How Management Changes with Agile with Esther Derby

Episode 72

August 01, 2012



The Agile Weekly Crew and Esther Derby discuss the role of managers, management models and who makes decisions.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich…

Roy vandeWater: I’m Roy vandeWater.

Drew LeSueur: I’m Drew LeSueur.

Clayton: Joining us today is Esther Derby. Hi, Esther.

Esther Derby: Hi.

Management Changes Agile

Clayton: Today, we’re going to talk about how management changes with Agile. This is a really topical thing for a lot of teams, right now, a lot of organizations who are in the process of adopting Agile or have adopted Agile. I know this is something…management in general is something that you seem to write about a lot on your blog and reference on Twitter / @estherderby and what not. It seems like something that you’re passionate about. What is it specifically about management and how management fits in an organization that gets you so excited?

Drew: I thought you just plugged Agile in and the team members just started performing better and faster. That was it.

Esther: Some people seem to believe that that’s true.

Clayton: How do you see management’s role in Agile? I think that’s kind of a muddy question for a lot of people. There’s not really a clear answer.

Esther: I think there is a role for managers in many organizations. I think we did not do ourselves a service when some of the early pundits said, “We don’t need no stinking managers. Just fire all the managers and I’ll work well.”

But I think the role changes. The first thing is that, for many managers, they go from managing a functional group where everybody has essentially the same skills to working with a cross‑functional group.

Notice I didn’t say managing. I said “working with”.

Clayton: It’s an important distinction, I think for a lot of people. What you brought up just there is something that we’ve seen in some of the work that we’re doing, where maybe someone was a functional manager say of developers, right?

They have this very clear cut role of who was on their team and what they did. As the teams become more cross‑functional, you have people from other parts of the organization, maybe over there generating content or something like that, where they are not a traditional developer, but they are still integral in this part of the process for the product that they’re shipping.

Now, there’s this kind of, “Well, these people aren’t on my team. I’m not their functional manager, so if I want to beat them with a stick, I can’t do that because they don’t report to me.” That seems to cause a lot of problems for some people.

Obviously, beating them with a stick is not your idea of a good manager, but it seems to happen like that.

Beating Developers With a Stick Management Model

Esther: No, I think it’s an interesting mental model of management. I think it’s actually rather wide‑spread, but I don’t think it’s all effective.

It may be effective in sense in that people will do many things to avoid being hit with the stick, but it may not include quality writing, quality software, grading quality products.

Clayton: You use the specific word that managers are working with. They’re not managing people. In an ideal Agile organization or one that has adapted Agile and they’re utilizing their managers effectively, what does the managers’ day‑to‑day role look like?

Roy: Does it have anything to do with what they learned in business school?

Esther: Probably not.


The Real Power of Managers

Esther: Well, I think the real power for managers and the real value they can bring to the organization is working across the organization and not just with one functional group or one team but understanding the organization as a system, removing impediments, and reducing the friction there is in almost every organization to getting quality products out the door.

Lean tells us something about that, and systems thinking tells us something about that. A3 thinking tells us something about that, about really understanding what the underlying issues are in an organization and digging deep to understand what the causes are because there’s usually more than one cause and they’re entangled.

Then based on deep knowledge choosing action to improve the situation. There’s less impedance for people doing the hard work of writing software.

Hierarchical Management Model

Drew: Do you still see management as the same type of hierarchical model that it is now where you have managers above the teams, then managers above the managers, and then you have to go like six or seven or however many deep before you actually get to the top? Or is it more flat? Or how does that work?

Esther: [laughs] Well, I think that is the dominant model of how people think about organizations and how people think about getting work done is through cascading goals that flow down from the top, and everybody has their objectives. We’ve known for decades that that doesn’t actually work very well, but that is the predominant model. I think it’s very possible to have an organization that functions very well without so many levels of hierarchy.

For example, my husband works for a company where they are extremely flat. I mean they do have a level called vice president because those are people who are considered officers of the company and can sign contractual agreements committing this company to projects and so forth.

