Category Archives: Blog

Trifecta of Doom: How Expectations for/about Managers Stymie Learning

When I was promoted to a management role, I realized that the skills that made me standout as a programmer were not the skills I needed in my new role. I started reading. I found a mentor. I applied for a graduate program in leadership.

But I was something of an exception. Many managers feel too busy to read. Many don’t have good role models within their companies. I meet many people in management roles who have never picked up a serious management book. Some managers I meet express relief that they no longer have to keep up with evolving technical trends–they can relax and stop learning.

I find this puzzling. But I see it all the time.  Why might that be?

My hypothesis in another snippet from my interview with Softhouse.se for Lean Magazine.

LM: Could you give examples of ways in which we can create a organisation where constantly managers get better at being lean/agile managers and where there is a “learning culture” even for managers?

E: In the US (and I suspect some other places) we face a trifecta of obstacles in creating a learning culture for managers.

FIrst, when someone is promoted to management it is a sign he’s “made it,” proved that he is “management material.” When you’ve made it, asking for help can signal that you weren’t “management material” after all. 

Second, in many organizations, it is more acceptable to be sure and dead wrong, than admit uncertainty and be approximately right. In such organizations it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help or show uncertainty.  That slows the learning curve for new managers.

Third, people have been taught that a manager’s job is to get other people to work hard.        Most people are motivated when they start a new job. But motivation drains away when people must work hard to overcome obstacles in the form of procedures, rules, and organizational hoops rather than value-adding work.  Managers need to focus on creating an environment where it’s easy to do the right thing and do valuable work. Then people will work hard on their own.

All these work against learning.  So we have some hard work to shift manager’s perception about their role.

I have seen organizations where managers hold their own retrospectives, to see how well their decisions and actions are working out. This is a critical feedback loop that’s missing in many organizations.

I know many managers who are learning to admit mistakes, and realizing that failing fast applies to management, too.

Finally, managers have to examine their own assumptions, and start figuring out “what they know that ain’t so”  (to paraphrase Will Rogers). This is difficult, no matter who you are, or where you sit in the organization. But it is a key to learning.

Hiring for an Agile Team: 4 Reasons to Up Your Hiring Game

Most companies have policies that govern the selection and hiring process for new employees. Not a bad thing.  But I’ve noticed that in many of the companies I visit–especially the big ones–the guidelines put far less rigor around hiring people for dev teams than for management roles. (Occasionally, I see the opposite. Might write about that at some point in the future.)

I agree with the need for due deliberation in hiring managers at any level.  Managers can have a big impact, and it makes sense to hire carefully.  Many companies take a broad stripe approach to hiring managers. They look at management skills–but also assess psychological make up, interpersonal skills, and ability to work with others. At senior levels, the candidate often interviews with the other people he or she will work with. They gauge the candidates style, fit, and personality–and gain commitment from the work group, not only the hiring manager.

But when hiring technical people, many of these companies take a narrow stripe approach. They look only at technical skills and domain knowledge.  Both are important, of course.

But there’s an assumption there that personal qualities and interpersonal skills don’t matter as much, and team buy-in is irrelevant. There’s also an assumption that people developing software work independently as individual contributors, and they are relatively easy to replace if they don’t work out.

But, if you want to develop strong, creative, capable teams, you need to up the hiring game at the dev team level.

Here are four reasons why:

1)  A person working on an agile team is not  an “individual contributor. ”  He or she is expected to work interdependently.  In agile teams, people collaborate, negotiate, make trade-offs, handle conflicts.  These interactions require a high level of interpersonal skill and emotional intelligence.

2) Even junior members (in terms of experience, age, or skill level) are expected to exhibit a high degree of self-management.  They make commitments to other team members, follow through on commitment, manage their own work level and task completion. They need to know how to ask for help, and be comfortable admitting when they don’t know something.

3) People on agile teams need to have excellent problem-solving skills–beyond those needed by an “individual contributor.” An individual contributor needs to solve problems that are bounded by his task assignments. Problems of coordination and dependencies are often someone else’s job.  People on agile teams work together to solve technical problems, handle issues, and interface with other teams.  The manager isn’t doing the bulk of the integrating work between tasks and solving problems–team members are.

4) People on agile teams need an exceptional ability to learn and apply that learning–both in growing “generalizing specialist” skills and in improving team processes.

You can learn a lot about these factors in an interview if you use behavioral interview questions.  But not enough.  But it is very difficult to assess how someone will fit into the team, unless the entire team has a chance to meet him and interact. It’s hard to assess how people code, test, problem-solve, unless you see them in action. That’s why auditions are so useful.

