Agile Coach (CSM, CSP)
How an agile transformation can be the key to
becoming a great manager
I’m sure there are managers here who have received an email from their exec team
that proclaims: “We are going agile! We’re restructuring the department into small,
self-organizing, cross functional teams. Each team will have a Product Owner who will
prioritize the work, and a Scrum Master who will make sure we’re working well. We’ll be
announcing all of this at a company-wide meeting this Friday!"
At this point, you might feel a little worried “Hey, that’s my job! What do I do now? Should
I start working on my resume? WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?!"
While many companies will initially make mistakes in trying to address these concerns,
the ones that truly succeed in their transformations have managers who share some
common shifts in focus.
And while that might sound scary to a manager, I would argue that there’s nothing to
be afraid of. In fact, just as it says there, an agile transformation can actually be the
key to you becoming a great manager!
Hyper Global Systems Inc.
Dev ManagerQA Manager
● I want to introduce you to a company, lets call them… Hyper Global Systems
Inc. (that’s a made up name… this photo is actually of employees of an airport
in Brussels, but… let’s pretend they’re a software company)
● A little while ago, I was put in contact with the VP of HR at this company.
● They mentioned they were going through an agile transformation, and being in
HR, they wanted to ask me about how similar transformations have impacted
the people who worked at the companies I’ve worked with
● So, i went into my spiel. You’ll have Self organizing teams, focus on
collaboration and introspection… bla bla bla.
● Finally, she stopped me, and asked “So… what do the MANAGERS do in all
Hyper Global Systems Inc.
Dev ManagerQA Manager
● When she said that, I paused and started asking questions about their journey
● I quickly found out that they were pretty early in their transformative journey,
and had already made some common mistakes along the way… They did
what many companies do early in their transformation… They sent all the
managers out to get their Certified Scrum Master certification
● And actually, I think this is great, I always recommend this to managers… it
helps them understand how to work with teams, and it establishes a baseline
vocabulary for them to communicate in this new agile world. All positive.
● But then, they took it too far...
Hyper Global Systems Inc.
● Do you see the difference?
● When they all came back from the training, what happened? That’s right...
they were told “Guess what? you are now Scrum Masters... on top of being
managers… Add that to your list of responsibilities!”
● Big mistake. Big time. First, let’s look at this from the manager’s perspective,
because they probably aren’t thrilled about it...
“I didn’t ask to ‘Go Agile’, why am I being
asked to be the Scrum Master?”
“I’ve had a whopping 2 days of Scrum Master
“My friend’s company went through this, and
it was miserable, so he quit!”
● “I didn’t ask to ‘Go Agile’, why am I being asked to be the Scrum Master?”
● “I’ve had a whopping 2 days of Scrum Master training”
● “My friend’s company went through this, and it was miserable, so he quit!”
these are all real, valid concerns. And yet, we do it anyway.
Why do Companies Keep Doing This??
● Managers are leaders anyway
● Seems simple enough…
● Bad advice
● WHY do companies do this?
● To be honest… I kind of understand why it’s so tempting
● Execs read about the importance of Servant Leadership in agile, and it’s easy
to make a connection between that and the leaders they have put in
● It seems simple enough… it really does sound like maybe this is just a little
extra work they can do for us! It only took two days to get certified, so how
hard can it be?
● And of course, in some cases, companies pay a lot of money for consultants
and just get bad advice. It happens.
Best Case Scenario
But let’s say that’s the route you go… let’s talk about the Best case scenario. Here’s
what you might expect if you simply ask your managers to be the scrum master, in
addition to their other responsibilities… and everything actually works.
Best Case Scenario: Your manager/Scrum Master is able to implement some of the
basic mechanics of scrum… Daily Stand ups, Planning, etc. So maybe things actually
If you are lucky, it will look something like this: that is, the team will quickly improve a
little bit. And if you’re REALLY lucky, they may even maintain those levels for a little
while. Probably not, but it’s in the realm of possibility
The More Likely Scenario...
