Why Managers Can Be Valuable to Self-Organizing Agile Teams

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Asking if agile teams need management is similar to asking if orchestras need conductors, as NPR reports that orchestras that follow the lead of a conductor produced better music. In both orchestras and agile teams, you have a group of skilled, talented people working together as a team to do something bigger than they can do as individuals. And in both cases there’s a fine line between leading and micromanaging.

Agile management is often seen as an oxymoron. Agile teams are productive and adaptive because they are self organizing. Exercising too much control over team members’ day-to-day work is antithetical to agile values. Less micromanagement can lead to a higher degree of commitment, which is very much in line with agile values.

Moving toward self organization is not always easy. Agile teams have roles that facilitate the agile process. ScrumMasters, for example, can help their teams self organize. The ScrumMaster isn’t a manager. There is a role for managers in agile organizations, but it’s different from what is traditionally considered management.

Agile managers help create an environment that enables self organization. They lead, but they avoid micromanagement. They are willing and able to learn from the people they manage.

Agile leaders are different. A leader who is successful in a hierarchical organization might not work in a different environment, which may mean the best leader for an agile team might not be the person who came up through traditional management ranks.

As much as being a good manager is challenging, having one on your team can be valuable, especially in the context of an already effective team. So rather than assuming that self-organizing agile teams don’t need managers, consider the value a good manager can add to help a team develop in ways that deliver value.

What are your experiences with what a good manager can add to an agile team? How can a less than good manager hurt your team? And how can you help your manager work with your agile team more effectively?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.