Further, the broader the interview team, the more people will be invested in the new hires success.  They won’t have the cop-out of saying “your problem, I didn’t choose him.”

For some ideas on a hiring process for agile teams, see my article Hiring for a Collaborative Team.  And buy yourself a copy of Hiring the Best by Johanna Rothman.

Building Effective Teams: Miss the Start, Miss the End

(This article originally appeared on Gantthead.com)

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Plato, Greek philosopher and writer, 429–347 B.C.E.

I’ve written several articles about a manager’s relationship with a team that has already formed. A manager’s relationship with a team as they work is essential for cultivating a self-organizing team and maintaining a link with the organization. But a managers role in growing effectives teams starts long before the work actually begins.

The 60-30-10 Principle

J. Richard Hackman, has been studying teams for decades. One of his most significant findings is that 60% of the variation in team effectiveness is attributable to the design of the team, 30% to the way the team is launched, and 10% to leader coaching once the team is underway. By “design of the team,” he doesn’t just mean picking the best people. You also have to think about the nature of the work, articulate a goal, and plan for enabling supports.

Aim for Flexible, Long-lived Teams

You can call a group of people a team the first day they come together. But that doesn’t mean they’ll achieve teamwork right away. People need time to understand each others strengths, weaknesses and work styles. They need to agree on, try, and adjust the way they work together to find their groove.

In many organizations, managers from cross-functional teams to meet the needs of a specific project. In some cases, that means the team will be together for a long time. More often, it means teams will be disbanded after a few weeks or months. That’s barely enough time for a team to gel and gain the benefit of the team effect.

Analyze the work that’s in the pipeline. Aim to organize the work so that teams have “whole” work–creating a product or service that has meaning from a business perspective. Look at the trade-offs and tensions inherent in the product. Make sure people who represent those aspects are part of the team. Look for dependencies and to the extent possible, keep them within a team boundary. Form teams that have the breadth of skills to handle a broad range of work.

Then, bring work to the teams, rather than reforming teams for each new project. You won’t find a team that’s perfect for all the work in the pipeline. When teams lack a specific expertise, keep the core team in tact and add expertise.

Articulate a Compelling Goal

An effective goal statement does two jobs. First, it focuses the attention and effort of the team. When the team has a shared understanding of what their task is, they pull in the same direction.  When teams have don’t agree on the goal–or the goal is so vague it’s open to many interpretations–team members waste time and brain cycles arguing, working at cross purposes, or doing the wrong work.

Second, a well-formed goal engages the team in a meaningful challenge. An effective goal provides a sense of purpose to the teams work. The goal might be solving an important problem, enabling business, launching a new product, or meeting a  customer need. State the goal in a way that taps into purpose.

Take the goal handed down to the FinCore team: “Maintain the FinCore Product.” That goal isn’t enough to get someone out of bed in the morning. It talks about a process (maintenance), but leaves out the purpose. It misses the opportunity to tap into pride-in-work.  A more compelling goal might be:

Sustain the FinCore product by adding necessary functionality and ensuring the technical integrity of the code, so we can provide uninterrupted service to 40,000 customers.

Not all work is exciting and sexy, but all work should have a purpose. Making that clear will help people focus and engage.

Pillars of support

The right people and a compelling goal are a good start. But if you neglect the pillars of support, the team may still wallow. The pillars of support are:

Information related to the situation, domain, problem and technology. These reinforce the goal, and provide the context for the team to make good decisions.

Material support, such as machines, tools, facilities, adequate budget, and supplies. Adequate material support communicates that the work of the team is important. Starving a team for resources undercuts the goal and creates cynicism. Paradoxically, providing too much isn’t good either. A certain level of constraint can drive creativity (and over constraint kills it).
A strong foundation for team performance.

Expertise to supplement the knowledge and skills of the team when needed. Even when the team has all the skills required by the task, they may need an expert eye for consulting or reviewing. Some times there is some aspect of the work that requires scarce knowledge. It may not make sense to develop that knowledge on the team, or it may only be needed for a short time.

Feedback loops that connect the team to the organization. Regular demos of working software allow the sponsor or product owner to see how the team is doing–and allows for course correction. The heartbeat of progress builds trust.

If any one of these pillars is missing, you’ve put the team at a disadvantage.

This Sounds Like More Work for the Manager. Why bother?

Team design is a pay me now, pay me later proposition. It’s a myth that you can throw a group of people together and they’ll gel as a team. Strong effective teams don’t just happen by some magic chemistry. Well designed teams are more resilient. They make better use of the knowledge, talents, and skills of team members. They function and stay on track with relatively little management intervention. You may not always be able to bring together the perfect team. But you can set a team up for success….or failure. It is up to you.