Here’s what’s more likely to happen
● Confused, stressed out, managers who are even MORE busy than they were
● Now they have to do manager stuff (hiring, firing, performance reviews if
you’re company is still doing those, etc), but they also have to run sprint
planning, generate burn up charts, make sure standups are happening,
and yes… even run the retrospectives!
● And when the manager is running the retrospective, well...
Let’s pause for a second here.
Are there any managers here? People who have direct reports? I bet you all can’t see
it can you? This looks like a blank slide I bet, right? That’s weird... Luckily, I have a
special filter in my computer machine that will let you see things that only your direct
reports can see...
● It’s a(n invisible) gun. Or at least, it’s invisible to you. You carry this around all
day at work and you don’t even realize it.
● Of course you don’t mean to harm anyone, and you genuinely only want to
help your teams.
● But at least some of your people are going to see it. For some people, it might
be all they CAN see when you walk into the room
● After all, you are the person responsible for hiring, firing, promoting and all
that. So, teams are afraid to open up and be honest about what’s holding them
● So what kind of effect do you think this is going to have on the team’s
retrospective? If the Scrum Master is also The Boss, you might get something
like this… Which is to say… not much feedback!
● We can see a couple action items in there maybe, but they’re probably around
pretty ‘safe’ topics. “a couple tests are failing, we should fix those”, etc.
nothing really big and meaty.
● Also note the “Happiness Rating” on the top right. Literally everyone in the
room avoided taking a stand one way or another. Everything is ‘fine’. Not too
happy, because then the boss might think I’m slacking. And not too sad
because then the boss might start asking questions...
I had an instance once where the manager was insistent on always attending the
retro. Now, in this case, he wasn’t even the Scrum Master, I was doing that. So he
wasn’t even facilitating the meeting, he was just participating… more like observing.
And sure enough, these were the kinds of retrospective meetings we were having.
Not very useful. I finally wore him down and got him to agree to only come to every
second retrospective, just to experiment and see how the team might react. And what
do you think happened?
...something more like this! Flip back so you can see the difference. I mean, i feel like
I’m selling something here, but really, look at the sheer quantity of feedback. I had to
blur out the content of course, but I have to tell you, there was some very, very frank
Also note the range in what people put down as their Happiness Rating for the sprint.
People are actually saying “Hey, something is really not right here, and I want us to
do something about it!”. Others were also willing to admit they were happier, which is
● So this is another way of looking at it, perhaps a different angle: what I’m
talking about here is impartiality. Whether you have Scrum Masters or Agile
Coaches - coaching is a big part of that job. And in order to be effective as a
coach, you absolutely must be impartial.
● It’s immeasurably more difficult to coach someone when you have a dog in the
fight. If anyone here was at the TechLeadTO meeting a couple month back,
they had a panel of 3 certified coaches (of the Co-Active variety), they had
very strong opinions that managers generally can’t be very effective
coaches… of course they’re probably a little biased themselves in saying that,
but I think it holds up.
● Why is this such a big deal? As a manager, there’s a good chance that you
are being evaluated by the performance of your reports. So what does that
○ Your incentives don’t necessarily line up with what’s best for your
○ Again, you probably have nothing but the best intentions in the world,
but you will always feel those forces.
● An example that stands out to me is a situation where you have a solid A+
performer who reports to you. One of those imaginary 10x developers you
keep hearing about. That makes you look good. That makes your department
look good. It makes YOUR boss happy.
● But maybe your A+ performer has outgrown their current role and is feeling
kind of stuck. As a manager, it’s going to be hard for you to accept that and
help them discover that, maybe, they need to move on to a different area of
● Or maybe, just maybe, they even need to leave the organization all together.
● An impartial coach or scrum master will help that A+ performer to understand
their place in the world, and help them express what they actually need. And
the health of your team just might depend on it because that 10x developer,
absent sufficient challenge, is probably going to become unhappy or even
disgruntled at some point, and that will permeate through the whole team.
