Five Essential Skills for Managers Transitioning to Scrum
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

If you are a manager and your team is adopting Scrum, then you can anticipate some confusion and ambiguity about your role in the transition to Agile methods. It isn't clear how your management background, skills, expertise and routines will fit into this new world of Scrum. With no definition of a manager role in the Scrum Guide, what are you to do? What skills will you need? How will you know if you are successful?  Here's a starter set of five areas in which every "agile" manager will need to be skilled.


As a manager of a software team, you've developed an expertise in building capable teams, creating a positive culture, and delivering projects. Your time has been devoted to traditionally managed projects, typically using a waterfall approach. Your Project Manager provides regular reports with comprehensive status information, and you know when and how to get involved to help when difficulties arise.  In short, you know how to be successful in your job responsibilities.

If you are participating in a transformation that introduces Agility, you'll find that some of your traditional management responsibilities now reside elsewhere and that your focus is no longer on setting objectives, assigning work and tracking progress.  Indeed, many changes lie ahead that will dramatically impact your interactions with direct reports.

Let's glance at a traditional model of management and then identify some key aspects your responsibilities that are quite different in an Agile organization.  I'll specifically be looking at transitioning to use of a Scrum framework.


The Traditional Role of Managers

Some advocates of Agile methods apply the label "command and control" management to traditionally managed projects.  While partially accurate, that phrase doesn't do justice to the broad responsibilities of a manager.  Decades ago, Peter Drucker heavily influenced the definition of a manager's role in his book The Practice of Management with comprehensive descriptions of these management responsibilities:

  1. Sets objectives for the group and decides on the work to be done.
  2. Organizes the work into manageable activities and assigns people to tasks.
  3. Motivates and communicates, creating a positive culture and high performing team.
  4. Measures and interprets performance against established targets.
  5. Develops people.

Are Drucker's thoughts still relevant today?  I think so, but the implementation distributes those responsibilities beyond individuals who have a job title of "manager."  As well, I think that some items identified by Drucker are given more attention - in particular coaching and leadership are often emphasized in job descriptions for positions in "Agile organizations."

I've jumped to the conclusion that the introduction of an Agile framework doesn't eliminate traditional management responsibilities, it just allocates some to different roles in the organization and gives greater emphasis to others.


Transitioning to Managing in a Scrum Environment - Refocusing Managers on 5 Key Areas

Scrum doesn't define a manager role.  Unfortunately, Scrum has a history of introducing animosity between management and Scrum team members - the now-discarded Pigs and Chickens analogy had the impact of stigmatizing any managerial involvement, including coaching.

With that legacy, any Scrum transformation is bound to be difficult for a manager.  For Scrum you are left to your own devices to craft a role.

My view is that there are very significant leadership responsibilities for a manager in a Scrum organization.  As you transition from traditional management methods to a role that is more suited for an Agile organization, here are some tips:

  1. Your key managerial tool is influence. The more subtle, the better. While you've probably been effective in assigning responsibilities and defining technology solutions, your new focus is enabling a self-organized team in those endeavors.  Resist any urge to be directive on project and team activities.
  2. Be a great coach.  Honor the role responsibilities of Scrum, transitioning some of your long-time responsibilities to team members. Scrum has a key, inviolable theme: The team decides the work and the assignments. Drucker's first two items (setting objectives and organizing) are the responsibility of the team, not the manager. When transitioning to Scrum, you'll need to enable the team in this area.  Learn how to be an effective coach and exercise those skills frequently.
  3. Having the right employees is even more important. Hiring has always been important, but you could recover from a less-than-optimal hiring decision by being more directive and micromanaging. Those options are less viable in an Agile environment. Hire the right candidates. Actively coach those who are a "close fit," but need extra attention to be fully contributing. Address poor performance with an appropriate urgency.
  4. Ensure that the team is delivering value. You are likely accountable for the team's performance and continuously improving their performance. If asked why the team isn't delivering value, blaming the team probably isn't a good move - invest in their performance.  Have a valid means of knowing if the team is delivering value, a reasonable volume, managing technical debt, and that their work is architecturally sound.  Utilize the Scrum constructs (roles, events, artifacts) to be aware. Coach the team as needed to address any performance gap. Your most effective involvement is to coach, not to dictate a solution.
  5. Develop solid Scrum knowledge and skills. Immerse yourself in Agile principles and the Scrum framework. Get street cred with an appropriate Agile certification. Learn about scaling Agile and how that applies to your organization. Get comfortable with new types of metrics. Gone are Gantt charts and Red/Yellow/Green status reports; be competent in using Scrum metrics - this is a mildly controversial topic, so choice of metrics is not straightforward. Leave the choice up to the team. Use metrics within a team, not cross team.


Parting Thoughts

For a manager, transitioning to Scrum involves letting go of some long-held responsibilities, learning new project techniques and continuing with some of your current responsibilities. Enabling, coaching and removing obstacles will be a stronger focus. With some of your responsibilities now in the hands of the Scrum team, you may find that you can broaden your span-of-support to include additional teams.

You'll likely still be responsible for familiar tasks like hiring, budgeting, performance management, encouraging professional development of your team members, accomplishing organizational goals, shielding the team from organization turmoil, interpreting executive communications into information usable by the team, strategic planning for your team, and more. You'll also be responsible for translating interactions between legacy (non-Agile) organizational departments and your Agile teams.

I wish you well as you transition to becoming a high performing manager in an Agile organization.  What are other areas in which a software manager must adapt?