New Roles for Managers: Interview with Lean Magazine

I recently did an interview with the nice folks at Softhouse.se for their Lean Magazine. The interview was a lot of fun, and made me think (which is fun).

The full interview will be in their special anniversary edition, schedule to be out by Christmas.  (Information on obtaining the magazine here.)  In the meanwhile, some thoughts on the role of managers….

LM:  We notice a lot of confusion when we meet managers. 

They see a new behavior in their development teams that have started to work according to lean/agile principles and usually the development teams are happy with the change. 

But as a manager the questions comes up ñ what should I do now? how can I support this? how do I avoid to destroy the good things? 

What is your message to these confused managers? What can they do?

E: Don’t tamper if things are working.  Ask what is getting in the way, and go fix it.  Ask what the team needs, and obtain it for them. Ask what you can do to help. If the team says “nothing,” don’t inflict help.

The truth is, when teams are working well, managers don’t need intervene. The hard work is in establishing a real team and ensuring enabling conditions are in place. When managers of self-sufficient teams feel like they aren’t doing much, it’s a sign they’ve succeeded. But managers shouldn’t abandon the team. Teams need support and a connection to the organization.

Managers still have an important job to do, working at the system level. Collect metrics that will give a window into the system. Start by tracking the ratio of fixing work to feature work. Then, find out what is driving the fixing work, and start working to improve those issues.

LM: Are there individual managers that will not fit into this /new/ management? 

E:  People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others. People who can only work through telling, selling, and yelling won’t be successful in companies that embrace lean and agile philosophies.

Some companies find they don’t need as many managers. Some people who are in management roles find they are happy to go back to technical work.  But, to me the new roles for managers are exciting and full of promise–developing people, seeing and steering the system, creating environments where people can build products and services that delight customers, satisfy stakeholders, and empower employees.

LM: Can everybody change their behavior or do we need to move some people? To where?

E: Not everyone is capable, and not every one will want to. Some of those people will leave of their own accord.  If there is a place in the organization where people who can’t or don’t want to change can still be of service within the organization, support them to find it, and then let them be.

We can never be 100% successful when we expect everyone to change. Don’t spend your precious energy trying to change people who don’t want to. Work with the people who want to change, and most often, when a critical mass has moved to a new way of working, most will come along.

If there are some people who are acting in a way that is destructive to people or the organization, help them find the door. (This advice applies whether you are using lean, agile or any other method known to man.)

ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches: More than a Title

As I said in an earlier column, it’s not enough to slap the tile of Scrum Master or Agile Coach on a project manager, manager, or whatever other warm body happens by.  It’s also not enough to look for the keywords “CSM” or “coach” on a resume.

If you are serious about helping teams learn and thrive as self-organizing Agile teams, get serious about ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches. Start thinking about the work, the role, and the job–not just the job title.

Here’s my initial take on a job analysis of the role (using the job analysis template from Johanna Rothman‘s very useful book, Hiring the Best.)

First, I considered the qualities, preferences, and skills. Second, I thought about the sort of knowledge and understanding that’s essential for the role.  Then, I thought about elimination factors, patterns of thought and behavior that would eliminate a candidate from consideration.  Of course, you can’t just ask yes/no questions for any of the characteristics on this table. You have to do behavioral interview questions and auditions (see Hiring the Best if you need a refresher on interviewing and auditioning candidates).

QualityR/DPreferenceR/DSkillR/DDemonstrated UnderstandingR/D Elimination Factors
InitiativeRWorking in a team environmentRTeam coachingRAgile values, principles, methods, practicesRDirective
FlexibilityRFinds satisfaction in helping others succeed.RFacilitationRTeam and group dynamicsRDefensive
OptimismRAgile practicesRWorking thru influenceDJudgmental
ResilienceRAbility to explain the "why" behind agile practicesRLow threshold for frustration
DeterminationRInterpersonal skillsR
DetachmentRInfluenceD
DiscernmentRTeam dynamicsD
SupportiveRSystem thinkingD

R = Required, D = Desirable

After I had a handle on the skills, qualities, and characteristics, I considered the interactions, activities, and deliverables for the job. I summarized it all here:

Who interacts with this person?Team members
Product owner
Manager(s) associated with team members
Other coaches
Primary roleCoach
Secondary roleFacilitator
Secondary roleIntegration with other agile teams
Secondary roleOrganizational change agent
Management componentManage his/her own impediment backlog
Job grade level (consider pay and message to the organization)For purposes of pay level, look at interactions and scope.
ActivitiesCoach one or more teams.
Ensure team enabling conditions are in place.
Create or advocate for those conditions if they are not in place.
Facilitate team meetings (e.g., sprint planning, sprint demo, retrospectives, decision making meetings, etc.)
Ensure that information radiators are up to date.
Develop additional team radiators to address issues unique to the team.
Advocate for the team (e.g., block unnecessary meddling)
Help the team see their own process and improve their processes.
Coach on agile practices
Guide the team in adapting process to fit the local reality w/o losing the intent.
Coach on interpersonal and collaboration skills.
Coach on technical practices
Identify impediments
Use influence skills to remove impediments
Transfer knowledge and skills to team members so the team becomes more self-sufficient.
DeliverablesIntangible
Up-to-date team radars
Impediment backlog
Knowledge transfer
Essential Qualities and PreferencesInitiative, flexibility, optimism, determination, resilience
Working in a team environment, supportive, not cowed by authority
Desirable Qualities and PreferencesDetachment, discernment
Able to navigate conflict
Essential non-technical skillsCoaching, interpersonal skills, Agile practices
Desirable non-technical skillsFacilitation, influence
Essential technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Desirable technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Minimum education
Minimum experienceOne year coaching a team. Two years working with an agile team
Demonstrated understanding of:Coaching
Agile values, principles, methods, practices
Team and group dynamics
Working through influence
Cultural fit factorsThis is in some ways a cultural change role. The candidate must fit the desired cultural pattern, but not be so far from the current culture that he's rejected.
Elimination factorsPreference for directing others, defensiveness, judgmental attitude, low threshold for frustration

Of course, what you look for in an agile coach or Scrum Master will be somewhat different. Each team has different needs for coaching. A given team may need more (or less) help with specific engineering practices. Another team may need more help with retrospectives or planning. The key is to think of this like any other job. ScrumMaster or Agile coach are not a plug-and-play roles. You need to look for fit–with your culture and with the needs of the team.

Readings for Managers: Motivation

I’ve been having conversations lately with people about compensation and reward systems, and the role that money plays in motivation.

All the research I’ve seen concludes that–for most people–money becomes the primary motivator at work when there are no other salient motivators. What might those other motivators be? Sense of purpose, pride in work, belief in the mission of the company, to name a few.

But many managers assume that money is what motivates people (though they themselves are motivated by more lofty goals). Not so. Most people start new jobs highly motivated. They want to do well. But the organizational road blocks (some of which are thrown up by well-intentioned managers) sap that motivation. As managers, we need to let go of motivation myths, understand what really motivates people, and then stop doing things that demotivate them.

A few key readings on motivation:

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer: Do Happier People Work Harder? (may require registration)

Katzenbach and Khan: Money is Not the Best Motivator.

Dan Pink on motivation, in pictures, Drive, (or in print.)

You may also find Pfeffer and Sutton’s book Hard Facts interesting. (Probably my favorite business book.)

 

 

 

 

 

Peck, peck, peck

A participant in one of my workshops of my workshops declared that in every team there is pecking order….and every one knows what the order is from one to n.  Since this is the case, he reasoned, it follows that ranking people in organizations is a reasonable management practice.

This is not the first time I have heard this assertion.

It often comes up when I talk about performance reviews, annual evaluations, and the harm done by stack ranking.

This assertion rests on tired analogies from sports or the animal kingdom.

I’m not buying it.

Software development teams are not “just like” sports teams. Software development teams aren’t packs, pods, herds, clowders, flocks or clutches.  Groups of people developing software are people in goal oriented social units–often in teams.

Sometimes, on some teams, it appears that there is one person who is obviously the star. Maybe.

In some companies, smart talk substitutes for action. So is the smartest talker the best on a team?

Some times there is a self-proclaimed genius who writes code that is so brilliantly complex that other people struggle to understand it. How does that make him the star? He is making it harder for everyone else to do work.

Then there are the people whose manager declare are top performers (though the basis of their assessment isn’t clear)–even though colleagues and peers  view them no more than average,  brown-nosers or a hindrance.

I observed a team where one person was viewed as the star by many managers.  To those managers, Joan (not her real name) looked like the one who generated ideas and figured out problems. From inside the team, Joan, suppressed contributions from other people through aggressive interruption, belittling others’ ideas, and arguing  until people caved in because it wasn’t worth the fight.

Rarely, there are people who are real standouts.  But not on every team.

What about the people at the bottom? What is the basis of the assessment?  Does the assessment include all of the dimensions of performance? In most cases it does not– it might include one dimension, perhaps coding. But in collaborative work, that is not the only thing that matters. Some times a person with relatively weaker coding skills contributes in other important ways. He or she may excel at  synthesizing information, seeing the software from a customer’s perspective, creating an environment where every one on the team can be more effective.

