Seven Tips for Managers in Agile Transformation

A critical aspect of Agile Transformation is that here we are not just adopting new practices or processes but we are approaching the software development in a totally new way which requires us to think and act differently. This change required in our behavior – the way we interact with each other, the things that we expect from others, the things that others expect from us, are all fundamentally different. Essentially, we are talking of transitioning to a new culture and hence we call this, a Transformation! For the success of such a transformation exercise, the role of management in the organization is very critical. In this blog, I have listed seven tips that will help managers change themselves to ensure the success of their organization’s Agile Transformation.

1.Align with the Purpose

First and foremost, the managers have to have a strong buy-in into the Agile Transformation. Unless they have conviction in transformation, their support to it will be half-hearted and mechanical. Leadership needs to explain why Agile Transformation is needed and the difference it would make to the company. This explanation should be well assimilated by the managers. They should also undertake some self-study to understand the need for transformation and the roadmap for the same.

2. Understand the new roles and the new leadership style

Having understood the purpose of the transformation, managers should be clear about the role they will play in the transformation and the way they need to change themselves for the success of the transformation. This step is critical and will influence the success of the transformation. In traditional management, managers are used to what we call as “Command and Control”! They are the ones who make decisions and are responsible for the consequences of the decisions. Agile is a different paradigm. Managers need to lead and coach the teams into making decisions and make the team responsible for them. For an individual used to giving instructions this is not easy. When he/she sees something not as per his/her expectation, he/she would tend to intervene and direct the team to change the course. The problem is further amplified by the fact that the team who has been used to taking instructions and executing them, will be quite eager to take instructions and move on. They are quite happy to say later, “we did as you told”; effectively transferring the responsibility to the manager. Managers need to be aware of this trap and develop the skill to avoid it. When they see a problem, they should refrain from pointing it out directly and giving a solution. Instead, they should have a discussion with the team posing some probing questions which make the team discover the problem and they would propose the solutions too. Managers then should navigate the discussion to the best solution. It is quite possible that during the discussion the team may come up with a solution that is better than the solution, the manager had thought of.  This approach helps the growth of the team members and they start assuming responsibility for the team’s deliveries. We can even say that developing agility means helping people grow and take responsibility. The manager’s role here is, essentially, that of a catalyst. Typically, a catalyst does not participate in the process but facilitates it, accelerates it!

3. Maintaining optimal distance from the team

The manager has to strike a balance between being with the team and being away from the team! While the manager needs to be with the team so that he/she is aware of how team is doing, he/she should be careful not to impact the team’s ability to make decisions for themselves! The attention from the manager will also depend on the stage of transformation that the team is in. In the early stages of transformation, team would need more facilitation and this need would decrease as they get deeper in Agile thinking, behavior, practices and metrics! As the team matures in agility, manager can afford to spend less time with them.

4. Lead by example

When it comes to following the agile philosophy, the Manager has to lead by example. Small actions and gestures of the manager need to demonstrate the agile behavior that others will understand and follow. E.g. – a simple gesture like asking team members to take turns in conducting and leading meetings, gives a clear signal that they are the ones who decide how the team executes!  Normally, the manager should refrain from participation in the daily meeting. This will force the team to make decisions by themselves.  However, as stated above, if the manager feels a need for intervention that should be done in a coaching manner, educating the team and letting them arrive at the right decisions.

5. Ensure support from the organization

Another aspect of manager’s role is to help the team in issues that need resources from outside the team. Managers need to have good connections with their peers and seniors so that when needed, they can seek and get help from other parts of the organization.

6. Be patient

When a major change program requiring new learning and adopting new philosophy and practices is undertaken, there would be an impact on productivity in the initial days. Managers need to navigate patiently during these times. As agile practices are established there will be gain in productivity and eventually, the team will deliver at much higher productivity than before and will ensure continuous and faster delivery of value to the customers. While the impact on productivity needs to be absorbed, there should be no impact on the quality of deliveries to the customers. The team needs to be conveyed that they may deliver less for some time but there should be no compromise on quality.

7. Culture of Continuous Improvement

The last and very important responsibility of the manager, promoting Agile Transformation, is to set up the culture of continuous improvement. In the initial days of transformation, the manager may be required to help the team understand the purpose of the retrospectives, orienting them to attack a problem and not a person; helping them to open up and identify improvement actions. However, at least in the initial days of transformation, he may not physically attend the retrospectives as his presence may impact the team and they may not open up.  Once the practice of retrospectives is well-established, managers may attend them once in a while.  The manager should promote the practice of admitting mistakes and the manager should be no exception in this. If the manager makes a mistake, he/she should admit it like others. This will promote openness in the team. Occasionally, the Manager should seek feedback from the team on himself/herself and check if he/she needs to change anything. This is best done in informal one on one sessions. The team members, while forthcoming with positive feedback; most of the times, will not be comfortable in giving negative feedback. So, the manager has to extract it skillfully reading between the lines, if required. Over time, as the team sees openness in the manager and their feedback being taken seriously and positively, they will open up and share their feedback more freely.

To conclude, managers are the pillars needed for the solid construction of Agile Transformation. They need to transform themselves first, to lead this change and lead it from the front!

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