In First, Break All the Rules,1 management consultants Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman report that an employee’s relationship with his or her manager is key to that employee’s success and long-term happiness in the organization. Moreover, if people have friends at work, they are more likely to be successful and happy at work. In an agile team, it’s easy to build camaraderie among team members. But if a technical person’s primary affiliation is with his or her colleagues on an agile team, how does a manager build the relationship key to retention?
Managers in agile organizations must become the champions for their teams. That means we no longer can afford functional managers, such as development or testing managers. Instead, as the teams are cross-functional, the managers also need to be cross-functional, able to manage developers, testers, writers, database administrators, writers, business analysts — whoever is on the team.
To function as the team champion, the manager has to learn about each team member. That means a weekly or biweekly one-on-one.2 More often than once a week, and not enough has happened in the project; plus, it’s too easy for managers to fall into micromanaging. Less often than biweekly, and the manager is not taking the time to learn about how the employee is working on the team, what areas the employee wants to explore for career development, and how to offer help solving the human and system problems. Regular one-on-ones help managers see system problems: when a product owner doesn’t want to allow time in an iteration for the team to support previously released products, when there are issues in a specific product area, when the team has trouble estimating because they don’t quite know the acceptance criteria or because the criteria change, and more. It’s hard for a manager to understand what’s really happening at work.3 One-on-ones make it easier for a manager to understand the business — not the strategy, but how the teams build the products to implement the strategy.
The team solves the project problems. However, team members may not have enough practice to recognize when they are encountering a system problem — an obstacle — or know-how to manage a human interaction problem. Managers can recognize system problems and help solve them.
Managers Provide Feedback and Meta-Feedback
Managers provide team members with feedback and coaching, and they provide meta-feedback (i.e., feedback about how to give feedback) and meta-coaching (i.e., coaching about how to coach). Let’s face it, few of us started in software because we thought we would have the opportunity to work with people all day long. Most of us are products of a university education where we had few group projects, and certainly none of them were longer than a few weeks’ duration. Working with a group of people, day in and day out, iteration after iteration, is bound to help some people build great relationships. It’s also bound to make problem relationships more obvious.
If you know only how to give feedback by saying, “That’s brain-dead,” you may have limited success working in a team. If you learn how to express your concerns without labeling, and you have someone to practice with, you are more likely to navigate conflicts successfully.
The agile manager is ideally placed to help provide metafeedback and metacoaching. If the manager has one-on-ones with each person on the team, the manager will hear about the intrateam issues and can ask if an employee wants help solving the problem. Or if the manager hears about an issue, the manager can raise the issue with the employee.
Human Problem Solving
Many of us work in IT because we love solving technical problems. We hone our technical problem-solving abilities, not our human problem-solving abilities. That means that we are often blind to the real issue. A caring, trusted manager who is more of a coach than a controller can help people learn to give and receive feedback. By doing so, the manager acts as a coach, removing team obstacles.
Managers Provide Career Development
Some people attempt to plan their careers; others don’t. Yet each person needs to use feedback about his or her strengths and decide what to do next. The manager can act as a sounding board or mentor to a person who is deciding how and where to take the next step in his or her career.
Career development is rarely linear. People experiment with different roles at work. It’s even easier to experiment on an agile team, where the team members are generalists. A manager — one who is not responsible for a specific iteration’s goals but is responsible to the organization — can suggest alternatives for a person to take on different responsibilities.
For example, a developer who would like to be an architect might need the chance to be an architect on a local agile team and be the representative to an overall architecture group for a program. A tester who wants to be a manager might try the facilitation role of ScrumMaster first. A business analyst who wants to be a product manager or potentially a product owner might work with a product owner more closely.
In one-on-ones, managers can see whether the employee has leanings toward management and that kind of strategic thinking. A manager who is a team champion can constantly look for and encourage career development for the entire team. That helps people manage their careers and increases people’s capabilities, thereby increasing organizational capacity.
1. Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.
2. Rothman, Johanna, and Esther Derby. Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management. Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2005.
3. Pfeffer, Jeffrey. What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom About Management. Harvard Business School Press, 2007.