Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Role of Middle Management in an Agile World

When discussing Agile roles, there is much written about the ScrumMaster, Product Owner, Development Team, and Customer.  But there is less written about what the Middle Manager should do in an Agile World.   Note, when I talk about Middle Manager, I am talking about the Line Manager, Functional Manager, Manager, and Director level manager. 

I recently discussed the middle management roles within an Agile context to several different middle managers.  They each had an interesting perspective on what it was like when their teams became Agile. Here are two excepts:  
  • The Functional Manager who was also the team's Line Manager noted that they spent much less time on directing the team on what to work on since the work was now coming out of the Product Backlog.  I told him that yes this is big adjustment.  He needed to focus on ensuring that his team members had the right skills, team impediments were removed, the Agile principles were understood, and the team were given the education they needed to become a fully cross-functional team.
  • In talking to a Director who now has 3 self-organizing teams, she was telling me that she was having a hard time knowing what to do since she felt she had to get more hands-on.  She needed to help educate the team members around their new roles, and then allowing the teams to self-organize around the work was the right thing to do.  I told her by backing off, she could better provide more strategy level guidance to connect the organization’s strategies to the team or product visions.  She commented that this was very different from the more traditional management role she had been used too.  
Ultimately, it is important to understand that middle management are critical to the success of an effective Agile deployment.  They are the lynchpin between the executive’s vision for Agile and the team's ability to apply Agile as Middle management's willingness to allow Agile can help make it flourish or fail on a team. If they are engaged and buy into Agile, then the change may succeed. Even when executives buy in, if middle management does not do likewise, they can block a team's ability to succeed with Agile.    

If middle management don’t understand their role in the new order or feel threatened by the change, they may become Deceivers or Deniers and block the success toward Agile. Because of this, it is critical that middle managers are educated on Agile at the same time their teams are.

Middle management must adapt their role and learn to gently back away from their functional leadership, act more as a servant leader who trusts their teams, helps them remove roadblocks, and supports the agile principles and practices. They may attend the Sprint Review to see progress of the working functionality and the Daily Stand-up to gain a sense of team progress.   Middle management must also learn how to establish the concept of bounded authority where teams can make their own decisions and commit to their own work. The balance is that managers keep limited responsibilities to provide a vision and support their staff, while allowing teams ownership of their work.  Finally, middle management must be willing to be transparent about what is going on in the organization and be willing to communicate this information to the team. 

Other Roles that may suit Middle Management

Often middle management have less to do in an Agile world. The good news is that they may consider options such as changing their role to Resource Manager, where they manage more people but do not own an organizational functional area. They may consider a Product Owner role if they have been engaged in collecting requirements and interacting with customers. Although this role should no longer be managerial (i.e., not direct reports), a PO helps shape the product by collecting and grooming the requirements and collaborating with the team.   They may also move to another Functional Manager role where there is still a need for this role.  And some will remain their current middle management leadership roles.  If they continue to want to do the more traditional middle management roles, they may consider looking for companies that continue to look for the more traditional roles.  

How Middle Management can evaluate themselves in an Agile World

Here are a few questions  middle managers can ask themselves to see how aligned they are in managing teams in an Agile World.  These questions are based on material from "The Manager's Role in Agile" by Michael Spayd and Lyssa Adkins.  
  • Are you allowing for self-organizing teams while still providing servant leadership? 
  • Are you removing command and control elements while providing bounded authority?
  • Are you supporting the Agile values and principles starting with marshaling a culture toward delivering value?
  • Do you remove the language of false certainty, big-up-front planning and requirements, and big batches?
  • Do you remove the significant roadblocks that hinder an agile team’s progress?
  • Do your teams perceive you as a coach and leader more than as a manager?
  • Are you helping the team with supporting their people and equipment needs?
  • Are you adapting the performance objectives to support team accomplishments to ensure they are delivering the highest value?
  • Do you help the teams when they have external team dependencies in order to get their work done?
  • Are you fostering a learning organization?  Do you provide teams the time to get educated (training, coaching, etc.)? 


  1. The Director was intuitively correct with her hands-on comment. The time to be more hands-on is when the teams are either under-performing or failing. Addressed the same topic in a recent blog post "Scrum is Dead!" (see point 3):

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Andrew!

  3. Nice article, and list of mid-management objectives. One of the best resources I've seen is Appelo's Management 3.0 book.

  4. Thanks David for your comment and pointer!

  5. As an organization attains Agile maturity, the amount of work for middle management is reduced.

    Idle middle management time often leads to creation of non-value-add metrics and the supporting data collection, spreadsheets, analysis-paralysis and distraction from the few key metrics that are needed to manage Agile projects.

    Therefore, it is important to gradually reduce the headcount in middle management until a sustainable level is discovered. In large organizations, it should be possible to eventually eliminate an entire level of hierarchy.

    1. I like the idea of looking for the sustainable level. Thanks!

  6. That's a bloody good question Mario.
    In theory if we presume that agile enforce systemic organization, meaning Front oriented organization, there is no place anymore for middle management.
    In other hand, when you start using Scrum as an alternative, then Scrum Masters and Product Owners are somewhat middle managers, Line Manager are an other kind of Product Owners and so on. Here the Role and Responsibilities of Senior Manager (Top) are increasing regarding their roles of "line of defense" (iTSMF vocabulary) to protect the system.
    At last, giving a touch of complexity, if you agree with this goal of system, then we need to provide new proper roles in the transition phases.
    In my experience, Line Managers are somekind of transition positions.
    As conclusion, if you want to be full agile (guess it is the context of the question) draw the value stream of the organization. Use Pareto Law to see if 80% of the effort is given to produce value and 20% max for management (QA, Risk, Finance, Audit, etc...).
    To be honest, Middle Management understands well the purpose of agile: making it obsolete.

  7. Great post! What I would like some insight on is how to convince V and C level execs that it's important to be an agile organization, and to break from traditional waterfall expectations, such as pegging firm release dates far in advance.

  8. Good comments Pierre!
    @Randy, For V & C level, I start changing the conversation toward identifying value, end-to-end (concept to cash), and discussions on cost of delay.

  9. Good article it is good to read and also I learn lot from here. May be middle level management function as To play the role of mediator between top-level management and first (lower) line management and for more once look here top level, middle level and lower/1st line management