Agile kicks managers out?

I think there is probably no greater nonsense out there than the narrative “Agile is eliminating management”. In the social networks, I often read advertisements for consultancies and seminars such as: First slowly introduce agile and self-organisation so that you don’t have to abolish management straight away. Managers beware, you won’t have your job much longer!

All agile organisations I know still have a management, even the biggest and oldest agile pioneers in the banking sector. Agile organisations or parts of organisations on the way to self-organisation distribute management tasks differently than usual. This new kind of management is often much more meaningful and valuable than the conventional.

Let’s take a look at some of my experiences and the differences between before and after.

Before: The supervisor draws up a training plan at the beginning of the business year with monthly reports. Of course, there is discussion, but it usually stays with industry-typical trainings that don’t exactly fit the job. The training status is reviewed quarterly.

After: Service champions from the team set the trainings in the learning groups, have short feedback loops, create ad hoc trainings, everything is visually managed. The team leaders’ job is to encourage people, to nudge learning groups at times. Strengthening strengths works almost by itself in agile teams, but reducing weaknesses usually needs coaching from the team leader.

Before: In the case of customer escalations, large groups of senior managers sit together, daily reports are prepared and 60-minute jour fixes are conducted. Only 10% of the reports are really relevant, the meetings tie up resources unnecessarily. Some decisions are made on the basis of second- or third-hand information.

After: Relevant stakeholders incl. customer representatives focus on the most important values, supported by someone who knows Lean/Agile methods. The situation is visualised, everyone can see the current status. The team leader moderates, takes care of tasks that go beyond the team. The team leader often also ensures that decisions once made are maintained, some solutions do not work on the first day.

Well, I think I could fill a whole book with examples like that. In my experience, the different assignment of responsibility and decision-making creates a much better acceptance of the desire for continuous improvement. Management systems like Objectives and Key Results (OKR) almost kick into gear by themselves in such environments, whereas in hierarchical environments they stop at any political traffic light as soon as it is as low as yellow.

Leaders are challenged in their most important role when introducing agile or hybrid-agile working methods: as a protective function for the team. Also as a corrective, so that the newly shared responsibilities are well anchored and lived. If the team moves towards self-organisation, the team leader remains the most important interface and an essential coach. Both for the holistic view of the development of the individual and for the next development step of the team. Not to mention the resolution of conflicts.

I don’t understand why they scare people with the threat “soon no one will need you any more”. Changes are already causing many people to break out in a cold sweat, because the working environment will change. If I think about how I worked 10 years ago and imagine I’m in 2013 and now I’m looking at 2023. So without any prior knowledge now to look at agile presales and sales.

I would find many things great, for example the high efficiency in the team. Some things I wouldn’t understand, for example why visual management is so useful if it sounds like bureaucracy. And some things I would have a lot of respect for, e.g. the example above of putting out a fire together with customers in a room.

By the way, the idea for this article came to me when a co-worker asked for a job reference and I thought: OK, then you write me one too. That’s what we did. Unthinkable in a 60s hierarchy. In a self-organised team, it was a matter of course and a great experience.

I would like to take away your fears if you are thinking in the direction of lean/agile, we agile coaches are there for you. I would be happy to tell you about my first steps.

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