Who’s the Boss? Let Agile Teams Manage Themselves
I know of a geographically dispersed team across three continents and many time zones collaborating on a product.
They work in one-week iterations and have weekly virtual meetings to collaborate in real time. They never have standups because the logistics are impossible. They have handoffs instead.
They retrospect at a month-long cadence. (I might like more frequent retrospectives, but they didn’t ask me.) About once a quarter, they have an in-person meeting and everyone travels to it to work for three or four days. They meet their desired deadlines.
A couple of weeks ago, three of the seven team members couldn’t make the regular meeting. The team was well aware of this fact and knew what the process would be for the weekly meeting.
A senior manager wanted to know if the team should cancel the meeting. The agile project manager and the two senior people weren’t going to be there—was it worth having the meeting?
The team said yes, it was. The team is in charge of its work, so the team can decide what to do without the named leaders telling them. The team gently and firmly rebuffed the manager’s infliction of help.
This idea of a team in charge of itself is difficult for many people to accept.
They think it must be difficult for the people on the team to look at the work and decide what to do next. Even if the people know the deadline, understand what work they need to complete, and have full control over their work, traditional project practices condition us to wait for someone to tell us what to do.
It’s just as difficult for management to accept. Managers are accustomed to having one person who controls everyone’s work, knows everyone’s status, and can make sure that everyone on the team does their job.
Back when my children were little, they used to say, “You’re not the boss of me!” As a parent, my job was to create the boundaries in which my children could be successful. That meant making sure they had options for clean clothing that met the current weather conditions and offering them enough nutritious and eye-pleasing food options. It was not my job to make them wear certain clothing, or to make them eat dinner. They were in charge of themselves.
Managers are most effective when they explain the strategy behind the product, any boundaries, and what success means. This team understands their deliverables, their release criteria, and what work they need to accomplish, at least for the next month. They don’t need anyone to tell them—individually or as a team—what to do.
Especially for agile teams, managers are least effective when they try to control people. Instead, managers should create an environment in which team members can finish their work. People might need to ask for help, but that needs to be up to the team members.
Let’s not confuse managing with controlling. Agile teams are in charge of themselves.