What do middle managers do?

April 16th, 2012
Last week, someone tweeted that the C-suite “gets agile,” but middle managers “resist” it. I also saw a tweet that the C-suite doesn’t get agile, but middle management does.

I don’t doubt the observations of either of these tweeters.

I have observed situations where both senior and middle managers saw the value in moving towards a team-based organization and iterative incremental delivery. In my experience, it’s a little more common for middle managers to hold onto the existing pattern. And why not? When they don’t see their place in agile they don’t embrace agile. And agile is silent on the role of middle management. Blanket statements that dismiss the need for managers or management don’t help.

Organizations moving to agile still need management, and often still need people in management roles, especially in large complex organizations. In traditional hierarchies, middle managers look up the hierarchy for direction, and focus down the hierarchy to accomplish cascading goals. When teams pull work from queues and self-organize to meet goals, the real opportunity for middle managers is to look across the organization to improve the system and develop people and teams.

So what do middle managers do when they aren’t directing day-to-day work? Plenty.

Now you see some of the things middle managers can do to help their colleagues, their managers, and teams. Do you need help shifting the role of middle managers in your organization?  Give me a call or drop me an email.


  1. Rick says:

    The maturity of an organization determines how much improvement can be gained when moving to a new methodology. Some manager’s know this, some don’t. I would be curious to know what level the organizations where that had managers who resisted agile.

    Helping middle managers focus on the “proper role” is a great way to improve a team. It’s sad to see organizations who have talent that is being wasted because the company’s process is a mess.

    Good points of interest, thx.

  2. Nick says:

    Middle managers are both the meat in the sandwich and victims of their own hero paradox.

    They spend all their time responding to the demands of senior execs and the expectations of their teams and trying to make the two meet in the middle somewhere.

    This leads to continuous fire-fighting and pointless acts of heroism to overcome the challenges that get thrown to them.

    So while I think most middle managers would love to make significant change in their organisation they are both inundated with problems and rewarded for fire fighting – there neither opportunity nor incentive to embrace a new way.

    As Bismarck remarked “politics is the art of the possible” and middle managers live in a world of politics. If they’re resisting then you need to create more space for them to “get it” and to make change possible.

    • Esther Derby says:

      Barry Oshry calls what you’ve describe as “tearing.” http://www.powerandsystems.com/ People in the middle are pulled by request from the top and the bottom. And as you point out, when all the structures and incentives hold the existing patterns in place, it’s hard for a new pattern to emerge. That’s true anywhere in the organization, not just for middle managers.

      I find that engaging middle managers in lateral projects–working on the work system–helps shift the structure and their place in it.


      • Nick Jenkins says:

        Excellent way to put it : “engaging middle managers in lateral projects – working on the work system–helps shift the structure and their place in it”.

        Most of them are willing, in fact eager, but constrained by the system in which they exist. You need to move them sideways so they can observe the system from outside, before they can change their place in it (but paradoxically they have more influence when they’re part of it, so they need to learn to switch modes).

  3. John Doe says:

    I’ve always found middle managers to be of great hindrance and obstacle transitioning from the waterfall model where they used to be at the center of the universe and now are relegated to the backstage.
    Unfortunately, middle managers have the greatest capacity to cause harm and risk derailing the entire transition to agile. What’s worse is that oftentimes, it is difficult to have a higher authority come and correct the situation.
    I don’t think there should be any focus on what middle managers should specifically do from the get-go, but to ensure that proper Agile principles are adhered to initially and middle managers fill in the gaps.

    • Esther Derby says:


      Why do you suppose middle managers “resist”?

      You’ve pointed to one reason, already. They’ve had a position where they feel their work is valued and they’re important. You (or some other person) come along with agile, and tells them, “you aren’t needed anymore.” Those managers experience loss–loss of status, loss of routine, loss of purpose. Can really blame them for wanting to hold on to what they had.

      But when managers see they have a valuable place, and have a role in shaping the organization to better support team based work, they’ll re-engage. But the harder you push them to admit they were wrong, the more they’ll hold on to their ideas.

      I don’t know that you have to lay out exactly how managers should do things, focusing on principles helps. But so does some vision of what you want to create and how people can play a part it making it.


    • “Unfortunately, middle managers have the greatest capacity to cause harm and risk derailing the entire transition to agile.”

      But only in an organization that doesn’t have a formal, documented, and offical process. I think you’re talking about a lower level organization that has a process hinged on the talents of managers. In a higher level organization the process isn’t harmed by losing or adding managers. Nor losing or adding programmers, testers, etc.

      Am I missing something? Someone help me out.

  4. […] What do middle managers do? Written by: Esther Derby […]

  5. These diagrams are most insightful, please keep em coming :)

  6. Simon Hill says:

    Love that diagram, already in my wall an used in my team meetings.
    But would love to see a diagram too of the role of senior management in a truly agile organisation.

  7. Klaus Stake says:


    just want to say that I like the mind map. I belong to the middle management and can find all my job duties and tasks in this diagram.

    Currently I am responsible for a software development team which implemented SCRUM two years ago. Before doing SCRUM I was responsible for project management. I eagerly pushed agile and SCRUM, because our processes were so bad and not working properly. Nobody needed to convince me for change. In the meantime we run agile practices very successfully and improve continously.

  8. […] Esther Derby has recently covered the topic in-depth in her blog posts (good examples here and here). Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd attempted to address this issue several years ago (see here). […]

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