● Ok so, so far this whole “Don’t make the managers be the scrum masters”
segment has been just me talking from my own personal experiences. So I
also wanted to share this with you:
● The invisible gun concept isn’t a new idea. I first learned about it from Michael
James, who was the trainer during my CSM course. By sheer coincidence, he
tweeted this out just a few days ago.
● Some quick background: When Michael runs his class, he asks his students to
fill out this form - basically asking his students to think about any
organizational impediments they’re able to perceive at their workplace. He
starts by asking them to describe the surface issue.
● In this case, the person wrote that his boss was not only on his team, but that
he was also the Scrum Master. He sees this as a problem.
● Now, in this person’s opinion, there’s likely a massive negative impact to the
business. He’s worried that his scrum team will straight up FAIL. meaning
product will not get delivered. Game Over.
● Perhaps even more devastating though is the Emotional Impact he feels
because of this: That he won’t EVER feel safe in his team. Can you imagine
that? Imagine spending 8 or more hours of every day in an environment where
you simply don’t feel safe? How productive do you think you would be? How
long do you think it will be before you to realize that you need to quit? Just
● My favourite part of this is the last question, where the student is asked to
● make a clear, actionable request that would solve the problem. It’s so simple
and obvious to this person: His boss is actually a developer. so if he’s on the
team, he should ‘just’ be a developer. So simple. Problem solved.
And so when you take this all into account, with the Manager as the SM, eventually
teams hit a wall. Without that experienced, passionate and impartial facilitator, they
can’t really improve any more. And in my experience, teams are usually in one of two
states: getting better, or getting worse.
Hyper Global Systems Inc.
● Make the PO the Scrum Master
● Make the Tech Lead the Scrum Master
● Fire all the managers!
● That was a pretty deep dive into one mistake that companies often make…
Let’s quickly touch on a few more:
● Make the PO the Scrum Master
○ If your Product Owner has time to also be a scrum master, she
probably isn’t REALLY the product owner. She is probably acting more
like a ProJECT manager, acting on business decisions made by
others. Instead, as an org, its better to focus on getting your Product
Owners to actually OWN the product. And they wont be able to do that
if they’re also the scrum master. Full stop.
● Make the Team Lead or Tech Lead the Scrum Master
○ So I have to admit… I’ve actually seen this work, once. BUT, for it to
work, It really needs to be more of a transition to the role of SM, as
opposed to ‘some extra workload’. I suppose the same could be said
for managers actually, but again, only if they are actually shedding their
previous role to focus on Scrum Mastering. I don’t know many
managers who would do that...
● Fire all the managers!!
○ This one is a little more extreme, but worth mentioning, especially with
the advent of holacracy and #NoManagers and all that. Personally, I
feel like this would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater
○ As I will talk about next, Managers can actually take on a new, highly
impactful role in their new agile world… I think there is a huge role for
Hyper Global Systems Inc.
● Ok, let’s get back to our pretend company…
● To the credit of their leadership, they recognized what was going on.
● After that initial bump, they saw that their teams either leveled off or regressed
● And so, they decided they needed a little bit of separation between church and
state… I thought that was an interesting way to put it!
● At the time of my conversation with their HR leader, they were actually starting
the process of hiring full time, dedicated Scrum Masters. Great!!
SO, her question remained… What can the managers actually DO in all of this??
My response to her was to think about what her organization's vision of a successful
transformation would look like, and in that vision, what are all the things that, in an
ideal world, Managers would NO LONGER be responsible for? And maybe lets use
that as a starting point...
● Prioritizing the work (that’s the
Product Owner’s job now)
● Breaking down the work (that’s the
team’s job now)
● “Line Management” (team’s job)
● Designing technical solutions
● Determining & enforcing process
(again, team’s job!)
● Dealing with interpersonal conflicts
(Maybe not right away)
Freedom! By which I mean, freedom from all this stuff that the managers had been
doing up untill now!
