From Manager to Agile Leader

This is a repost of a blog I wrote for MATRIX Resources.

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Dear Coach Josh,

Last month our CEO sent out a memo stating that our company was now an Agile company. I know what Agile is, but I don’t know what to do now because I am a manager. I have heard that Agile no longer uses managers and I have been reminded of this by some of my employees after attending a training session. Help!


Scared in Scrum


Dear Scared in Scrum,

Go get a cup of coffee or nice chamomile tea and know this – nothing in Agile calls for the removal of managers or leaders in companies! This isn’t the French Revolution! Now, did you get your hot beverage of choice? Good! Since that is out of the way, let’s look at what has changed, what this means to you, and what this means to the people the company has entrusted you to lead! But first, a little background.

Agile has its roots in a time where developers sat in small cubes in back rooms and banged out code while project managers, business analysts and the like (the people persons) worked with the customer directly. These PMs and BAs then brought back well-thought-out documents and plans, handed completed specifications to the developers, and returned to their tracking of projects and talking with the customers. Resource managers, then, focused on creating and enforcing rules, acted as subject matter experts (because they once were developers or the like), and held the organizational bureaucracy together. Then came the Agile Manifesto and the meeting in Snowbird. Developers were done with being relegated to the dark corners of the cube jungle and started working directly with clients, PMs were banished from the land, BAs stopped writing massive documents, but managers were still there! Even though some agile frameworks completely leave managers out of their thoughtful methods, companies didn’t know what to do with managers. And it seemed the boys in Snowbird didn’t either.

Many good folks have spent time talking about the role of managers, and this blog is just the latest in a litany of attempts to explain what managers do now.

Managers are no longer managers; they are leaders of leaders.

It may seem like semantics, but there is a huge difference between a manager and a leader. The good ole dictionary defines a manager as “a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company”. The word even derives from the Latin which means “to handle”, specifically, “to control or handle a horse.” A leader on the other hand, comes from a word that means “to guide or conduct,” and can be defined as “a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or group.”

In an Agile organization, we ask everyone to be a leader. We ask team members to organize themselves and be responsible for their work, their relationships, and their own improvement! In the old days, the “head” of a group of people or team did not stay in the back of the group giving orders, rather they were in front and the first one out among many. This concept is reaffirmed in stories of Alexander the Great, George S. Patton, and some of the greatest military and strategic champions throughout history. This means that Leaders of Leaders are there to help guide individuals by bringing them along with them. Do you want your folks to become stronger in their core competency? Then show them by example what that looks like through your actions and open up a path for them to improve. Do you want the people to learn to communicate more effectively or create a more cohesive team environment? Then YOU make that change first. One of our clients, after doing some training with our own Bob Woods, converted their entire floor to a more open space to facilitate communication and collaboration. While that was impressive, the most impressive change was that this Sr. Leader actually moved himself out of his office into one of the desks among the teams. The reason? He wanted to be in the midst of his people and let them know that collaboration was important. This was a not-so-subtle notice that he needed his folks to take up the initiative of collaboration across teams and start to communicate more and is an example of a Manager-to-Leader moment.

Agile Leaders surround themselves with people that are smarter than they are.

There is a saying, “if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” It can be attributed in bits and pieces to people from Steve Jobs to clinical psychologist Natalie Frank. The underlying wisdom in this is that, as a leader, if you are the smartest person in the room, the focus is no longer on those you lead, but on you. And this is not good. In Agile organizations, this is amplified even more with the focus on teamwork. Teams are looked upon to deliver both business-as-usual work as well as innovative solutions for the customer (whether internal or external). As a leader, our job becomes to build the people within the teams to become more effective, efficient, and successful.

“But what does this look like tactically,” you might ask, “how do I make this happen?”

There are several areas of growth that teams can and should focus on. And as a leader, it is your responsibility to pave the way for this growth. Here they are:

21st Century Skills

21st Century Skills_horizontalThe whole concept of 21st Century Skills is centered around the trend of people entering the workforce not having the holistic intellectual and emotional growth necessary to compete in the today’s marketplace. While there are multiple flavors, one prominent educational group defines four primary categories – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and Collaboration. These are a must if your team members are going to grow!

Improved competency in existing technologies and introductions to new technologies

Back in the day, I was a “self-taught” IT guy. I learned how to break networks in order to figure out the best way to architect them. But when my leaders sent me to classes, it filled in all of the holes of knowledge that I had and exposed me to the wisdom of the trainer. In an Agile organization, training on doing the existing work better or on new technologies is not something that happens after I finish my 40-hour workweek, it is part of the continuous journey of improvement. And as an Agile leader, it is important to reiterate this to your leaders and make sure the value you place on education in the workplace is evident to those you lead.

Leadership skills

Yes, you need people to replace you. One of your primary responsibilities should be to work yourself out of a job. In order to do this, training people on how to be good leaders is a must! There are tremendous resources for leadership training such as John Maxwell or the Center for Creative Leadership.

Agile leaders are change champions.

Admittedly, this is more of a “rah, rah” point but it’s important nonetheless. As the teams focus on delivering products and improving themselves they need people to continue to drive for change and improvement within the organization. In the past, success was measured by how well people met the processes and followed the rules of engagement. In Agile organizations, leaders are charged with reducing organizational waste, removing processes that slow innovation and delivery, and consuming changes in products and in practices as the organization evolves. I once heard a leader state that if you wanted to see productivity go through the roof, ask your people what rule/process gets in their way the most and remove it.

So, Scared in Scrum, as you can see there is plenty of room in agility for leadership! Does it mean there is change in your future? Absolutely! But it is exciting to know that, as a leader, you are a necessary part of a growing, changing, and improving Agile organization!

