Between a rock and a hard place – The managers in an agile transition
I bumped into Steven last week. Steven is director of application development in a large organization and like most manager in his early forty’s, he looked tired and although he is usually a happy individual, his smile wasn’t radiant this time.
In agreement with his teams, Steven initiated an Agile transition a few months ago. I was part of the team who presented to Steven the benefits of a transition and the impact on the team members and their managers. I saw Steven again in a group training I was giving a few weeks after the beginning of the transition to managers and executives. That time again, Steven was very excited and motivated about what he was hearing, except that during the training I could see the light bulbs over his head and in the questions Steven was asking – how is this going to impact my role as a manager? Steven saw the obvious benefits and understood some of the changes he would need to make to his leadership style but I could tell, it hadn’t fully sinked in.
So here we were, less than 3 months in the transition and Steven wasn’t as chipper as he used to be…
- Me: “Hey, Steven. You look tired. How are you doing?”
- Steven: “I’m OK… I’m tired… [silence] The transition is killing me!”
- Me: “How so?” [I asked anticipating what he would tell me next]
- Steven: “The team is having a blast and I can see their performance has increased compared to the past but I don’t think I can cope with this new approach”
- Me: “You seemed so excited about the transition when we started. What changed?”
- Steven: “I now realize what you meant when you talked about changing my leadership style and my role. I’m still up to the challenge but my boss is totally clueless about all of this”
- Me: “What do you mean? Haven’t you brought him in the loop from the beginning?”
- Steven: “Yes. Yes, I have but that’s not the problem. The team’s performance increase is directly linked to the new approach they have been using and the fact that I leave them a lot of autonomy but my boss still asks me to behave like I used to – like he manages his team today. That’s where it hurts the most. I can pretty much deal with everything else but I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place”
Unfortunately, we (as consultants) do not do such a good job at highlighting this fact before we begin a transition. We work closely with the teams to help them adopt better methods and practices, to increase their overall performance by allowing them to be self-organized. We work on getting the teams to a highly performing level. Then we go get executive sponsorship to secure the initiative (and the budget) and make sure we get support to handle difficult issues but what about the people in the middle?
We develop training programs for Agile managers and we support them with organizational coaching but we don’t do such a good job at telling them upfront how much pressure they will be under once the transition begins. How much their role is likely to change and their leadership style needs to be adapted to the new reality.
For those who haven’t yet have felt the pressure, here are some examples of what to expect:
- You may be willing to trust your team and let them self-organize but is your boss in agreement with this new approach? Will he be as involved (micro-managing) in your activities as he used to be? And more importantly, will he be expecting you to be as involved with your team as you used to be?
- You may be willing to tolerate mistakes in order to increase your team’s learning and with a strategic perspective to increase long term performance but will you hear about your inabilities to control your team during your next performance review?
- You already produce status reports, dashboards, emails and others information to keep everyone (including your boss) informed of what is going on in your unit. Will you need to translate everything that the Agile team is producing to fit the traditional reporting mechanisms? Can you challenge what information is currently being produced to ensure it does bring value to people?
- You expect your team members to handle the details of their activities and you believe in actually seeing (touching, feeling) the end results while your management team expects you to assess progress using Gantt charts. Do you need to educate your entire organization to the new approach? Does the fact that you are adopting Agile make you the evangelist for the entire organization?
Obviously, I don’t mean to scare anyone – especially the managers – with regards to adopting Agile. The approach has a lot of merit and value for many organizations but in order to help with adoption, coaches and consultants need to pay attention to the people in the middle and help them find their new place, otherwise we are very likely to find serious resistance and potential failure of such initiatives – nobody likes to be stuck between a rock and a hard place…