But beyond that their teams are all self‑selecting, and nobody has a manager per se. They have a coach who they meet with and who helps them develop their professional career. I don’t think it has to be a hierarchy to be effective, but that is the model that most people are familiar with. That’s the default that people go to when their company grows beyond a couple handfuls of people.

Clayton: You’d hinted at the beginning about maybe the Agile community doing themselves a disservice by adopting the mantra of “Fire all the managers.” What do you think that would mean we could do different, or how can we rectify that so that we get a little more realistic? I think people have found out that you can’t just fire everybody.

What can we do to bring the discussion of management and management’s new role into the fold and turn that into something that’s part of what everyone thinks or maybe newcomers think about Agile?

Esther: Oh, I think part of it is recognizing that these are people who are worthy of respect. They’re intelligent, and they do have something to offer the organization although it may be something different from what they’re doing now because once we start treating people like they’re idiots or like they don’t have value, then people respond in a fairly predictable way by trying to hold onto what they have.

They try to hold onto their self‑respect. They try to hold onto the value they bring. They try to hold onto their position. I think really meeting people where they are and treating them like, “Yes, you do have something valuable to offer” is a good starting point.

Steps To Better Management

Clayton: If I’m a manager that’s listening to this podcast and maybe I’m becoming self‑aware to some degree that I’m not helping my teams. I’m not empowering them as much as I could, whatever. Is there anything that you would recommend that someone in that position do that they could probably do starting tomorrow that you think would make an impact and would help them become a better manager in that environment?

Esther: I think one of the first things that’s helpful for managers to do is to get clear with the team about what decisions belong with the team, what decisions are shared decisions, and what decisions stay with the manager. Typically the pile that goes to the team is the biggest pile of decisions, but then the money has to go with that.

For example, if you tell the team, “Well, you’re responsible for your own professional development, so sign up for the training that you think you need,” but then you require them to come on bended knee, fill out a form, get permission, and have to go through an approval process, that sends a very contradictory message.

Be clear about where the decisions lie, but also have the authority to make those decisions and carry them out. Go to the team where appropriate. I think training is one that can very often go to the team. I think teams should absolutely be involved in any decisions about who joins the team.

I know, of course, the manager has to do the legal stuff there because it is a legal agreement for employment, so that’s a shared decision. Then be clear of the ones that stay with the manager because that’s one of the things where I see a lot of managers and teams get at cross‑purposes, is where the team believes that they have been delegated decision authority and the manager has a different belief about that.

The team goes and makes the decision, and then the manager says, “Oh, no. That’s wrong. That’s my decision.” It damages trust.

Team Empowerment Mixed Signals

Clayton: It sends the wrong message, right?

Esther: Pardon?

Clayton: It sends the wrong message, right?

Esther: Right, exactly.

Clayton: On the one hand you tell them to be self‑organizing. Then when they do, you whip them back, right?

Esther: Right and say, “You’re empowered and you’re self‑organizing but up until the time you do something that isn’t what I would have done.” That leads to caution. It leads to distrust. It leads to a team that’s risk‑averse.

Clayton: It’ll probably lead towards a more homogenous organization to where only the people that think like‑minded are able to stay within the team.

Esther: Right, right, right. I heard a really interesting talk last week when I was in Norway by a guy named Fred George. He works for a team that actually doesn’t have managers, and it’s a small company so they’re able to do that. But they don’t have managers. When this particular team decided that they needed to rewrite a particular piece of software, they didn’t have to get anybody’s permission.

They just said, “Technically, and in terms of the functioning of this software, this is what we absolutely need to do.” Then they weren’t quite happy with it, so they rewrote it in another language.

That’s a situation when most managers wouldn’t have said, “OK, go ahead and rewrite it twice.” But that’s a very, very mature team, and they have a lot of conditions in that company that make it possible for them to function that way.

Clayton: When you talk about what managers can do, how about on the other side? You touched on it a little bit. If I am in an organization or I’m part of an organization where there is a hierarchy and it’s not as flat as maybe you’d like it, what can the developers do or the people who make the products do to help empower the managers to help the managers be more like working with as opposed to commanding them?

