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Posts tagged ‘agile management’

I don’t feel so good – I’m a people manager in an Agile organization

Image by Leonard John MatthewsAt the Agile 2010 Conference this week, out of the two hundred or so sessions presented, a number of them talked about the role of the manager in an Agile team. A few people believe managers are no longer necessary once the team has self-organized while others say people managers are still required. Either group failed to provide compelling arguments for their position.

The notion of self-organized teams keeps gaining visibility and acceptance. Those who have adopted the approach can’t stop talking about the benefits. At the same time, people realize that managers are unlikely to disappear from the organizational landscape anytime soon. In this context, it is with a mixed-feeling that Agilists talk about the role of the people manager in an agile organization – mostly as something not so useful but that the team needs to keep around in order to maintain their autonomy – something similar to the appendix.

The most common explanation for the appendix’s existence in humans is that it’s a vestigial structure which has lost its original function – source wikipedia

Then a few things happened.

First, I got to attend Michael Spayd‘s session called “Blueprint for an Agile Enterprise: Plans, Tools & Tech to Build a Human Enterprise”.

Want your whole organization to be more like an Agile team? Starting teams is well understood; expanding Agile to the organization is definitely not. Using 8 years experience applying organization development to Agile, we’ll unfold a 7 layer organizational architecture for building a human enterprise. Each level has an overall perspective, specific tools and key practices. Part tutorial, part demo, we’ll create a change plan for one participant’s organization, exploring culture, leadership, change, team performance, and management’s role. You’ll leave with a plan template and many ideas – source Agile 2010 Program

Then, I went to Damon Poole’s session called “Getting Managers and Agile Teams Out of Each Other’s Hair”.

One of the most talked about and least well understood concepts in Agile is the “self-managing” team. This session will provide a new perspective on self-management by examining the external roots of the practice and by taking a bottom-up look at what it is, the benefits, and how it works. We’ll see how twelve widely adopted Agile practices contribute to self-management by reducing and/or redistributing traditional management activities. These practices provide a framework for delegation, communication and coordination; and encourage team ownership, commitment and accountability – source Agile 2010 Program

Finally, I also attended Jim Highsmith session called “What do Agile Executives and Leaders Do?”

In some circles agile executives and leaders are admonished to buy pizza and get out of the way. In others they are asked to be supportive of self-organizing teams. But leading agile organizations requires more. There are specific activities that help build agile organizations that can weather business turbulence. This session will explore those activities that an agile leader or executive must “do,” including: revising performance measurements; facilitating self-organizing teams; developing strategies for operational, portfolio, and strategic agility; and assessing how agile to be source Agile 2010 Program

After the sessions, I sat in the lobby of the conference and read some of the blog feeds I subscribe to and came across these…

Obviously, something’s up!

The role of a traditional people manager

In many organizations and depending on their level, people managers are expected to plan, direct, organize and control (Deming‘s Plan-Do-Check-Act) – more specifically, the role of the manager is to:

  • Define the individual objectives
  • Assign work to team members
  • Determine priorities of the tasks
  • Monitor progress of the activities
  • Make decisions for the team
  • Get visibility into the work of the team
  • Mentor and train employees
  • Protect the team’s financial and human resources
  • Provide career development opportunities
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams
  • Motivate the team members
  • Communicate information

What self-organization removes from the equation

Once the concept of self-organized team is implemented, there are a few things that were traditionally the responsibility of the people manager that now fall on the team. The activities are:

  • Assigning work – team members now select their tasks instead of the manager
  • Determine priorities – team members now determine the order in which they should to complete their work
  • Monitor progress – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Make decision for the team – within the team, team members get to make their decisions
  • Get visibility into the work – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Mentor and train employees – when possible, team members may decide to implement a mentoring program within the team
  • Motivate – self-organized individuals are known to be more motivated than traditional teams, hence the reduced need for the people manager to retain this activity

So what is left for the people manager?

