How Technology Managers can Succeed as Agile Leaders

An interview with David Sohmer, Financial Services Technology and Agile Leader

In this video interview, David Sohmer talks about how technology managers can embrace agile ways of working, support their agile teams, and succeed as true agile leaders.

Key Takeaways of How Tech Managers Can Succeed as Agile Leaders:

  • There are things that technology managers need to start doing as agile leaders like creating space for co-location and letting teams self-organize. They need to let teams think for themselves.
  • Managers need to adopt their style to the maturity of the agile team. Asking the right questions is important.
  • Company policies and performance measures for managers can cause behaviors that conflict with agile. Managers also need to let teams think for themselves. Managers need to create an ecosystem where teams can thrive.
  • There are some dates that need to be met and managers should support teams to meet those dates by adjusting scope or team size.
  • The agile leader mindset is critical. Managers need to focus on changing the organization to create an environment so that teams can thrive and become productive.
  • Big bang agile transformation approaches are more difficult than a slower, staged, team by team transition. Rolling out two or three teams per quarter helps build success and momentum.
  • Scrum provides a mirror of the organization and all the current problems become visible.
  • It can take six months to ramp-up a new team and get them to steady state.
  • Individual performance goals need to be revised in agile to foster more of a team focus; incentives need to be aligned with helping team mates vs. individual performance and heroics.
  • Training for technology managers is critical if they are to succeed as agile leaders. Leaders need to understand the “why” behind agile ways of working. Agile Coaches should push for immersion training for leaders.
  • Agile teams need to have a strong, transparent relationship with the business to create trust.
Q: What should managers focus on in the transition to agile?
Things like fighting for physical space and making sure that the teams are getting co-located. The other thing I would mention is letting the teams self-organize. It might be tempting to want to continue to tell each person what they should be doing or grabbing a person out of a team for you know, a pet project for a few hours. That should be avoided at all costs. And really then learn how to create the right environment for your team. The more you let your team figure out and do, the stronger they’ll get.
Q: Should managers just trust that the teams are doing the right thing?
Every team, as you start this journey of agile, every team is on a maturity curve. And so the more immature teams are going to need a little bit more help, at first. And so, you know, managers or really as they transition to really be leaders, and not so much managing every aspect of their team, can be helpful to the team. You want to have a balance with that. You want to be able to let the team fail a little bit, and come up with their own answers, but if you see them making a large mistake, I think asking the right questions at the right time can be very helpful to the team. And I – in my experience teams are very open to that.
Q: What do you think managers find most difficult with agile?
I think unfortunately sometimes company policies are sometimes to blame, especially related to manager performance. Most managers bear the brunt of meeting deadlines, et cetera. And that’s what they’re used to. And then they put the pressure on the teams for that, for those dates that are promised. And they’re going to be graded on ensuring their teams meet the deadlines and, you know, a lot of times those dates are arbitrary so that’s very difficult, I think, for managers. They’ve also typically spent years working with the business on high-level requirements, giving estimates of work, establishing the dates, et cetera. So in other words, they did all the real thinking for the teams. So I guess that’s difficult for managers to really let the teams think for themselves.
Q: How should managers handle deadlines or commitments in agile?
Certainly there are dates that have to be met. There might be a regulatory date that must be met. I think it’s really about allowing the team to – if they know that that’s something that is firm and must be met, then there’s other levers that they can pull. Scope is probably the biggest one, maybe team size potentially if that would help, sometimes that doesn’t help. Sometimes that would actually harm the team to actually add more people.
Q: How important is the agile leader mindset?
I think that the leader mindset is critical. The vast part of that leadership is going to be about changing the organization. So that – you know, obstacles are removed from the teams. So that they can thrive and actually get things done in a short iteration. That’s what managers need to become – servant leaders, creating the environments for their teams to thrive.
Q: What do you wish you had known before starting your first agile transition?
I think I wish I knew how hard it was going to be. Especially the way that we handled our first transformation. At one financial organization, we did more of a big bang approach, where, all the teams really started on the same day. And we had a lot of teams. And the amount of agile expertise and coaching that that requires and mature scrum masters that require made it really hard cause we didn’t really have that. And I think that, you know, that big bang approach, you know, as opposed to doing things a little bit more slowly, maybe starting with one area, or project, you know, and getting a good start, building an early success and then watching the momentum build. As you roll maybe 2-3 teams a quarter out that is certainly a much easier path, so I wish I’d known that before I started, how difficult it was going to be and it shouldn’t have been a surprise because scrum, you know, if anybody takes the scrum course they’re going to learn that scrum is really just a mirror of your organization and it raises all the issues to the surface and that’s exactly what happened. So we had a lot of unhappy business partners probably within that first six months but then things certainly stabilized and got a lot smoother from there. We actually won a lot of hearts and minds from the business, but it was a really tough six months.
