Do Agile Teams Really Need Managers?

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In an agile, self-organizing team, the role of a manager is not always clear. When people on a team are focused on working together to deliver something, even with a ScrumMaster to facilitate, traditional concepts like “direct report” don’t make sense. Managers perform a variety of functions that are useful for self-organizing teams. The challenge is how to perform those functions effectively while keeping with the spirit of self-organization.

One challenge in defining the role of management is that there are different types of management. This Wall Street Journal article talks about the trend in agile tech companies to dispense with a formal manager role in favor of more self-directed individuals. In addition to discussing an interesting trend, this piece illustrates the confusion about defining management. The article discusses the various roles of management, including the human resources functions, but uses examples of people who perform project management functions.

Another point sometimes lost in discussions about the role of managers is the difference between managers and leaders. Managers can lead people, but leaders need not be managers. This is a key lesson in Jerry Weinberg’s classic book Becoming a Technical Leader. A group may be in need of leadership, management, or both, but those functions need to be filled by the same person.

In technical organizations people often forget that management skills are different from technical skills. While coaching and technical mentorship is an important function, this role does not need to be relegated to a manager (though it can be). Other management functions, like conflict resolution and removing organizational roadblocks, require a different set of skills and interests than technical mentorship.

Supervisors used to take on the classic role of managing and giving performance reviews, but doing so might make less sense in an agile organization. Having someone perform management functions can be useful if you can do so in a way that maintains agile values and does not inhibit motivation.

Perhaps the issue is more about titles than functions. It’s probably a good idea to figure out what functions are missing in your organization and decide which people, regardless of their formal job titles, should be performing them.

What role do managers play in your organization? Do managers inhibit or encourage self direction?

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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.