Your Biggest Fan,

Coach Josh

Going Beyond the Beginning

Movements are finicky.  There is always a balance of retaining the original fire that drove the change but also looking forward to see the greatness that could be as the movement gains traction and fresh perspectives.

Over the past several days I have seen some people tweet or comment about “how xyz isn’t what was intended when the manifesto was signed,” or one of my favorites, “I don’t remember massages at Snowbird.”  While I have a tremendous amount of respect for these “founding fathers,” Agile is not a government of rules or a republic, We Are Agile – the people, the decisions to think outside of the norm, and continuous ability to consume change!  I believe in honoring the past and in remembering our history, but I also believe that the beginning was just that – a beginning!

Outside of agile, I have been involved in other movements that always look back to the “firsts.” These firsts are looked upon not only as absolutely amazing and empowered people [that they are/were], but in some ways “the finals” as well.  They were the last ones allowed to do awesome things or say amazing things or even have any new insights.  And anyone who adds, subtracts, or has a different viewpoint are considered apostate – even if they still focus on the core values and principles – and are pushed into some corner reserved for the rebellious and stupid kids.

Today, at Agile2016, there was a new idea spoken about called Modern Agile.  This set of principles or strategies  take the amazingness of the Agile Manifesto and slightly shift them for modern era.  You see, we have accomplished a lot using the tools and practices of the Agile Manifesto and team/organizational change agents like Scrum, etc.  But we can do better.  We can think greater.  We can Inspire!!!!!  It is completely understood that Modern Agile seeks to inspire, but it is not the only movement that is pushing us to think ahead, to focus on developing a vision for the future, and encouraging us to move “beyond” the beginning.

So whether it is Modern Agile or other “streams” of agile, it is time to stop just implementing agile – it is time to start developing the future of good work, empowered employees and customers, innovative practices, and more!

Agile2016: Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

Technically, Agile2016 is not software, BUT, Agile2016 is about product delivery.  It is a product of hard work of countless volunteers, track and submission reviewers, sponsors, companies, and the people who attend.  And while I know that there was probably copious amounts of documentation and communication in paper form, the end game is not and will never will be about the documentation.

To dig into this further, I went to the principles behind the manifesto to get more understanding on this key pillar of Agile and how it applies to the actual conference.  If you peruse through the principles, there are key phrases related to the actual software product such as, “satisfy the customer,” or, “deliver… frequently,” or that the product is, “the primary measure of success.”  Each of these could be asked as questions in regards to the success of Agile2016 so far.

Is the customer satisfied?

As a customer (and no, I will not format this as a user story) – yes!  The way that the hotel staff has been attentive, the quality of the company booths, the attentiveness of the volunteers, the excitement and energy exuded by the attendees.  The answer is a whole-hearted YES!  Add to that the camaraderie of even competing organizations and the people focused on skills improvement and relationship building and Agile2016 is a resounding success.  I wish I could find the picture of one of our competitors chatting it up with us in booth – sharing stories, or seeing the two name sponsors’ staff hanging out in each others booths.  It is a sign of success of not just the conference but the movement.  Customer Sat? Check.

Is there frequent delivery of value?

Again, absolutely.  In 1:15 increments, speakers are delivering value.  In 3 hour bursts, the exhibit floor is bursting with value!  Even the breaks where one can chat with other agilists is a sign of creating instantaneous value.

Is the customer satisfaction and product delivery the primary measure of success?

This one adds to the first.  Not only do we recognize the need to create satisfied customers, but for our growth and for our validation of abilities, we need to actually deliver something.  What is the “product” that Agile2016 delivers?  Strategic and tactical agile transformation concepts, relationships, and vendor solutions.

On that note, welcome to Agile2016 day 2!  We look forward to more “quality product delivery” today!


Agile2016: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

As an agilist, I sometimes get worried over what I would call the “consumerization” of Agile.  Along the way it feels as though it has become less of the anti-command-and-control, return to the people, transformative movement and has become – more or less – a way for all of consultants to make money.  It has become about your process and your tool set.

Enter Agile2016; the largest Agile Event ever.  Over 2500 attendees from over 40 countries represent the thing that we love about Agile – the people.  It has been ultimately refreshing to walk among our competitors and have conversations about our experiences with agile.  It is good to have a majority of people simply want to know who you, what hasn’t worked well (and what has), and just connect with another Agilist.

Around 12:15 we did a Facebook Live Stream.  As we wandered around, one of the guys from MATRIX actually commented that we was shocked at how open the other booths were and how ready people were just to talk about their experiences here at Agile2016.  It goes back to what we all are here for – “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.”

More later from Agile2016!

Agile 2016: The First 12 1/2 minutes

I might be going a bit overboard on Agile this week with blogs, primarily because I’m at Agile2016, one of the largest gathering of us weirdo, hippie agilists – along side some still buttoned up folks – in the United States.

Upon walking in I was met by a wonderful group of volunteers; ready and eager to help as well as to laugh at my silly jokes.  I was also faced with my company’s competitors but this week we are not mortal enemies, but fellow agile journey-takers on a mission to get more info, sharpen our skills, and most of all meet more agile folks.

There is excitement in the air; a sense of urgency as people make their way to the keynote speaker session.  Others are headed down to put the finishing touches on booths or just talking with people they haven’t seen since last year.  All this excitement could also be because of the copious amount of coffee available to the attendees!

Overall, I’m looking forward to a week of getting to know a new set of people, talk “shop” for a full week, and listen to some thought leaders in the space.  Watch for Facebook Live, Periscope, Live Tweets, and other nonsensical stuff coming from me this week from Agile 2016.