Q: How long does it take to transition to agile?
I think it’ll depend upon how many teams you’re trying to spin up, but I would say, you know, a team – if you’re going to spin a team up with a product owner, it’s a good six-month ramp-up period. To where you’re kind of at a steady state. And then you’ve got a maturity curve from there where a team can really get to becoming a high-powered team.
Q: How should individual performance goals be changed in agile?
When performance goals are written more toward individual performance, rather than team performance, it’s a problem for the teams. The old way is trying to help perform everyone on the team by being a hero and really that is how many individuals we get find their success in the organization, is by becoming the best, holding all the information themselves, not sharing that information, and becoming indispensable. And that was really what the expectations, the performance expectations led them to do. So in an agile organization, really the individuals must be encouraged to make their team great, as the number one benchmark for personal success. So for example, your bonus will be bigger if you spent time helping the team, if you engaged in cross-training, things like that, you know, reducing critical key man risk. If you’re engaged in those activities that’s going to be – that’s a higher value for the organization and therefore that’s how you should be rewarded.
Q: How should manager expectations change with agile?
For managers, expectations are often written about them, but those expectations also need a re-write, they need to be encouraged to create an ecosystem whereby the teams are going to thrive.
Q: How important is agile training for managers to succeed as agile leaders?
That’s really how it happened for me and many others where leaders would sit in a room, for example, with Craig Larman for three days, doing scrum master training and the interaction that happened in that room and really, the immersion into the material – that’s really when the penny dropped for me and for a lot of other managers. It’s when you really have a chance to think through things. It’s more than an hour training, right. This actually took three days and it was well worth it. It really changed the trajectory of my career. When I really understood the principles at a deeper level, and then you really start to understand the why behind what you’re doing and I think that’s so critical for leaders.
Q: What advice would you give managers who are transitioning to agile?
Certainly it would be going back to the thought that it’s all about the team and that team focus is so important. I think also there needs to be a focus around who’s going to be in front of the business. In the old way of thinking, managers are the ones who sit in front of the business. Whether that’s the actual business partner or some project team middle group that’s trying to do hand-offs between the business and technology. But the managers – that person who’s front and center, that’s doing that translation and I think it’s really important for managers to realize that there’s another relationship that has to be developed. That relationship is between the business owner and the team itself. So I would say that is critical especially in building trust. I think that one of the areas of technology in relationship to the business is always a lack of trust. Where the manager says here’s when we’ll deliver. There’s really no transparency in terms of what the team’s working on day-to-day or month-to-month even sometimes. And so it’s really important for the team to have that interaction – direct interaction, on a regular basis, with the business partner. That’s why scrum is so effective in this, in that it really sets up at least a couple times an iteration where the team gets in front of the business owner for priorities, to show them what they’ve done in the last iteration, and really to show them everything that’s being worked on so it’s full transparency and its absolutely essential in creating that trust.
Q: What advice would you give Agile Coaches?
Old habits die hard so be patient. I think I’ve seen Agile Coaches who, you know, they’re humans too, so they get frustrated when teams aren’t getting it. And when managers, especially managers, when they’re kind of reverting back to old ways. So I would just say be very patient, these are habits that have been ingrained over decades so sometimes it’s really hard. That’s why I also think that getting the why of agile is so important and that’s why that agile training is so important, so again, push for the training, for that really, kind of, immersion-type training over two-three days. Coaches need to find where things have really gone well in an organization, and bring leaders that are more mature, whether they are on the technology or business side, and bring them together with the ones that are a little bit more immature in that. I find that while agile coaches are absolutely essential to what’s happening, sometimes it’s good to have their peers speak to them as well.

Learn more about How to Succeed as an Agile Leader

If you are a technology manager looking for help, we have lots of resources. First, see all the related articles below. We also provide training for Agile Leaders, including Agile for Leaders and the Certified Agile Leadership course. Finally, we would love to help you. If you have questions, please contact us to schedule your free consultation on how you can succeed as an Agile Leader. This article originally appeared on Vitality Chicago’s Blog and has been republished with permission.