Does Agile Need Management Or Leadership?

by | Jan 2, 2016 | 0 comments

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One of the biggest issues I see in Agile adoptions is the difference and tension between management and leadership. One of the cornerstones of successful communication is speaking the same language and sharing a common understanding of the different roles people need to play within a team. So in this blog I’d like to look at what both management and leadership mean in an agile context.

First of all, I’d like to dispel one of the biggest myths, that management and leadership are basically the same thing. I suspect this problem is similar to the one you get around the ideas of strategy and planning. Planning doesn’t sound as impressive or important as strategising, and similarly, management sounds like a less exciting activity than leadership. The thing is, leadership is one of those terms that actually has no one single definition, and can be defined in all sorts of different ways. Is it something people are promoted to be, or is anyone capable of being a leader just through influencing others? Do leaders force people to do things, or do they persuade them to do them? Are leaders more likely to have certain traits and personality characteristics than non leaders? Do leaders get others to achieve the leader’s goals, or does a leader help people develop and achieve their own goals?

In short, leadership is one of those words that everyone thinks they know what it means, but in reality will each see in a slightly different way. However, if we can’t exactly define leadership, we can at least look at what people very often understand it to mean. Typically, being a leader gives a sense of importance, a sense of seniority and a sense of power. Leaders are often seen as being above others, being described as ‘great’ or visionary, or even worse, ‘strategic’. For many people, being described as a ‘visionary strategic leader’ would be a great accolade.

The problem you get with this though is that it creates a power hierarchy, where leaders are in charge, and have authority over the teams they lead, setting the vision and direction the teams will then follow. Agile is all about collaboration, and once you start creating power differentials and hierarchies, you reduce collaboration. Collaboration means each side actively listening to the other, listening as equals, and admitting when the other side is right, or they were wrong. Seeing themselves as equal in status to others and happily admitting mistakes is not often a characteristic of people who see leadership as an activity done by the senior and the powerful.

So then, does agile only need managers rather than leaders? Well, no. Management is another of those words that lacks a precise definition, but it does seem to have a number of common characteristics. As far back as the early 1900’s, management was being defined by a chap called Fayol as being about planning, organising, staffing and controlling. Managers are thus very often seen as people who tell others what to do, even how to do it, and like leaders too, have authority, seniority and power over others. Again, this is a problem for agility.

On top of this power problem for both managers and leaders in an agile context, managers also have an issue around change and adaptability. In an excellent book on the subject, John Kotter suggests that management is about creating order and consistency within an organisation, whilst leadership is about creating change and movement.

If this is true, then we can immediately see that both management and leadership will be required in any organisation, even an agile one. For if all you have is managers creating order and consistency, you could end up with a really stifling and bureaucratic organisation. However, if all you have is leaders creating change and movement, then you could end up in complete chaos, constantly looking for change even where none may currently be required.

So if neither leadership or management in their conventional senses are by themselves right for agile, but we need them both, how should we use those roles in an agile team? Well, the first thing to do is look at the different things managers and leaders do, and see who in the agile team might be best to do them. Helpfully, Kotter sets out a number of different things managers and leaders do in the workplace, so let’s have a look at them in turn.

First, looking at managers and their role in planning and budgeting. In traditional organisations, where managers are in charge of others, it’s up to managers to set the agenda, set the timetable for delivery and allocate resources (including people) to the project. However, in an agile approach such as Scrum, these are all things the Scrum team does collectively together. The team collectively decides how best to achieve the goals they have been set, and collectively estimates how long the work is likely to take.

Next, looking at things like organising and staffing. Traditionally, managers set the structure of the team, decide who gets to be part of it and establishes the rules, procedures and processes the team must use. Again though, in agile, it is the team who do all of these things. Frameworks like Scrum give them guidelines on how to run their work, but the team regularly inspects and adapts how things are working in their specific context. The only one of these that you don’t as often see the team doing in agile is deciding who forms part of the team, although I suspect this will start to happen more as agile rolls out across entire businesses and HR departments start to get on board too.

Finally, actions like generating creative solutions and taking corrective action may traditionally be things undertaken by managers, but in agile are very much things the team do collectively together.

Looking next at leadership, in the area of establishing direction, with activities such as creating a vision and clarifying the big picture, these look like the sorts of tasks done by people such as Scrum Product Owners or people from the wider business.

Similarly, seeking commitment and building teams and coalitions are the sorts of things done by Product Owners and Scrum Masters, although even here the team itself should be doing some of this work too.

Similarly, seeking commitment and building teams and coalitions are the sorts of things done by Product Owners and Scrum Masters, although even here the team itself should be doing some of this work too.

Finally empowering subordinates sounds like exactly the sort of thing we were talking about earlier, everyone in agile treating each other as equals, and giving the project team the power to get the work done the way they see fit. Leaders satisfying unmet needs sounds a lot like the sort of thing a Scrum Master would do too, helping to clear blockers out of the way of the team, although this is not to say the team itself shouldn’t play a role in this too.

So then, I think there’s something really interesting here. We’ve seen that any organisation, agile or not, needs both management and leadership. However, both of these things can present problems to agility when they’re about power, control and hierarchy. Once you break them down into the sorts of actions they include though, you see a potential answer. In agile, there is not a manager doing management tasks to the team. Instead, the teams manages itself. The management tasks still get done, but they’re done collectively and collaboratively by the team, rather than being done to the team by a manager. The leadership tasks happen too, and some of them can be done by the team as well, but they’re much more the sorts of things done by people such as Product Owners, Scrum Masters and others in the wider business around the core development team.

I really can’t stress enough how important this is. We’re so used to seeing management as a position of power, control and coercion over others that even if we all agree agile is the right way to go, if we remain stuck in this command and control management mindset, then we’ll kill agile before it starts. Equally though, you can’t just get rid of all of those people who previously were managers and leave the team to do everything by itself. Instead, you need to understand the difference between management and leadership, then coach your managers into becoming leaders instead.

This is not to say this is easy. As hinted at earlier, there are a great many different forms leadership can take, some of which will work better in agile than others. But that is a subject for another blog post.

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About The Author

Gez Smith is an agile communications coach, trainer, author and speaker, and is also the author of ‘Agile Marketing: The Incomplete Guide‘.