In order for the people managers to transform into Agile leaders and feel as part of the team, we already stated they need to modify their role. The agile manager will achieve higher level of performance and possibly increased personal job satisfaction by macro-managing – working with an increased perspective as opposed to getting into the details. As such, the activities the agile managers need to retain are to:

  • Define high level objectives for their team and department instead of focusing on the tasks
  • Determine priorities in the objectives of the team and department instead of the activities
  • Monitor progress toward achieving the objectives
  • Coach employees
  • Continue to protect the team’s resources
  • Support employees in their career development
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams

I realize that this type of transition is easier said than done but with the willingness to recapture an important role as part of the team and with some external help, the traditional managers don’t have to became extinct professionals.

Are you an Agile Leader? – Nine questions for people managers

Picture by angus mcdiarmidOne of the frequent obstacle encountered by project teams when transitioning to Agile is the resistance of their manager. When an executive declares that the organization is moving to Agile, many team members look forward to working differently – that is until their manager gets involved.

As an organizational coach, I often use a simple questionnaire to assess the level of agility of the managers I deal with. Below are nine questions to help determine how Agile the manager I’m talking to actually is.

Go ahead – try the short test.

True or False?

  1. To get the best results, it is preferable to properly control the activities of the team members
  2. A process that is not well defined at the outset will always give sub-optimal results
  3. To reduce the loss of productivity, it is preferable to isolate team members in cubicles and use email as the preferred a mode of communication
  4. A team of experts with specialized knowledge is always more efficient than a multi-disciplinary team
  5. The best tools and processes are those selected by the organization and standardized for all groups
  6. It is generally preferable to thoroughly document what we people do even if it reduces their speed
  7. Money is the best way to keep individuals motivated
  8. It is more important to follow the plan than to adapt to changes
  9. A signed contract is better than an informal agreement to ensure cooperation between different departments

How did you do?

If you answered True:

  • 9 times (out of 9): As you enter an Agile transition, your current management paradigms are likely to be severely tested, but with the right mindset and the willingness to change you could be surprised. You may want to take this test again a few months after the beginning of the transition to see how much you have progressed.
  • Between 5 and 8 times (out of 9): You have some of the right reflexes but you haven’t fully grasped the concepts behind Agile. With some work and an open mind, you could modify your leadership style and eventually become an Agile manager.
  • Between 1 and 4 times (out of 9): You’re almost there. You are comfortable with most of the Agile concepts but still need to fine-tune some of your reflexes to make it to the top of the chart.
  • 0 time (out of 9): Congratulations! You seem to understand the Agile approach and the underlying concepts very well. If you behave the way you answered these questions, you are an exemplary Agile leader. Send me an email, I certainly would like to hear from you.

Agile Leadership (Agile Management) – part II

Picture provided by kansasphotoLike most modern Homo sapiens, when you hear Agile Leadership or Agile Management, you think of:

  • [if you are outside the business world] A business-person who can use a combination of balance, coordination, speed, reflexes, strength, endurance and stamina to achieve his objectives;
  • [if you are inside the business world but outside the information technology field] A person who has the capability of rapidly and cost efficiently adapting to changes in an attempt to deliver on his objectives;
  • [if you are inside the information technology field] A person who manages a software development team who uses methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams with the objective of delivering value.

I apologize if you are outside the business world because this is not the perspective I wish to cover. For people in the other two categories, you are partially right.

I attempted to define Agile management and see how I could apply Agile principles to management a while ago and since then, I have been able to piece the puzzle together. Agile Leadership requires less technical knowledge than its cousin but it heavily relies on the same principles.

A high level view of the model

Agile Leadership Model (Summary)

If you have been reading my blog for a while (thank you!) and even if you haven’t, you will realize that I have been covering various parts of this model already:

People: The people dimension covers all aspects of competencies, motivation, culture, collaboration and communications that enable the organization to achieve its business objectives. While every effort is directly or indirectly related to people, this perspective focuses primarily on the ability of individuals to contribute to the achievement of objectives.
[related tags: 360-degree feedbackcoachingcollaborationcommunitydecision makingfeedbackleadershipmanagementorganizational structurepeople management,servant leadership]

Processes: The process dimension aims to define the working methods and approaches to be followed in carrying out tasks in line with the overall objective of delivering business value.
[related tags: agileagile managementscrum]

Tools: The technology dimension covers the various tools and technologies that support the organization in achieving its business objectives.
[related tags: none, I haven’t covered this dimension]

Value: The value dimension covers the business capacity to effectively deliver value within the appropriate time. The delivery of value is the fundamental purpose of the organization.
[related tags: ROI]

As you can see, I have mostly covered the People dimension of the model while I have purposely left the Tools section un-covered. The reason for this is that there are already thousands of web sites on the topic of Agile and technology.

