How the role of managers evolve in Scrum

The traditional role of managers…

Managers have always been known to exercise power and control over their teams across all professional streams. Software and Information Technology companies are no exception to this way of life. A good manager is one who knows when, where and how to exercise his powers and to influence his team in a positive manner. A bad manager is without saying much, the polar opposite when it comes to engaging with the team.

Traditionally in software companies, managers have been the focal point when it comes to execution of a project and ensuring successful delivery of the same. They are used to the culture of command and control wherein they handle everything from planning, resource allocation, who does what work, timelines etc. They expect to be consulted for every decision and kept in the loop at all levels. They are known to instruct sub-ordinates on tasks and set deadlines against which delivery is expected. The work distribution, timelines, delivery plans etc. are influenced by a variety of factors such as budget, people available, business priority and so on and so forth. The common thread here is the presence of the manager who is responsible for the successful execution – which ultimately leads to a command and control environment that gives him a feeling of security, of being in charge.

With the advent of Scrum as a framework for software development, which advocates team collaboration, planning by teams, product backlog grooming, sprint execution and much more. Agile and Scrum framework in particular, lean heavily towards a team centric approach with more powers, responsibility and commitment accorded to the team. This leads to a pertinent question – in such an environment, what role does the manager play?

Managers 2.0 – role redefined in Scrum

In Scrum, there are three pre-dominant roles – Product Owner, Scrum Master and the Team. There is no explicit definition of where the manager fits in and this raises a lot of ambiguity on the role of a manager. Especially, where senior executives and management look up to managers for an active role this can be disconcerting for managers. It is unrealistic to expect one person (which is typically the manager) to think for his team, come up with tasks, give orders, follow up on them and trying to do many things at the same time which can cause adverse reactions. This is the basic reason why Scrum advocates team centric approach where team members play a more active role in multiple activities such as planning, self-organizing the tasks, commitment on the delivery etc. to bring a more holistic approach that is more sound proof in nature.

In such a scenario, it becomes critical to redefine the role of a manager. Just as Scrum requires lot of changes within the team, a cultural change is also required to adapt. The HR will need to sit with the department head and redefine the role, expectations and responsibilities of a manager who handles a Scrum team. It is absolutely pertinent to enhance the role of a manager from the traditional duties like assigning tasks, follow up on reports, micro-manage team members to more elevated realm of mentoring, plan training and skills development of team, providing more business value by connecting with the product management team and much more.

A simple exercise suggested by Pete Deemer, CEO of GoodAgile, is to get the manager and the HR to collaborate and come up with a comprehensive description of what is expected from the manager in a Scrum environment. As indicated in the figure below, the manager can bring about a clear distinction of what is good to do in Scrum and what is not good to do. Again, this need not be the only criteria on how to define the role of the manager, but is definitely a good first step to arrive at the conclusion of how a manager’s role is redefined.

Image source – Role of the Manager (Pete Deemer)

While is it great to use this technique to redefine the essential roles and responsibilities of the manager, it is equally important to get the final description approved by a department head or a concerned senior executive. This is critical, as it conforms to a formal approval and provides reassurance to the manager that his role is now redefined and not obsolete – a common fear shared by many managers when transitioning to a Scrum framework.

Author : Praveen Prakash Date : 08 Nov 2013