Characteristics of a Great Agile Manager

Management (2)Without having the preconceived plan, I’ve started writing a series about the characteristics of the different roles relevant in an agile environment. So far I’ve published articles about the Product Owner, Development Team and Scrum Master.

This article will be about the agile manager. I’m using the term ‘agile’ consciously because I’ll describe the manager acting in an organisation that supports the agile mindset. The agile manager is someone who realizes management tasks, that aren’t done by the team itself. This means it can be a Department Manager, Business Unit Manager, IT Manager etc.

I’ll describe:

  • The contradistinction of the term ‘agile manager’
  • The difference between ‘management’ and the ‘manager’
  • Common questions about the agile manager
  • The mindset I value for this role
  • The practices that can be applied
  • The collaboration with the team
  • The desired knowledge.

The Contradistinction of the Term “Agile Manager”

The term “agile manager” seems to be a contradistinction. Because the world of management is ‘vertical’. Strategy gets set a the top, and power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance.

The world of agile is ‘horizontal’. Its purpose is to delight customers. Making money is the result, not the goal of its activities. Its focus is on continuous innovation. Its dynamic is enablement, rather than control. Its communications tend to be horizontal conversations. It aspires to liberate the full talents and capacities of those doing the work[1].

Management versus Manager

But there’s also a difference between “Management” and “Manager”. Management is an activity; the manager is a role. Management as an activity will always be present within organisations. Otherwise organisations will always have managers executing these activities. The difference with traditional organisations is the way management is executed. Within agile organisations management as an activity is done ‘horizontal’, instead of the ‘vertical’ approach traditional organisations use with specific management positions.

In agile organisations teams manage themselves. They make their own decisions about their work and manage the execution. The Product Owner manages the product’s vision, roadmap and return-on-investment. The Scrum Master manages the process and impediments that exceed the team’s ability of self-organisation.

What is left are management activities related to organisational boundaries, companies objectives, performance management, human resources, portfolio management, supplier management. These elements are present within most organisations and ask for some kind of management and also specific skills. Skills such as assessing team health, removing organisational impediments, making room for failure, and having the ability to coach and be a servant leader[2].

Common Questions About the Agile Manager

Organisations that embrace the agile mindset automatically create some questions around the position of the manager and the activity of management.

Questions that become relevant are:

  • What role does the manager play given the self-organizing teams?
  • What is management as an activity within the agile context?
  • Is there a future for the manager within an agile context?
  • What does an agile organisation needs from its management?
  • What should be the focus of the agile manager for achieving the best results?

This blog post won’t answer all these questions completely. I’ve focused on describing the mindset, practices, collaboration with the team and the desired knowledge. This will cover some questions (partial), but fore sure won’t cover the entire spectrum.


A Great Agile Manager…

  • Is a Scrum Master. A great agile manager is a Scrum Master. A Scrum Master is responsible for removing Impediments. Impediments are limit the efficiency and progress of a Development Team in areas that are beyond the reach of self-organisation of a Development Team. Impediments are most often found in the wider organisation, in company processes, procedures, and structures. Removal of Impediments works better if the Scrum Master is a manager turned Scrum Master, thereby adopting facilitation as the primary management tool and seeing the work floor as the primary habitat. And yes, this part is copied from Gunther Verheyen’s blog post, I couldn’t find better/other words to describe it.
  • Provides servant leadership. A great agile manager is a servant leader to the team. This means he focuses on building a foundation of trust. Stimulates empowerment and transparency. Encourages collaborative engagements. Is an un-blocker and empathic person able to truly listen. Shows ethical and caring behavior, putting others needs first. Is humble, knowledgeable, positive, social and situational aware.
  • Understands resources are material. A great agile manager understands that resources are a source or supply from which benefit is produced. Examples are paper, printers, keyboards or a telephone. People aren’t objects. People aren’t plug and play. Resource thinking leads managers to ignore that work involves communication, interaction, and relationships. A great agile managers knows better…
  • Tries to be redundant. A great agile manager doesn’t ask, “How can I manage this team?” but instead asks, “What does this team need in order to manage itself?” Hereby he tries to be redundant, and although he probably won’t fully succeed, the very act of trying will push the agile manager in the right direction[3].
  • Encourages a fail-friendly environment. A great agile manager has seen the Spotify movie about its engineering culture. The video talks about the focus on failure and making mistakes faster than anyone else. Fail fast, learn fast, and improve fast. A fail-friendly environment allows fast failure recovery apposed to failure avoidance. The latter is a completely undesirable scenario because mistakes will always happen. Better to make mistakes, correct them and progress, than making no mistakes and stand still.
  • Is decisive. A great agile manager takes important decisions swiftly. He understands this is a primary condition to ensure the sustainable pace of the Development Team.
  • Believes in agile contracting. A great agile manager understands the differences between traditional contracting and agile contracting. Obviously he supports the latter. Agile contracting is all about trust, starting small, collaboration, transparency and acting on delivered business value. Basically it’s about applying the agile principles within contracting. Check these blog posts for more details: “6 best practices to kick start your Scrum team” and “The 9 characteristics of the ideal agile tender.”


