the people in the middle, the managers? 

In my experience, managers can sometimes have the most difficulty finding their place in an agile transformation. But that need not be the case. If you recognize their reasons for resistance, you can address them and slowly bring your management around to the change. Here’s how that might look. 

Why Managers Sometimes Resist the Change that Comes with Agile 

Of course, there might be a lot of reasons why a person resists change, consciously or subconsciously. But there are certain reasons that seem to pop up a lot when it comes to middle management: 

  • Bad past experiences with agile. The Agile Manifesto has been around for 20 years now, and many organizations have tried “going agile,” or adopted certain parts of an agile methodology (like Scrum). That also means a lot of people have been parts of failed transformations. Those can very easily leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth, especially if that someone had to try to manage a team during one of these failures.  
  • Fear of giving up power and influence (and giving it to the team). Organizations protect certain things. So do individuals within an organization. Managers often want to preserve things like their title, budget, project list, or even just the authority to assign work. That’s not a bad thingit makes total sense to want to protect those things, especially when they are hard-won—but issues arise when managers get defensive about them and try to stall positive change. 
  • Change of role. An agile transformation often means that what managers do on a day-to-day basis will change. Many managers won’t like that. This is especially true if their new roles do not suit their talents or personalities. For example, many managers rose to their positions precisely because they were good at managing the day-to-day technical work. Managers in an agile organization are more focused on developing their teams and people. 
  • It doesn’t fit their mindset. Most organizations are stuck in industrial age management thinking to begin with. Add in some personality styles and differences, and you might get someone very resistant to change, if not approached the right way. Before you do any “on the ground” work, you might need to work with your managers to get them into the right mindset. 

Getting management buy-in, then, is a matter of recognizing these reasons, acknowledging them, and then working with managers (and, hopefully, an agile coach or two) to address the underlying issues. 

“Agile Left a Bad Taste”: Small Experiments vs. Disruption 

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in agile transformation is this: Screwing with something that is already working, just for the sake of change. 

Too often leaders bring agile to an organization like a hammer to concrete, asking for everything to change but not really giving reasons as to why it has to change. But if a team has been working together successfully for years, and the people on it are happy and high performing, and the end customers are happy with their work, why change a thing? 

Don’t try to “impose agile” on your teams or your managers. That’s not in the spirit of the manifesto, or any of the methodologies that have grown from it. What is in the spirit of those things is the idea of continuous improvement through experimentation. 

Your organization does not need to adopt scrum, or Kanban, or any other methods overnight. In fact, most companies use some sort of hybrid approach. So start small; the way to begin is with your existing pain points. Talk with your teams about what isn’t working, and design experiments to try and make those areas better. If something works, keep it. If not, try something else. Most importantly, tell your managers that this is the approach you are taking, and that they will be part of the feedback process, too. 

Holding on to What Really Matters 

During an agile transformation, some people who were previously managers might take on other roles (product owner, for example). But many will want to keep their role (and title, and salary…). Does becoming an agile organization threaten those things? 

It doesn’t have to. For one thing, agile organizations still need managers. And the agile manifesto is pretty much silent on what the roles and salaries should be for managers. 

It is also rare that managers “hand over the reins” to their teams completely, especially at the start. Teams will still rely on their managers guidance and direction. The difficulty really lies in getting the teams to take up that new responsibility. If a team fears failure, they will want to get their manager’s permission for everything. 

One of the most important things leaders at any level can do, then, is create 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 problemsolving together. 

This is what the most successful teams in the world do, but it will feel threatening to managers who feel that this kind of safety somehow threatens the position they’ve worked hard to obtain. 

The solution? Assure them that they still have a special place, and that they have earned that place. Think about it: Say someone got to be a manager because they’ve “put in their time.” They bring some 20 years of experience in the field, and have seen more and gotten more things done. That person is still an invaluable resource. They can help the team when it’s headed in the wrong direction, and help coach them so they get back on track. They can also insulate the team from office politics, and provide them with resources. They are no longer the teams director, but its protector. And that is still a valuable role that can be earned. Speaking of which… 

Changing a Manager’s Role 

Managers tend to be responsible for a few different things: 

  1. Setting a strategy (or making plans). 
  2. Managing the day-to-day activities of the team. 
  3. Hiring, firing, and growing people. 

When you flesh out what’s involved in each of these, it’s a lot. More than what a single person can do. What inevitably happens is this: A given manager is good at one, or maybe two, of these things, and the third thing gets more or less ignored. 

That’s why managers tend to feel a tension when they have to manage an agile team. Most managers reach their position because they have proven to be really good at (1) and (2). Those might even be things they enjoy doing—or perhaps more truthfully, they don’t feel productive unless they are doing those things. But if they are good at (1) and (2), then working with their people—responsibility (3) here—tends to be ignored. (That said, it could be that they love growing people—it’s what gets them up out of bed in the morning—but they’ve never had the chance to focus on it before.) 

As teams become more agile, (1) and (2) are given over more to the teams themselves. They are empowered to determine their own projects, schedule their own activities, and solve problems on their own. And so the managers role shifts to growing and developing the team—the people stuff.  

If you have a manager that simply does not want to engage in those kinds of things, maybe its time to have a frank conversation about their role. There might be some other role they can fit into more naturally. But if they are up for the challenge, it will be up to you to prepare them for that role. 

What might help is explaining to your managers how much of their time will be freed up by this transformation. Instead of juggling day-to-day activities, they will have the time to work on building their teams… and maybe get back a little work-life balance. 

One of the questions I love to ask leaders in an agile transformation, especially team-level managers, is this: “Whose job is it to take a junior developer and turn them into a senior developer?” When I ask that, it’s usually followed by an awkward silence. That’s because managers have been so busy with the day-to-day work that the “people work” has been haphazard. Maybe they encouraged the developers to learn on their own, or maybe they enroll them in a class once a year. But for the most part, the learning is up to the individuals. It’s like leaving a flower on shelf and hoping it will bloom by itself. 

Imagine how many more people could bloom if you freed your managers to work on nothing else but that! 

Changing a Manager’s Mindset 

When I coach managers, this is the very first thing on which I focus. After all, what someone does depends on their motivations, and their motivations flow from their mindset. 

Even while an agile transformation is happening, people will be thinking in terms of older ways of managing. For example, they won’t be thinking in terms of outcomes (such as a faster speed to market, or happier customers). They will be thinking in terms of checkboxes, to-do lists, and job descriptions. They will feel that they are measured in terms of output. And that output will be tied to their bonuses. 

For an agile transformation to really work, mindsets have to shift. That is the most important thing that any leader, at any level, can do. If you work on shifting the mindset of your managers, they will naturally be less resistant to introducing agile-inspired practices. Heck…they might even encourage them. 

James Nippert

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