In an upcoming series of blog posts, I will present a more detailed perspective of what Agile Leadership truly means based on our experience. Stay tuned…

Interesting blog posts (January 22, 2010)

On the importance of creating the right organizational culture (Thanks to Andrew)

By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning and was hitting that snooze button over and over again Corner Office – Tony Hsieh of Zappos – Celebrate Individuality – Question –

On why an Agile approach is better suited to deliver value (Thanks to Alfonso)

Most organizations that depend on software are struggling to transform their lifecycle model from a “development” focus to a “delivery” focus. This subtle distinction in wording represents a dramatic change in the principles that are driving the management philosophy and the governance models – Improving Software Economics

On the meaning of Agile transformation for managers

What many people mistakenly do is equate agile project management with doing more work, with less documentation and fewer people. Although the premise is to get more done in a more favorable way, I have never met a team that could successfully implement agile principles without having to slow down first – VersionOne – Agile Adoption For Managers.

On the fact that the true value of an organization is not mapped via its organizational chart

But it’s not the fact that you have many more boxes and lines that I’m most envious of.  It’s your “white space” I want – Oh, Yeah? Well, My Org Chart is Bigger and More Beautiful Than Yours!

On the need to manage self-organized teams when required

The interesting thing is, the further we go into agile management territory the less typical the managerial job we expect. Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional, and sometimes we think a manager should just get out of the way. By the way, surprisingly often this is exactly the best choice. But whenever one of the asshole-moments is needed, it is time to show up and do what has to be done. Otherwise the atmosphere starts rotting as people wait for someone who will fix things. Someone who will do something about this guy adding a new technology every time he reads some nice article. Someone who will deal with that lass taking a few days off because she doesn’t really care about the project being late and the team working their butts off to get back on the right track. That’s always a job for a manager, and a harsh one, no matter how self-organized the team is – Good Managers Sometimes Have to Play Assholes – NOOP.NL.

The Strategic Café or “A bottom-up approach to setting a corporate strategy” (Day 2)

As a follow-up to my earlier blog post on this topic, below is the agenda of our meeting as well as the questions asked during the sessions. If you are not already doing so, I strongly recommend you start using this facilitation approach to improve your meetings – including your next Strategy Definition meeting.

Strategic Café

If you would like more information on how to organize your own Strategic Café, you can drop me an email (martin [at] I’d be happy to help.

Strategic Café

Agenda – Day 2

Breakfast (8:00 to 8:25)

Welcome and meeting introduction (8:25 to 8:30)

Presentation of our initiatives for the next 6 months (8:30 to 11:00)

Strategic Café

Pause (11:00 to 11:30)

Strategic Café

Prioritization of our initiatives for the next 6 months (11:30 to 12:15)

Lunch (12:15 to 1:00)

Strategic Café

World Café – Strategic assessment of our environment (1:00 to 2:30)

Background: To correctly set up our strategies, we must understand the environment in which we operate for: our consulting service, our products, and our training.

Question: What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in each sector of activity?


  • Products
  • Products
  • Consulting Service
  • Consulting Service
  • Training

Mechanics: The participants are allowed 12 minutes at each table.

Strategic Café

Pause (2:30 to 3:00)

World Café – Operational improvements (3:00 to 4:30)

Background: In order to continue our growth, we must give ourselves the means to grow up, what are the improvements that wants to carry out: sales, marketing, finance, human resources and SME.
Question: How does improve on our operations to do the goals we had set?
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Subject Matter Experts
Mechanics: The participants are allowed 20 minutes at each table.

