What Can Management Do to Support Agile?

Everyone who tries to adopt Agile in their organization quickly realizes that the change extends beyond the team, project/program, and value stream. It affects management too. But how? More specifically, what should managers focus on to support the change to Agile?

I have a specific set of answers that I tend to give to managers (at any level) when they pose this question to me. And since telling managers what to do isn’t usually helpful, I frame my answers as perspectives. I try to build their awareness, expand their choices, and inform their decision-making — so that they are better able to lead the change they’re pursuing.

These perspectives are not necessarily about Agile, but you won’t have useful Agile without them. As you read the description of each, consider how it plays out in your organization and how you might bring it into conversation.

PAY A LOT OF ATTENTION TO YOUR PEOPLE

This perspective runs deeper than “stop referring to people as ’resources’.” It’s the observation that no matter what systems, processes, standards, or accountabilities you put in place, the value and quality of the work are limited by the workers’ motivation and the support they receive. The first order of business should be the creation and maintenance of an environment where those are not a problem.

LEAD WITH PURPOSE

Managers arrange for work to be done, which naturally involves a lot of “what” and “how.” Yet for all work, the more important question is “why.” Why do this project? What’s the vision? What does success look like? Is the purpose worth the investment and the opportunity cost? With a clear, explicit purpose you’ll do more of the right work and less of the wrong work. If your organization believes in empowerment, knowing the purpose will allow everybody to make the right decisions.

PREFER TRUST TO ACCOUNTABILITY

Managers want their people to do the work, and to do it well. How can they be sure that’s happening? For decades, we’ve had the familiar, expected, viable mechanism called “accountability.” But what if they focused more on shared understanding of purpose and value than on expectations and obligations? Built the relationship on trust, rather than on accountability? The potential upside to both parties is huge.

BE EXPLICIT ABOUT VALUES, AND HAVE ONLY A FEW

Cultures are characterized by values: what’s important to their people. In addition, any given work has values, such as “deliver early and frequently” or “get it right the first time.” The values influence the design of systems, interactions, practices, roles, relationships, and so on. Senior management is responsible for setting those values, establishing the systems and habits that reflect them, and reinforcing them at all times. And the list of values must be short, or it will breed contradictions.

ARTICULATE ALL ASSUMPTIONS

“What will our group need to produce two years from now?” “What will the competitive landscape look like?” “Which technologies will we keep?” “What’s the best way to get more business?” The answers to these and similar questions are all assumptions, and their effect on decisions made now is huge. Like purpose and values, these assumptions must be visible and shared by all. Otherwise, you can be sure that people will work at cross-purposes.

CONTROL THE COST OF CHANGE OR IT WILL KILL YOUR BEST-LAID PLANS

Your team can be quite efficient at delivering value. But along the way and after they’re done, potential changes may present themselves: new ideas, important feedback from the field, assumptions proven wrong, a change in business direction, and more. You must prepare for likely changes early, specifically by ensuring their cost is low. Otherwise, your present efficiency will compromise your future ability to do business. (Ever spent months delaying features while building a new platform, only to re-architect it a few months later? That’s a common example.)

FOCUS ON MAKING A DIFFERENCE, NOT ON BUSY-NESS

When there’s a lot of work to do (and labour costs are high), managers are likely to maximize work assignments until everyone is “fully loaded.” This happens even when workers are in cross-functional teams and using backlogs and sprints. The consequences are the same in both cases: delays, degraded quality, burnout, and limited responsiveness. To avoid these consequences, management must ruthlessly prioritize and defer work — defending the choice of what NOT to do yet — so teams can finish what they start.

If you regularly keep up with modern management theory or the conversations in the Lean and Agile communities, you might think all this is obvious and already widespread. In my experience, though, it’s neither. If you’re supporting change in your organization, use every opportunity you get to raise these matters in conversations with your management.

 

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