Are agile self-managing teams realistic with multi-layered management?

Agile software development stems from the philosophy that being agile means creating and responding to change quickly. Agile means having the ability to adapt and respond to change without disintegrating into chaos. Being agile involves teamwork based on different abilities, skills and talents. Team members include both business and software development sides, working together to produce working software that meets or exceeds customer expectations on an ongoing basis.

Agile success comes from delivering quality, working software to customers. Agile includes a manifesto and a list of 12 principles to follow. One of those key principles suggests using self-managing teams to drive innovation, quality, and team productivity.

The principles are meant to guide software development in a positive direction while accepting and adapting to changes as they occur. Agile teams must work together and continuously change processes and procedures with the common goal of improving the software as well as the development process.

However, in a business world that is typically cluttered with layers of management, are self-managing Agile teams realistic or possible?

This guide discusses the reality of using self-managing Agile teams when a business involves multiple layers of management.

The main means.

  • What does the term self-management of an Agile team mean?
  • Find out if self-managing teams can be allowed under Agile principles.
  • What is layered management?
  • How do layers of managers affect the self-management ability of Agile teams?
  • Discover the benefits of enabling and fostering self-managed teams.

What does Agile Team Self-Management mean?

Self-managed teams are agile teams that form their own members, identify team issues, and resolve all work or team issues internally under the guidance of a Scrum Master. Self-managed Agile teams collaborate with other teams and keep lines of communication open with Product Management and Design. Teams are given the freedom to become efficient and successful or to fail, reassess and try again without consequence.

Most development teams expect management intervention. However, the degree to which management mediates tends to interrupt or break the team’s ability to self-manage. Many organizations are reluctant to let Agile teams manage themselves. Large organizations with layers of management roles find it difficult to allow teams to manage themselves regardless of team success. Even near-perfect teams that are high-performing and perform at an exceptional level often suffer from management interference.

Effective management of agile teams provides goals, direction, and operational framework, but leaves the team to manage all other aspects. The reality is that organizations with layered governance cannot afford to miss the need to guide. Self-management within teams is not a natural phenomenon and it is not easy to accept.

What is layered business management?

Layered management refers to organizations that have top-level managers in the form of Vice Presidents or Directors of Development and QA, followed by Development and QA Managers, and Development and QA Leads. In this simple example, there are 4 layers of control. Layered management refers to organizations where multiple manager roles interact to manage an application development group.

Add to that the possibility of a Director of Product Management, a Product Owner and a Product Manager who will also influence the performance of the Agile team. Layer management tends to manage by directive and often tends to produce micro managers. The problem becomes that each manager role works from different directives to build the business and produce the software, but rarely agree on direction. The direction of the organization and even the software development methodology tend to change frequently based on which manager becomes dominant.

What are the effects of multi-layered management on self-managing teams?

Signs that management is interfering with managing an Agile team include:

  • Team members are immediately empowered to change approaches from an external source
  • Any team changes that require manager or committee approval.
  • Team members are removed or added without team login.
  • Development or testing instructions have changed significantly externally, but the team is expected to adopt changes immediately.
  • Managers at any level act and take charge of managing the team’s work process and results.

Management intervention often comes from upper levels such as Directors or VPs. Typically, when top-level management intervenes, it changes the focus and intent of the Agile team by changing work processes or team alignment. Middle management is even more disrupted as managers work to move up the career ladder. Often, middle managers push process changes outside of the team that team members must incorporate into their work processes, even if they don’t match the Agile team’s chosen workflow.

Wherever external management changes occur, they disrupt team workflow, processes, structure and working relationships.

Eliminating fear and reaping the benefits of agile self-managed teams

Most agile teams, in my experience, do not self-manage under the guidance of a Scrum Master. Rather, the team develops an internal governance mechanism and then adapts to changing external governance requirements. There is never a point where an Agile team is truly self-managing.

When or if an organization’s leadership has the courage, foresight, or ability to let go a little and encourage the team to self-manage, employee productivity and engagement improve rapidly. Encouraging team ownership and accountability improves team performance and creates teams that are efficient, profitable, loyal and customer focused.

Layer managers must learn to take a few steps back and allow trust to grow, allowing the Agile team to make decisions. The rewards of allowing agile teams to self-manage include increased performance, engagement, and significant productivity improvements. Teams are not only more productive, but also produce higher quality work products. Self-managed teams drive greater innovation using continuous improvement. Continuous improvement may mean that attempts fail, but the team should be allowed to regroup and try again without reward or punishment.

Can Agile teams really be self-managing? They can, if the organization allows without constant external interference. Layered management is often the structure associated with larger software development organizations and affects the ability of Agile teams to innovate and improve productivity and employee engagement.

If the organization’s leadership can stand back and advise, coach and guide the Agile team without controlling it, the process works. Self-managing Agile teams are possible but rare. Take advantage of enabling, encouraging and leading the Agile team, rather than controlling them; see if the retreat will improve employee morale, loyalty, and drive to create better products for customers.

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