Strategic Café

The Strategic Café or “A bottom-up approach to setting a corporate strategy” (Day 1)

If you ever had a chance to participate in a Strategy Definition meeting, you either had a good time because YOU were dictating the strategy to follow or had an awful experience because your recommendations were totally altered, down-graded to a point of irrelevance or blown out of proportion making them un-achievable. Needless to say, for most people a Strategy Definition meeting is an experience comparable to a visit to the dentist for a root canal.

As I already mentioned, not only is our organizational structure different from most organizations but so is our strategic process. As opposed to a top-down Strategy Definition where the Top Executives come up with the Strategy, we use a bottom-up approach. Once again, we rely on the wisdom of the crowd to come up with the best strategy we can achieve. Not only is the strategy sound, it also removes the need to obtain buy-in after the fact since employees participated in the definition of their strategy.

We’ve implemented a Balanced Score Cards approach to our strategic planning process 6 months ago. This approach is helping us move forward but the format of our previous meetings left a lot of room for improvement. After asking around for an alternate approach for the meeting, François suggested we try a World Café format. After reading about the principles and the book (The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter), we spent time preparing and planning for the meeting. Needless to say, the Strategic Café was a huge success.

World Café used to Define the Corporate Strategy

I want to sharing with you the agenda of the meeting as well as the questions asked during the sessions. If you are not already doing so, I strongly recommend you start using this facilitation approach to improve your meetings – including your next Strategy Definition meeting.

If you would like more information on how to organize your own Strategic Café, you can drop me an email (martin [at] I’d be happy to help.

Agenda – Day 1

Breakfast (8:00 to 8:25)

Welcome and meeting introduction (8:25 to 8:30)

Warming up the brain cells (8:30 to 8:45)

We asked participants to compete in a friendly game of Rush Hour. The intend was to introduce a fun element in the day in preparation for the meeting.

Strategic Café

World Café – Retrospection of the previous 6 months (8:45 to 10:30)

Background: What should be done to improve the organization on the following 5 dimensions: communication, accountability, prioritization, leadership and decision making?

Question: What are the challenges encountered within the organization and what is my contribution to meeting these challenges?

5 Tables: Communication, Accountability, Prioritization, Leadership, and Decision Making.

Mechanics: The participants are allowed 15 minutes at each table.

At the end of the exercise: Each of the 5 paper-table-cloths is assigned to an individual responsible to come up with a plan of actions.

Strategic Café

Pause (10:30 to 11:00)

Presentation of the new governance model (11:00 to 12:30)

Unfortunately, this part is confidential 😉

Lunch (12:30 to 1:15)

Strategic Café

World Café – Improvement to the well-being of people (1:15 to 3:00)

Background: In 1 year from now, what will be the impact of our organization on the following 4 sectors: employees, existing customers, stakeholders, and potential customers?

Question: What programs should we develop to meet our objective of improving people’s well-being?

4 Tables: Employees, Existing Customers, Potential Customers, and Society.

Mechanics: The participants are allowed 20 minutes at each table.

At the end of the exercise: Participants were asked to select the top 4 priorities for each of the sectors and write them on a master flip-chart. Participants were then asked to vote to select the top 4 priorities overall on which the organization would invest time, energy and resources to move forward.

Strategic Café

Pause (3:00 to 3:30)

Strategic Café

World Café – Selection criteria to prioritize our initiatives for the next 6 months (3:30 to 5:15)

Background: Given the limited resources and the large number of initiatives within our organization, which criteria do we want to use to prioritize and select the initiative that we will move forward using the following areas: Financial, Customer experience, and Employee learning and growth?

Question: Which criteria we will use to determine our priorities?

3 Tables: Financial, Customer Experience, and Employee Learning and Growth

Mechanics: The participants were allowed 20 minutes at each table.

At the end of the exercise: Participants were asked to select the top 4 priorities for each of the sectors and write them on a master flip-chart. Participants were then asked to vote to select the top 4 priorities overall. Those would become the criteria used to prioritize our initiatives for the next 6 months.