● Prioritizing the work (that’s the Product Owner’s job now, with help from the
a. In Agile or Scrum, teams work on delivering small chunks of value
every sprint. It’s up to the Product Owner to prioritize the highest
valued chunk to deliver next - and that’s true if you’re working on a
larger project, or if you’ve evolved beyond thinking of things in terms of
● Breaking down the work (that’s the team’s job now)
a. In a traditional org, the manager might work with a proJECT manager
to define all the tasks of a project up front, add them to the Gantt Chart
of Lies, and hand those to the team.
b. Not so in agile. While the Product Owner owns prioritization, the team
as a whole owns breaking down the work. That could mean helping the
PO re-prioritize, but it also means things like determining what tasks
should be done in order to deliver a chunk of value (or user story).
● Typical “Line Management” activities like doling out specific tasks to specific
people (that’s the team’s job)
a. So, the PO prioritizes, and the team breaks down the tasks. It really
wouldn’t make sense to inject the manager at this point to hand out
a. tasks now, would it?
b. Instead, team members volunteer for tasks. Sometimes this happens
during sprint planning, but sometimes not. Team members can
volunteer for tasks over the course of the sprint, always communicating
the the team and the PO to ensure they’re always working on the
highest priority item
● Designing Technical solutions
a. Managers in agile don’t dictate solutions. I feel like for managers who
started out as developers, this is the hardest one to let go of. But really,
they should be helping the teams uncover problems to solve. Solutions
and architecting - that’s all the team’s doing: including decisions about
the tech stack!
● Determining & enforcing process (again, team’s job! Although enforcing
isn’t the right word for what the team does, but you get the idea)
a. Hopefully this is an obvious one. The whole reason you’re going
through a transformation is that rigidly defined and prescribed
processes are not working for you company.
b. As a manager, it’s really hard to let go of this one, because “knowing
the right way to do things” might be part of the reason you were
promoted in the first place. But It’s a fools errand. Let the teams figure
out how to work in the right way (but maybe be available to offer help)
● Dealing with interpersonal conflicts (it may take a while, but as teams
mature and learn how to live the Agile values, they will become self-healing)
a. Some teams will get here sooner than others, and it’s hard to
determine when a team may have reached this point
b. But, as your teams mature, look for opportunities to allow them to
self-heal. When issues are escalated to you (“Jim is really pissing me
off!”), help them understand how to address the issue themselves. Or,
better yet, if you have skilled scrum masters and facilitators within the
team, redirect to those people. Pretty soon you’ll find that you’re no
longer needed to be the referee
So that’s a lot of stuff that just got cleared off your plate...
Flipping the Pyramid!!
And what does that all get you? Opportunity! Aside from hopefully learning more
about agility, and advocating for agile principles, I think great managers would
seize the opportunity to focus on areas that traditionally get dropped in favour of
the typical command and control management tasks:
● Actual personal and professional development
● Shaping the environment
● Shaping the teams
● Eradicating impediments
● Generally flipping the pyramid, which i’ll explain
Personal development & growth
● This is really my #1 pet peeve with most middle managers, especially in
○ They’re constantly “having a really crazy week”, and that’s given as a
valid reason for neglecting their people: Cancelling 1-on-1s, not
responding to requests, etc..
○ I admit, these are things even i used to do as a middle manager, and it
doesn’t feel good.
● Well, if your company’s transformation is going well, guess what? You now
have time for all that stuff!
○ Not only can you have more frequent formal and informal 1-on-1’s, but
the conversations you have with people can be much more valuable
○ You can have above water talks with people, where you peak your
head up and look beyond the day to day work, and help them explore
opportunities for growth and setting personal goals
○ You don’t need a detailed status report from each person anymore,
because you’re evaluating these things at the TEAM level now (that is,
if you’re evaluating these things at all!)