Esther: Well, I think anytime you want a partnership, you have to be able to talk in the language that your partner understands, and this is true of any kind of partnership. You can’t just talk in the terms that are comfortable and familiar to you.

I think one of the things that developers, testers, and all of the people involved in writing software can do is learn how to state their case in language that the managers care about and can hook into because particularly if someone hasn’t written code recently, and that happens in many organizations, telling them something purely in technical terms won’t convey the information that will help them be your partner.

Learning how to frame things in a language that makes sense to managers, that they can click into, and that they can then take forward in a way that makes the case that the managers above them care about I think is an important skill. It’s an influence skill essentially.

Differences Between Generations

Clayton: Do you think that there’s anything to be said for…as far as the way management goes now, if it’s anything about a generational thing? Obviously, if you go take an average organization, the management is probably going to be between some age and some age. Do you think that there is anything that they grew up or they went to school, and there’s a certain way they do things? That’s how they’ve adapted that’s how they work?

Do you think that’s going to change maybe say 20, 30 years from now that maybe people that are going to be in management roles might have a different outlook? Or is that just the nature of the people that get promoted whether they want to or not into a management role?

Esther: That’s a really interesting question because I think sometimes it’s easy to sound critical of individual managers, but it’s actually the whole, as you are alluding to, system of management that predominates in most organizations. It’s a model that actually hasn’t been around forever. It’s only been around for several decades, but it’s very, very entrenched. It’s that hierarchical bureaucracy.

Since that’s the only model that many people have seen or experienced, it’s sometimes hard for them to imagine something different. Right now I think most of our schools are teaching that, so…

Clayton: Well, it seems like the schools and the organizations. If you’re the elite developer and you’re learning how to be a manager, you’re pretty much going to learn that from whatever your manager’s doing now. It just seems like it’s going to perpetuate itself.

Esther: Yeah.

Roy: People from that generation are the ones that are teaching the next generation of students, too, so it’s like self‑feedbacking.

Clayton: Right. Yeah, it seems like it’s going that way.

Esther: I’m not sure it’s generational because I’m probably older than a lot of the managers out there, and I don’t think that way.

Clayton: Sure, that’s true. Yeah.

Esther: I think it is a matter of perspective and that if you’ve only been exposed to one model it’s sometimes very difficult to believe another model will work, and particularly if your beliefs are that you have to push people to get them to work, and if you’re not on top of them all the time, they’re not going to work very hard.

That’s a self‑reinforcing belief because people will work under those conditions mostly to…you’ve reduced the pressure and the stress not out of love of work or great, great products. But when managers who have that kind of mindset let up, people pause and they take a breath. That reinforces the manager’s belief that, “See? If I’m not on them all the time, they’ll slack off.”

It’s a hard nut to crack because it is, as you pointed out, a self‑perpetuating system on a number of different levels. But there are some companies that are making choices not to go the route of that sort of hierarchy and that model of management.

Clayton: Well, I think we’ve reached our time box here so I…

Esther: [sighs] But this is such a fascinating subject to talk about in the rest of the evening.

Clayton: Well, I did want to ask if I’m listening to the podcast and I wanted to find out more about you, books you’ve written, or maybe conferences you’ll be at, what could I do?

Esther: Well, you can always visit my website I think the one of the things I’m most excited about this summer is the PSL Workshop that is coming up in August. We did one in May, and we had so many people who were on the waiting list that we decided to do another one. This is a workshop I do with Jerry Weinberg and Johanna Rothman.

I think this is excellent training for anyone who’s a leader at any level in an organization, and that means everybody. But I think for managers who want to think about organizations in a different way and hone their skills as leaders and see some different ways to help people be effective, that would be an excellent workshop.

Clayton: Great. Well, we really appreciate you joining us today. It was a real pleasure.

Esther: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Clayton: As always, we like to invite anyone that’s listening to check out the Agile Weekly fan page on Facebook, where you can continue this conversation and other conversations from our other episodes. We wanted again to say thanks.

Esther: Well, I really appreciate the invitation. It’s been delightful talking with you guys.

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