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The lost leader: The role of management in agile

October 30, 2020

As a Manager, the day I heard we were transitioning to an Agile way of working left me excited and buzzing for the journey ahead. “Let's get started,” I said, without realizing the profound effect the transition was going to have on me. We have the Product Owner, we have the Development Team and we just hired a Scrum Master. Fantastic! I was ready to go.

My excitement started to wane somewhat when I realized I had a Scrum team up and running, but wasn’t really sure of my role as an agile manager. At the time, most of my research left men one the wiser.  The most common advice I received was, the manager should transition into a servant leader. At first, this statement did not resonate with me. It is only upon reflection several years later that I recognized the role of an agile manager is similar to that of a captain on an aircraft or ship; they support the performance of their crew and deal with emergencies if, and when they arise.

Getting Started

The Agile manager can adopt different approaches based on the needs of individuals and teams. A successful agile implementation needs an accumulation of many things.

A core building block is the establishment of leadership at multiple levels within the organization, and functional managers are key to driving the growth of these skills.

Shifting the Leadership Needle

Executives expect their managers to get results and often only focus on the numbers.

A common approach to achieve the desired results is to manage people’s actions.  It can work, but the drawback is that managers are always focused on day-to-day activity when they could, or should, be looking at the business horizon. It also rarely sticks. As soon as the manager turns their attention elsewhere, old habit patterns return.

The Results Pyramid tells a bigger story. If managers focus on delivering positive experiences for their teams and stakeholders, a leadership culture will emerge, and the results will follow.

Agile Management Responsibilities

Visionary Leadership

Visionary leaders articulate the overall direction and goal. Inspired people share a common goal. They communicate where they are going but not how they are going to get there, team members are empowered and trusted to figure that out.

Here are 7 stances to equip visionary leaders to help guide their teams on that journey.

Coaching for Development

A relationship that empowers an individual to realize their professional growth goals.

If you reward a behaviour, you get more of that behaviour. If you punish a behaviour, you get less of the behaviour you do not want, right?  Not so fast, Dan Pink (Drive) tells us that extrinsic motivators may only work temporarily, if at all.  If a manager can provide intrinsic motivators like purpose, mastery and autonomy, there will be a greater impact on motivation. Coaching for development starts with really listening to your team to understand individual motivators, knowing that the strongest motivators are likely purpose, mastery or autonomy.

Coaching for Performance

A relationship that seeks to continuously improve upon the work completed by individuals or groups.

Richard Hackman (Leading Teams) described four levels of authority a manager could delegate to teams.  The least delegated authority refers to manager-led teams who perform the work but do not have authority over its process.  A self-managing team owns its process. A self-designing team is given the additional authority to modify whois on the team. The most authority is a self-governing team, who can change the team’s main purpose.


Participants exchange observations without the fear of conflict emerging.

As shown inPatrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, absence of trust can reduce morale and team focus.  As a manager, one of the best signals to develop trust within a team is to show vulnerability.  This can be as easy as asking the team, “I need your help to make the right decision”.  The challenge for some managers is that showing vulnerability may not be what earned them their position. However, we cannot expect our teams to be open and vulnerable if we do not lead the way. Be vulnerable in your next meeting and see where it leads.

Role modelling

Setting an example for others by walking the walk, not just talking the talk.  A role model sets the exact standards for themselves as they expect from others. For example asking your team to be on time for a meeting, then you need to be on time.


Making it easier for people to achieve an outcome by leveraging their combined knowledge and experience.

A manager shift from boss to facilitator is a function of the leader's ability to create an open and safe environment that encourages honest dialogue without the fear of reprisal, to bring the team together to achieve their goals.


The acts of teaching or learning.

The difference between output and outcome, is the latter implies you have learned something about your customer.  John Cutler made it clear during a recent presentation (ProductTank Wellington NZ) that measuring to learn beats measuring to conform. Managers can play a role in establishing the cadence for this learning cycle with their teams.  What is it that you have learned about your customers and when was the last time you learned something new?


A relationship when somebody with more experience is paired with somebody with less experience with the goal of professional and personal development.

David Marquet (Leadership is Language) has introduced the concept of red and blue work.  In its simplest; red work relates to execution activities and blue work relates to decision making.  His point is that an organization should increase the number of people performing blue work to develop its leadership capability.  Managers play a key role in fulfilling this objective within their teams.

What are your experiences with managers in Agile? Are your approaches any different? Stories about the one that got away can often be the most helpful to others.

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?