A Great Agile Manager…

  • Stops starting and starts finishing projects[4]. A great agile manager prevents the overflow problem. Before starting a new project, finish the current one first. Organisations with slack are faster than organisations where the goal is to keep people busy all the time. And those who can’t say no to anything, are those who burnout and must say no to everything. Managers should understand this and therefore protect the team from overflow.
  • Prefers team culture over project culture. A great agile manager understands that a team culture increases the chances to satisfy employees and customers, build great products and provide a solid foundation for the organisation. In a project culture the project is king. If scope, budget and time are met, the project is a success. Fire fighters (often project managers) are heroes. Within a team culture the product is king. It’s all about the outcome the team delivers instead of the output. The organisation is build around fixed, cross functional, self-organizing teams who are given the freedom and responsibility to think of a strategy they believe will result in the best product. Team culture values fire fighters, but preventing a fire is event better. For more details, check this blog post.
  • Creates culture of experimentation. A great agile manager understands the importance of bold experimentation. Let’s see what works and doesn’t by actually doing things. Experiments should be carried out quickly and with real customers. Focus must shift from planning to doing[5].
  • Builds a solid relationship with suppliers. A great agile manager treats the organisations suppliers like they are an extension of their agile teams. It’s all about true collaboration and trusting each other. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Business cards are directly thrown down the trashcan. When it’s a supplier that offers capacity for the Development Team, these developers are considered as a sustainable part of the team.
  • Embraces continuous improvement. A great agile manager stimulates and pursues a culture of continuous improvement. Hereby he uses Kaizen (gradual improvement) and Kaikaku (radical improvement). Most important is that the people have time to improve. This by offering them some slack or encourage them to do a retrospective (especially at difficult moments).
  • Walks around. A great agile manager applies ‘management by walking around’. He doesn’t hide in a far-away office but walks around, is part of the workplace with the teams where the real value is created.
  • Embraces change within IT driven projects. A great agile manager understands that most IT driven projects are complex. Complexity is unpredictable. And unpredictable projects are impossible to plan in detail upfront. Also changes will inevitably occur, because we will (hopefully) learn and discover along the way. A great agile manager understands that acting on these lessons learned is necessary to build the right product. Therefor he doesn’t panic when changes arise but embraces new discoveries and encourages the team to implement them.
  • Creates a trust-only work environment. A great agile manager creates an environment where trust can flourish. This starts by giving trust. Because “when there is trust first, there will be results later[6].”
  • Uses Delegation Boards and Poker. A great agile manager uses delegation boards and poker to allow teams self-organize. They don’t fear losing control. By using a delegation board it enables management to clarify delegation and foster empowerment for both management and workers.
  • Shares experiences. A great agile manager share experiences with peers. This might be within the organisation, but also seminars and conferences are a great way to share experiences and gather knowledge. Maybe even setting up a Community of Practices about management in the organisation. Of course writing down your lessons learned is also highly appreciated. And yes, for the attentive readers, this is exactly the same as for the Product Owner, the Development Team and the Scrum Master 🙂


