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The Role of Functional Managers in Agile: From Tactical to Strategic

This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated May 29, 2014 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

The Role of Functional Managers in Agile: From Tactical to Strategic

Enterprise Agile Planning

Guest post by Sally Elatta of Agile Transformation, Inc.

The Management Challenge

It’s well known that most managers are promoted to higher positions because of their specialized skills and their ability to solve problems well. Basically they were high-performing individual contributors (or at least we hope so).

The interesting part here is most new managers attempt to show their team members how to solve these problems by describing how they did it. This makes sense because they’ve done their jobs before and learned lessons doing so. The challenge now is that the real value of a leader is his/her ability to coach others on how to solve problems themselves. This means setting a clear vision, defining acceptance criteria and letting them figure out the ‘how.’ Yes, some gentle nudging is used, especially when a team or individual is new, but some level of mistakes are tolerated and even anticipated. This also means learning to ‘trust’ that your team can self-organize and figure out how to achieve the goals. This idea of creating self-organizing teams is the hardest to grasp for managers who are used to directing at a detailed level what each person on the team does.

It’s interesting… The role of a functional manager is actually pretty confusing because it depends on the personality, interest and skills of the manager playing the role and the expectations set by leadership. Let me illustrate what I mean…

The focus areas above don’t even cover it all. There is ‘administrative’ work which mangers do in addition to ‘strategic’ and ‘cross-functional’ meetings related to active and future projects they attend (sometimes these can take up all the time!).

The Agile Shift

Let’s walk through a quick view of how agile changes some of the areas above.

Work Management and Fire Fighting

This is now managed by the ScrumMaster and the cross-functional team. This is a hard shift for many managers who spend almost all their time managing tasks, getting statuses, redirecting what people were working on, and responding to the daily fires and impediments.

Subject Matter Expert

Every agile team has Solution Leads who are technical or Business Leads who are subject matter experts advising the team and who can translate the business vision into a technical vision. They work as part of the team (dedicated or shared) to provide guidance and direction when needed, in addition to mentor and transfer knowledge to those who want to grow.

People Development

This still remains the focus for managers with a bigger emphasis now than before on the individual coaching aspect. To be honest, most managers were so consumed on managing the work that many of them have had no time to develop their people or learn the critical skills of coaching others. Many teams have put up with various behavioral dysfunctions because managers have been too busy or not skilled enough to deliver behavioral coaching with individuals or teams.

Process Improvement

Again, this is another area that many times gets neglected because of the focus on work management and fire fighting. Agile advocates creating Communities of Practice (CoPs), where people can come together and share knowledge, develop standards, identify and resolve impediments, select and learn tools, and help each other within a specific functional or focus area. Managers can be great leaders for these CoPs and can help bring people together to improve the processes for their teams and at the enterprise level.

Usually team members allocate time each week to attend these CoP meetings, which should be working sessions that deliver real value. In addition to the functional CoPs, managers are now creating a CoP for managers, where they work together as a team on related ‘Process Improvement’ backlogs.

Summary and Final Thoughts

As I’ve worked with many companies through their agile transformation it has become clear to me and to the leaders of these organizations that there is a need for a real transformation to the role of functional managers. Agile takes away the tactical focus many managers had and provides the opportunity now for real strategic shift by focusing on the people development, process improvement and beginning to learn the skills of strategic thinking and planning.

The real challenge is many managers are so used to being in the day-to-day details and managing the work level that this shift might be difficult, if not impossible, for some. It makes sense to put managers in the role that fits them best. So find for them a work management-related role such as Program Manager, Solution Lead, Architect, Systems/Business Advisor, etc. and grow the managers who are passionate about developing people into the resource manager role.

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