Stop Asking Managers to Stop Managing

“You can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their playlist”

– Mark Ruffalo.

Do you have agile managers?

There’s an uneasiness in the Agile cosmos.

I feel it every time I see the tentative look on the faces of managers supporting Agile ways of working.

  • Most times, a “deer in the headlights” look
  • Sometimes, a “sheepish guilty” look
  • Other times, an “angry, frustrated” look

You have agile teams. Great!

Do you have agile managers? And how do you know?

Here are some hypothetical answers. Which one do you like?

“No. Our managers haven’t changed. They still command and control.”

“Yes. Our managers don’t manage anymore, they lead.”

“No. Our teams manage themselves. I’m not sure what our managers do now.”

“Well yes, our managers have become servant leaders.”

“I don’t know. Our manager has been hands off ever since we started Scrum.” 

“Yes. They went on Agile leadership training.”

“No. We don’t have agile managers; we have agile leaders.” 

“I’m not sure. What’s an agile manager?”

If you answered the last one, that’s the one I like too.

I feel people too often associate “agile manager” with Agile, the noun. Anchoring our thinking exclusively to Agile ways of working. Prescribing what an agile manager should be or do. Or how an agile manager should behave. Often in vague, unclear language.

A Google of “agile manager” returned the following,

“The agile manager is someone who realizes management tasks, that aren’t done by the team itself.” (Barry Overeem)

“In this [Agile] world, the work of a traditional midlevel manager is reallocated to three different roles: the chapter leader, the tribe leader, and the squad leader.” (McKinsey)

The Agile Manager is a caretaker of the human system and helps the organization” (SolutionsIQ)

What if we were to associate agile manager with agile, the adjective?

A Merriam-Webster definition of the adjective agile is as follows,

Having a quick resourceful and adaptable character”

The key words “quick”, “resourceful” and “adaptable” jump out at me. Simple, agnostic words that imply more about the manager than their environment. An opportunity to start defining what an agile manager means through the lens of each individual manager.

Why does the distinction matter?

For one, it pains me to see good managers second guess themselves. Having convened a “come-to-Jesus” meeting with staff who deserve it, they feel guilty. Guilty for being less than patient and compassionate with their staff. Never mind all the other times they’ve bit their tongue to demonstrate their empathy and support. Their one transgression trumps all the other times.

I think they’re being too hard on themselves.

If only they could see their emotional bank account with their staff is still cashflow positive. They’re only human. Their staff will forgive them. Even appreciate their authenticity and vulnerability.

Which brings me to the second reason. Managers don’t have to choose between “manager” and “leader”. In the words of my good friend and colleague Drew Goddard,

It’s a false choice.

Two leadership models capture my feelings best.

  1. Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model where the leadership style varies and adapts to the readiness and state of the people and environment involved.
  2. John Kotter’s Both Management and Leadership model which advocates for a balanced coexistence between management and leadership behaviours depending on the needs.

I think Kotter best describes my sentiment when he states that management and leadership are not an “either”/ “or” paradigm. It’s a “both”/ “and” paradigm.

So, Managers: “You can have your cake and eat it too!”

You can be a leader and manage too.  You don’t have to give up managing to lead. After a while, you may not want another slice of that management cake. But in the meantime, you don’t have to stop managing cold turkey. It’s up to you how fast or slow you change your behaviours. Kanban’s first Litmus Test question is “Have managers changed their behaviour?” There’s no expectation on the magnitude of change. Change is not an overnight event. Like Kanban, it’s evolutionary.

If your management style were a playlist…

Let’s say your current management style is stuck on repeat with a “Golden Oldies” playlist. Morning, day and night, it’s all you listen to. Even when the music stops, the tracks are etched into your head, so you find yourself humming the tunes to yourself. Now let’s say Agile enters your world. How would you adapt? Would you crank up the volume on “Golden Oldies” or would you try another playlist? Here are some alternative playlists that come to mind.

  • Eat My Cake”: I want it all. Keep managing as I always have and take on all that new leader stuff – servant leader, Scrum master, player-coach. I can do it all!
  • Cold Turkey”: No more managing. It’s all about leading now. Visionary and exemplary leadership is where it’s at. I can switch on a dime. Today Manager, tomorrow Leader.
  • Head in the Sand”: I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Looks like much ado about nothing. They still need me.
  • Abandon Ship”: What I know and who I am are being threatened. People managing themselves will never work. I’m outta here!
  • Wait and See”: Be patient. Play along. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t jump to conclusions. See what makes sense.
  • Stay Calm and Carry On”: All the focus is on the teams. My job seems unchanged, so I’ll just keep trucking on.
  • Retreat, Retreat”: I’m out of my comfort zone. Feels very strange and awkward. Time to shrink back and focus on what I know.
  • Share”: The team wants to manage themselves?! It’s no longer all on my shoulders? I already feel lighter.

Management Playlists

Which playlists would you sample? Or would you build your own?

Picking an existing curated playlist may be quick and resourceful. But, how adaptable would that be? Especially if you’re looking for a mix and match of playlists or perhaps interested in hearing some leadership tracks.

So, perhaps you decide to build your own playlists. A management melody here, a leadership lyric there. Playlists are traditionally very personal. Building them has always been a solo activity.

What if you could change all that? Take a chance to adapt to your new surroundings. Fit your playlists to your unique circumstances. Ask your staff to help you build new playlists that everyone can enjoy. Management and leadership are no longer, and many would argue, never have been an individual sport. They are team sports. So, ask the team – your partner in the game to scrimmage with you. To give-and-go with you. To decide together how to carve up the management and leadership responsibilities between you and the team. Perhaps your new playlists will resemble some of the following,

  • “Together is better”
  • “Hello leadership, farewell management”
  • “This is learning”
  • “You’re not the only one”
  • “A new beginning”
  • “Under new management”
  • “Time to co-create”
  • “I care, you care, we all care”
  • “We all need a kick in the a&$ sometimes”
  • “This is us jamming”
  • “Trust, vulnerability and harmony”
  • “It’s ok to not know”
  • “Give us a chance to fail”

There is no prototypical agile manager.

Who you are as an agile manager will be the product of your interactions with your people.

Start building and refining your agile manager playlists with your people. Before long, you’ll develop a quick, resourceful and adaptable character.

You’ll be an agile manager.

2 thoughts on “Stop Asking Managers to Stop Managing

  1. Nice post DJ Funky Frank!! I still struggle with the term “agile manager”. History has taught me that it’s people usually looking for a golden oldies manager in an agile world. Perhaps “manager practicing in an agile environment” would fit better but is also a longer title. I think you have captured lots of possibilities and opportunities for managers to ponder here. Love the management playlists graphic 😀


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