A Great Agile Manager…

  • Supports self-organisation. A great agile manager manages the boundaries to support self-organisation. Examples of some of these boundaries are related to time boxing, providing focus and cross-functional collaboration. He reduces their dependency on management and hereby increases the ownership of the work.
  • Provides a clear purpose. A great agile manager engages people through organisational purpose and vision. The manager should inspire his team to pursue this vision and transfer it to reality.
  • Provides the team with focus. A great agile manager protects the team from multitasking and working on several projects simultaneously. It’s related to the previous point. Multitasking generates enormous waste. A manager is doing his people an enormous favor by offering them focus. The gift in return is seeing the desired results far more early.
  • Respects team stability. A great agile manager understands the importance and power of team stability. He doesn’t change the composition of a team himself. If changes are made, the team itself initiates them. He will only facilitate the proposed changes, hereby respecting the team’s ability to self-organise.
  • Focuses on personal growth in his team. A great agile manager understands his continuous test is: do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? Yes, this is of course strongly related to servant leadership, basically it’s the definition provided by Robert K. Greenleaf[7].
  • Doesn’t have individual performance appraisals. A great agile manager understands that the performance of an organisation is the result of the whole system, not the individual people. Therefore it makes little sense to have performance appraisals with individual employees when most of their performance is the emergent result of interactions between clients, tools, processes, and other parts of the environment over which they usually have little control.[8] Instead give the responsibility with each person in the company for their own development, ensure they have access to the resources and feedback necessary to improve. You will learn a great deal about the potential of employees. Some will try very hard to grow as a person, some don’t.

A great agile manager understands performance management should be about motivating teams, not judging individual performance. The agile manager uses the already available feedback cycles to inspect the team’s performance. Together they can inspect and adapt by which they become an even better team. Performance management should be about guiding teams to their best performance, while honestly evaluating both the individual and teams contribution.


A Great Agile Manager…

  • Has thorough knowledge about agile. A great agile manager doesn’t only encourage his employees to follow an agile course but also participates himself. Hereby gaining the necessary knowledge to really grasp the intention of the agile mindset and explain it at strategic level. For organisations that want to embrace the agile mindset, it should become mandatory to train management as well.
  • Understands an agile transformation means change for the entire A great agile manager understands the entire organisation thus includes the manager itself. Following an agile training is a good (read: crucial) starter; actually changing mindset & behavior is a necessary follow up. Be the change you want to see.
  • Knows about Management 3.0. A great agile manager knows the concepts of Management 3.0. Jurgen Appelo shouldn’t be a stranger to him. He knows about:
    • management 1.0: organisations are managed like machines, doing exactly the wrong thing;
    • management 2.0: doing the right thing wrong, for example, starting an agile transformation, but in a top-down planned approach, with targets and rewards;
    • management 3.0: doing the right thing right. Treating the organisation as a community of people working together toward a shared purpose.
  • Understands that software is eating the world. A great agile manager as read the article ‘Why Software Is Eating The World’ by Marc Andreessen. And more important, is makes sense to him. Basically almost every company nowadays is a software-driven and becoming more digitized and automated. Becoming agile becomes a requirement to stay in business. A great agile manager understands this, and acts on it. How? That will vary per organisation, but acknowledging it might be a good first step.

Wow, this has become quite an extensive article with a comprehensive list of examples related to the skills, behavior and competences of the agile manager! And for sure this list isn’t complete yet. If you know any other great examples, feel free to share them. And if you disagree with some of my examples, a constructive discussion is always welcome.

Update juni 27th

This article is version 1.2, and I’m still not completely satisfied but I can’t put my finger on possible improvements (or am I just being too critical?) So really, if you’ve got some feedback, don’t hesitate to share it.

[3] Henrik Kniberg – Scrum and XP from the Trenches
[6] #Workout (Management 3.0) by Jurgen Appelo
[7] Servant Leadership: a Journey into the Nature of Legimate Power and Greatness by Robert K. Greenleaf
[8] Abolishing Performance Appraisals by Coens and Jenkins

One thought to “Characteristics of a Great Agile Manager”

Comments are closed.