○ You can spend time with your people, in order to gain a better
understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, so that you can
place them in positions where success is more likely
○ One thing i’d REALLY suggest is you use some of your time to run
book clubs at work - and actually read during office hours.
○ Your people will pick up on the fact that self-improvement is
encouraged at work.
○ Some of the best advice I ever received from a manager was that it’s
OK to read at work. Personally, having that level of trust from my
manager had a huge impact on my ability to grow in my role.
○ Doing all this, you’re really employing a mix of coaching and mentoring,
and you are going to have a much more positive impact on them… and
in turn, the company at large
● A lot of this stuff isn’t really revolutionary anymore. Speaking of books and
book clubs, If you’ve read Marcus Buckingam’s “First, Break All The Rules”,
it’s all in there.
○ the book is 17 years old.
○ It’s amazing how many managers have read this and other books, and
then never have the time or agency to actually BE a great manager. It’s
a shame really!
● I would certainly hope that one aim of any agile transformation would be to
empower the managers to actually put into practice what they know are good
Shaping the Environment
● One improvement afforded you by a progressive transformation is the gift of
time to think and act.
● You can think about things like floorplans, and seating arangements
● Find out if your teams need more whiteboard space, and work with facilities to
improve the team’s workspaces.
● When you see an opportunity to improve the environment, you have the time
you need to convince others
a. perhaps you still need to build a strong business case for “buying
everyone new, better chairs”, but at least now you have the time to do
● You can spend time with your coaches and scrum masters to help design
exercises that will help the teams come up with a set of shared values that will
guide them towards high-performance
● You even have the freedom to plan for and promote innovation and
breakthroughs by introducing and organizing hackathons, and focus on
fostering a culture of innovation
Shaping the teams
● In traditional organizations, managers need to ensure their reports are 100%
utilized at all times. It doesn’t matter which team or teams or how many
projects they are juggling. Just keep em busy!
● In agile, this isn’t a concern. You can instead focus on ensuring that your
reports are on the right team and working on the right project.
● That means ensuring their skills complement those of their teammates and
● Mike Cohn talked about the ‘subtle control’ of management in an agile
environment, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of this
● As your organization continues to transform, you can also make it a goal to
help your reports learn how to select their own team mates. Now, you’re not
even bogged down by pesky things like recruiting and interviewing!
Eradicating Impediments (or removing roadblocks)
● Agile has the pesky habit of exposing all kinds of problems, at all levels of the
organization - and you may have some level of control or influence over these.
● Now that you -the manager- have access to a list of these problems, you can
begin the work of the servant leader in knocking down roadblocks for you
● Your Scrum Master or Agile Coach is probably providing a steady stream of
impediments, and they will work tirelessly with you to remove them
● But at the end of the day, you’re still the manager. They NEED you be a part
of the solution. And now you have the visibility you need to understand the
problems, and the time and space you need to do something about them!
Flipping the pyramid
Ardita mentioned this at a meet up recently, and it really hit home for me.
● This is what your traditional org looks like, right? Top down, pyramid hierarchy,
● The people in the teams at the bottom are working to make the managers in
the middle look good, so that the execs at the top stay happy.
● The Managers in the middle are completely squeezed. Pyramids don’t grow.
This is what a successful transformation does, it flips the pyramid,
● so that it’s the teams who are at the top, being supported by the management
● This is what servant leadership looks like.
● Basically, to stretch the metaphor a little bit here: The sky's the limit. And now
that you’re not burdened by all that silly top-down, command and control
nonsense, you can actually nurture your teams and help them grow and
achieve their goals.
● I want to leave you all with one thought.To me, the word here is ‘Caring’. I
think that’s really what this boils down to
● A healthy agile transformation will allow you to CARE for your reports, in a way
that previously was not possible
● Of course there are still going to be a million things to do; hiring, promoting,
budgeting, applying for grants, approving vacation requests… These things
won’t all go away on day one of your transformation
● But, even a marginally successful transformation will give you the space you
need to care for your people.