Strategic Café

Dinner (6:00 to 8:30)

As an analogy to our Strategic Meeting, we had organized dinner at O’Noir.

I’ll be publishing Day 2 of our meeting shortly.

Don’t Sell Buzzwords to Business Leaders, Learn How to Describe Real Value

During a break from the exhibit hall, I had the opportunity to  attend the presentation given by Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations called “Don’t Sell Buzzwords to Business Leaders, Learn How to Describe Real Value“.

Although I was disappointed at first because the presentation actually didn’t have anything to do with “Buzzwords” and “Business Leaders”, I quickly changed my impression once Richard started to describe his company’s culture and the way he leads his organization. As I already mentioned, our organization operates very differently from most organizations and in an attempt to adapt the right organizational structure I’m reading as many books, articles and blogs on this topic – including Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace (thanks to Andrew Meyer for the reference).

You can understand my interest once Richard talked about making similar organizational choices as we did: complete transparency, no formal hierarchy, accountability towards your team instead of a boss, well developed recruitment process, equitable compensation, open work environment, etc.

Menlo Innovations has published a book that demonstrates how their way of operating does deliver the real value as expected by their customers. I have ordered the book since it wasn’t available on site and I will certainly provide my assessment of it once I receive it.

Needless to say, the presentation captured the interest of most of the people in the room and many were hoping to have lunch with Richard after the presentation to better understand his unusual work environment. Unfortunately for me, my break was over and I had to get back to the booth.

I will obviously continue my research on this topic.

Defining Agile Management – part 1

Following a post I wrote a few months ago, I keep trying to define the principles behind agile management and so far I came up with the following:

  • Be humble: When it comes to the details, your team knows more than you do. Tell your team what you are trying to achieve and the reasons why but don’t tell them how to achieve the goal. Offer your help if they need it.
  • Provide space for experimentation: Not all outcomes are known at the beginning of a project. Give your team time and resources to experiment. Playing is highly educational.
  • Try quickly: When someone has an idea, try it out immediately with a trusted audience. No single brain can anticipate all potential issues. Share the ideas as soon as possible to get feedback.
  • Start small: In line with the previous principle, use prototypes. An incomplete tool will provide far more information than a simple explanation. People need to see and feel things, don’t just rely on their imagination.
  • Learn from mistakes: Allow failures and learn from them. Nothing significant has been accomplished in a single iteration.
  • Do not punish failures: In line with the previous principle, failure is part of the learning process. Penalizing people for their mistakes sends a strong message that your team is risk averse.
  • Maintain constant communication between the demander and supplier: Communication is key to building relationships. Bi-directional communications will help prevent assumptions and increase chances of success.
  • Have strong integrity: Say what you will do and do what you have said. People will respect you for it.
  • Do not be afraid to commit: Nobody likes indecisive people. Commit to other people will give you increased credibility.
  • Make sure to re-negotiate: In line with the previous principle, if you are unable to meet your commitment re-negotiate them immediately. Do not wait.
  • Focus on results and not process: The methods used to achieve results are much less important than the results themselves.

What are your thoughts? Have I missed anything important?

Inline with an Agile Organizational Structure

As time goes by, I realize there is no such things in life as coincidence. I’ll probably expend on this topic in an upcoming post but for now I’ll jump to the purpose of today’s blog post.

If you have been reading some of my recent posts (this one, this one and this one) you will notice that I took upon myself to help implement an innovative organizational structure for the organization. As a consequence, Raphaël suggested I take a look at

I had the pleasure of sitting in on the webinar given by Brian J. Robertson from Holacracy and found the content was very much in line with the organizational structure we are aiming to implement. In short, here are two take-away I got from the presentation:

  • We need to distinguish the organization from the individuals that compose the organization.
  • The organization has to be purpose driven. Its goal is not only to generate profits for the shareholders but to have a purpose of its own.

Although there is much more to this than these 2 points, the 60 minutes presentation gives a good introduction to the concept. I am unfortunately unable to attend their next events in Philadelphia and Dallas both hopefully they will add events to their calendar shortly.

If you get a chance, I suggest you sign up for one of their upcoming presentation and share your thoughts.