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Can an Agile Team have Managers?

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

I have a confession to make.  I’m a manager.  I’ve been a manager for many years.  I’ve led agile development teams most of that time.  I’ve been told I’m a pretty good manager.  And when I look in the mirror, I don’t see any pointy hair.  And as a point of fair disclosure, I believe there actually is a place for managers in an agile team.

Ever since the first days of extreme programming, I’ve noticed a definite view in the agile community that managers become superfluous.  Self organizing teams, coupled with the principles and practices that ease the path toward product and project management, have removed the need for management.  This is a seemingly wonderful sentiment, but it just doesn’t happen that way.  Companies will always have some sort of management structure.  Who those managers are, and what they do, will change considerably though.

There tend to be two types of manager in a software development  organization.  One of

those is the project manager.  The project manager is responsible for the successful delivery of the project.  His domain includes status of work items, tracking of progress, and ultimately the schedule of delivery.  As one can imagine, in an Agile development environment this role will change considerably.  About the closest relationship to an agile role would be the customer, or in Scrum terms the Product Owner.  What is truly different though is that the Product Owner is a member of the team, and “status” is not reported directly to or from him.  Many project managers are inclined to continue to track time-lines, and to worry about

such things as “percent done” or other metrics that hold little meaning to the Agile community.  I like to remember how much of a change in focus this is, and I do my best to remember how hard such a change is.  The project manager who becomes a product owner is being asked to let of a lot of perceived power and responsibility, and move into the uncomfortable world of “petitioner”.  I say “perceived” because project managers never really had that much control over the course of a particular project, just lots of responsibility.  This is why there was so much emphasis on risk analysis and predictive analysis around the project plan.  We aren’t able to effect what will happen over the course of the project, just plan what our reaction will be to any particular contingency.  Letting go of this will become liberating over the long run, but in the meantime, there is a lot of change.  A lot of this is personal, so let’s give them a break.

The other type of manager is the functional manager.  Teams tend to be organized at some level around the type of job they do.  For instance, there is usually a development manager/director, and another for Quality Assurance. Much of what this manager is responsible is still very important in an Agile organization.  These functional managers tend

to be responsible for many of the personnel administration issues, such as hiring/firing, budget, and many of the technology and purchasing decisions.  These traditional activities are important.  The change is the direction such activities come from and where the decisions originate.  The team becomes the primary focus of technical and, sometimes, personnel.  A functional manager is going to be supporting these decisions, providing the “cover” necessary for experimentation exploration.  This won’t change what the functional manager has to provide to the executive team.  The manager is still going to have to represent the progress that the team is making.  The manager is also going to be the one whose career is most affected by the success or failure of any particular effort, especially during a dramatic effort, such as the initial shift to Agile.

So in the end, we want to keep in mind the amount of change that each manager, no matter what their original role was.  Especially during the initial shift to agility, the managers are in extremely precarious positions.  Most of them are involved because they want to make things better, so lets give them a break.  Over time, their jobs may become completely unrecognizable compared to what they used to be, and this is a Good Thing.  In the meantime, they are going to need support in embracing this “new world”.

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