Guest post by Sally Elatta of Agile Transformation, Inc.

The Management Challenge

It’s well known that most managers are promoted to higher positions because of their specialized skills and their ability to solve problems well. Basically they were high-performing individual contributors (or at least we hope so).

mgmt challenge

The interesting part here is most new managers attempt to show their team members how to solve these problems by describing how they did it. This makes sense because they’ve done their jobs before and learned lessons doing so. The challenge now is that the real value of a leader is his/her ability to coach others on how to solve problems themselves. This means setting a clear vision, defining acceptance criteria and letting them figure out the ‘how.’ Yes, some gentle nudging is used, especially when a team or individual is new, but some level of mistakes are tolerated and even anticipated. This also means learning to ‘trust’ that your team can self-organize and figure out how to achieve the goals. This idea of creating self-organizing teams is the hardest to grasp for managers who are used to directing at a detailed level what each person on the team does.









It’s interesting… The role of a functional manager is actually pretty confusing because it depends on the personality, interest and skills of the manager playing the role and the expectations set by leadership. Let me illustrate what I mean…


The focus areas above don’t even cover it all. There is ‘administrative’ work which mangers do in addition to ‘strategic’ and ‘cross-functional’ meetings related to active and future projects they attend (sometimes these can take up all the time!).

The Agile Shift

Let’s walk through a quick view of how agile changes some of the areas above.

Work Management and Fire Fighting

This is now managed by the ScrumMaster and the cross-functional team. This is a hard shift for many managers who spend almost all their time managing tasks, getting statuses, redirecting what people were working on, and responding to the daily fires and impediments.

Subject Matter Expert

Every agile team has Solution Leads who are technical or Business Leads who are subject matter experts advising the team and who can translate the business vision into a technical vision. They work as part of the team (dedicated or shared) to provide guidance and direction when needed, in addition to mentor and transfer knowledge to those who want to grow.

People Development

This still remains the focus for managers with a bigger emphasis now than before on the individual coaching aspect. To be honest, most managers were so consumed on managing the work that many of them have had no time to develop their people or learn the critical skills of coaching others. Many teams have put up with various behavioral dysfunctions because managers have been too busy or not skilled enough to deliver behavioral coaching with individuals or teams.

Process Improvement

Again, this is another area that many times gets neglected because of the focus on work management and fire fighting. Agile advocates creating Communities of Practice (CoPs), where people can come together and share knowledge, develop standards, identify and resolve impediments, select and learn tools, and help each other within a specific functional or focus area. Managers can be great leaders for these CoPs and can help bring people together to improve the processes for their teams and at the enterprise level.

Usually team members allocate time each week to attend these CoP meetings, which should be working sessions that deliver real value. In addition to the functional CoPs, managers are now creating a CoP for managers, where they work together as a team on related ‘Process Improvement’ backlogs.

Summary and Final Thoughts

sally-elatta-agile-transformationAs I’ve worked with many companies through their agile transformation it has become clear to me and to the leaders of these organizations that there is a need for a real transformation to the role of functional managers. Agile takes away the tactical focus many managers had and provides the opportunity now for real strategic shift by focusing on the people development, process improvement and beginning to learn the skills of strategic thinking and planning.

The real challenge is many managers are so used to being in the day-to-day details and managing the work level that this shift might be difficult, if not impossible, for some. It makes sense to put managers in the role that fits them best. So find for them a work management-related role such as Program Manager, Solution Lead, Architect, Systems/Business Advisor, etc. and grow the managers who are passionate about developing people into the resource manager role.

Join the Discussion

    • John Hill

      HI Sally, I’m in complete alignment with your thoughts on this. I was first exposed to this line of thinking when I read an article communicating these same concepts in a 2009 article by Pete Deemer (see below).

      In “Management 2.0: The Role of the Manager in Scrum”*, Pete Deemer describes line manager behaviors that are “fine in Scrum” and contrasts them with the following eight behaviors that either conflict with Scrum or are no longer necessary once Scrum has been implemented:

      • Decide what work needs to be done.
      • Assign the work to team members.
      • Keep track of what everyone on the team is doing.
      • Make sure the team gets its work done.
      • Make commitments to management about how much the team can do by a certain date.
      • Be responsible for the team meeting those commitments made to management.
      • Compile a weekly status update report for management.
      • Hold a weekly team staff meeting.

      In his article, Deemer explains how these behaviors now belong to other Agile team roles and describes the effects of these behaviors in detail when functional (line) managers cling to them on planet Scrum.


      In early 2013 I wrote the following article that includes some recommendation on how to prevent these Managerial issues in organizations new to Scrum (including how the role of the Project Manager must change in an Agile world):

      Good Job! (and Thanks!),

      John H.

      • Sally Elatta

        Thanks John for your comment and for sharing your article, I enjoyed reading it and it fits well with our Enterprise Transformation roadmap we utilize with our clients. It’s an exciting time in our industry! Lots of great Transformation work ahead for forward looking companies.


    • Jim Bo Rice

      Great article indeed Sally. I echo your thoughts and ditto John. It is a leap for many managers, over a crevasse that some will not easily cross – some not at all. Servant Leadership, the key characteristic for successful significance in agile leadership, is the essence of what lies beyond for the common command-and-control-aholic. As said well by a recent global internet client doing an enterprise-wide transformation, “It’s time to put down the microscope and pick up the telescope.”
      Management 3.0 encompasses this new paradigm.
      Thank you Sally and Version One for your contributions to the cause of humanizing work and greater value delivery!

      • Sally Elatta

        Thanks for your comment Jim and for reading the article! Love the quote!


    • Mark Neumann

      I agree with your points about agile, but it presents some interesting dilemmas, which you started to touch on at the start. If you look at the newer companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc..) you will see a much flatter organizational structure reflecting this new thinking.

      The problem. What is the career path? Should there be a career path? It’s what most people expect. But is that an obsolete concept? If the role of management is mostly about HR, you probably don’t need as many of them. And frankly, the job may be a lot less interesting.

      Yes, there is usually a technical career track. But now that is all there is. So much fewer opportunities for growth. Maybe the answer is for people to move around between roles with their pay increasing as a function of the breadth of their skills?

      More problematic are those who grew up in the old system, which is now going away. How to retrain, re-position those people inside the new world? (And is there a cut in pay?)

      I am not arguing against the change. It has come. But I don’t think we have worked out all the implications yet.

      My 2 cents.

    • Pollyanna Pixton

      Most companies transitioning to agile struggle with the culture change. What is needed is a culture of trust, ownership, strategy alignment, and dealing honestly with ambiguity. Managers play a huge role in removing the fear in the organization, creating a safe place for teams to fail, and helping teams take ownership. This is hard and means walking to floor and constantly interacting with team members.

      As far as a carer path, everyone knows who the high performers are and great leaders will see who steps up and delivers. And then will find the right place for them in the organization.


    • Robert Bolton

      Great article. Thank you.

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