The Manager’s Role on a Self-Organizing Agile Team
Scrum and other agile methods focus on team roles and dynamics, and because of the emphasis on self-organizing teams, there’s sometimes a misconception that there’s no need for a manager. Good people management can help an agile team thrive, but without guidance about what it means to be a manager in an agile organization, management can have the opposite effect.
Managers using old patterns can limit both the effectiveness of the team and the power of agile to help people grow and develop their skills. While managing in a way that builds self-organization can be a challenge, it is necessary because it yields great benefits.
Managers and leaders have a number of roles in agile organizations, including setting product directions, making staffing decisions, and helping team members with professional development. Traditional management often relies more on command rather than influence. For agile teams, the opposite needs to be true.
Using influence can often be more effective in the long term in any organization, but it’s essential on an agile team. A command culture can hinder a team’s ability to develop self-organizational skills, which are at the heart of the value agile brings to an organization.
Consider how people decide what to work on. In a traditional organization, a manager might assign an individual to work on a certain task. On an agile team, the team would decide how they allocate work by individuals committing themselves to the tasks. This does not mean that the manager has no influence on work allocation; it means that the manager needs to give advice about the team’s decisions rather than assign work.
On the surface, this sounds like it might hamper the ability of a manager to help a team or a person succeed. How can the manager be sure that the team will select the “right” person for a task? How do they know the team also will consider other important factors, like the person’s development goals? The answer: They can’t.
But it is also true that the manager’s decision may be wrong too, as the team will often know more about the work than the manager. And volunteering can lead to a deeper sense of commitment to the work.
This won’t happen every time, and the manager can work with the team to help everyone understand how to make better decisions. An agile manager can influence a person to select certain tasks or, if necessary, coach the team on how to support each other on their individual and shared goals.
Letting go of control can be scary for some managers, and learning to trust is a difficult skill. But this process lets the manager delegate decisions to the team, freeing them to concentrate on long-term issues and eliminating organizational obstacles, which in turn helps the team be more productive. And the trust that it leads to can provide benefits like increased team commitment to the goals of the project.
Self-organization relies on trust, and developing any new skill relies on the ability to accept the chance of occasional failure. But there is a significant benefit to engaging the power of a self-organizing team.