And the people in the middle? People who ascribe to the pecking order view believe that all of the members of a team could be lined up in rank order. But what is the earthly good of that? What is the basis of the comparison? Does it included the breadth of contribution or just one aspect of performance?

What if people are measurably different on some dimension?  Software is a collaborative endeavor. What matters is how well the team is doing.  Spending time teasing out relative contribution or trying to discern the pecking order does not aid in team performance, and can cause real harm.

As a manager, don’t waste your time trying to figure out the pecking order.  Do everything you can to help the team, as a goal oriented social unit, perform to its full capability.  Treat the true stand outs as exceptions. Promote them, or find other ways to reward them (don’t limit your thinking about rewards to money).  Treat the people whose performance is obviously below par as exceptions, too.  Either get them them help so they can contribute, or get them to a place where they can contribute (which may not be your company).  It is extremely difficult to assess relative contribution to collaborative work. The effort is not worth the benefit, and the downsides are significant. So skip it. And get on with helping the team.

Why not velocity as an agile metric?

In response to my recent post on Agile Metrics, a reader asked, “Why did you leave out Velocity?”

Even though it’s not perfect, velocity is the best way we have to understand the capacity of teams. It’s the best way we have to bring some reality to planning for releases.  Watching velocity over time and looking at patterns in burn downs can alert coaches and managers that something is going on, and they need to investigate.

Velocity is important. But as a metric for gauging how your agile adoption is going, it’s opens a door to danger.

Here’s why.

Velocity is easy to manipulate.  Want velocity to go up?  Fudge the definition of done and you finish more stories.  Change the scale and complete more points (what once was a 2 point story is now a 5 point story).

Velocity is easy to misuse.  Managers who don’t see organizations as systems can use it to compare teams or punish teams. Neither of which is helpful.

Velocity—as an agile adoption metric—puts the focus in the wrong place. Focus on velocity implies that if velocity isn’t improving there is something wrong with the team. In some cases, that might be true. But I don’t want people to look by default. When velocity isn’t improving or is erratic, it’s often due to factors that aren’t in the team’s direct control.  There might be a problem with the way the work is flowing into the team. Or the team maybe interrupted every hour with production support calls (or what ever). Or the team may not have the tools they need to do their work.  That’s something for the team and team coach to work on or raise up as an impediment (where mangers can work on it at the system level).

For assessing the progress of an agile adoption, I choose metrics that emphasize system performance to help managers make the shift from “work harder” thinking to “optimize the whole system” thinking. Managers after all, are responsible for creating the environment (structures, policies) and enabling conditions for teams be successful. To do that, they need a way to asses how the system is functioning.  Because I presume that the point isn’t being “agile” but delivering valuable software.

For more about using velocity as a measure, see my post Working Hard or Hardly Working.

Metrics for Agile

“How can we tell how far along we are with our agile adoption?”

I heard this question again the other day.

Usually, the person who asks the question starts to answer it:

Number of teams using agile

Number of people trained in agile

Number of projects using agile

Number of certified coaches.

Metrics like these won’t tell you what you need to know. More likely, they will lead you astray. How? Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I worked for a company that was “installing” a Big Methodology from a Big Company.  (The fact that they thought they were “installing” a methodology was probably the first warning sign.)

Every one in the department attended Big Methodology training. (This practice is sometimes called “Sheep Dip” training).

The VP mandated that all projects would use the Big Methodology.

The Installation Team audited to ensure that project managers and teams were complying and producing the required “work products” in accordance with the Required Work Products grid in the back of the very large Big Methodology binder.

Of course, there was some grumbling (from the people the Installation Team referred to as “Change Resisters.”)  Eventually, people did comply. Every one went to training. Projects managers filled out the required templates, and checked the appropriate boxes.  The metrics looked grand!

The VP declared, “Big Methodology is now business as usual!”

At the time, I scoffed at that statement. It was clear to me that people were not using Big Methodology, and that the promised benefits were nowhere in sight. The only things that had really changed were some check boxes and some names (documents became “work products” or “job aids,”).

But, now, I realize that the VP’s statement was TRUE!

We had Big Methodology, and things went on as they had–business as usual! Well, maybe a little worse because people were spending time producing the many documents specified on the Required Work Products grid.

The metrics the VP tracked were easy to count. But they only revealed surface compliance. They didn’t say anything about whether the organization was achieving the improvements promised by Big Methodology and hoped for by the VP.

So when you think about assessing how far along you are in your agile transformation, consider what you are trying to achieve.

I often suggest that managers track three metrics to understand how well their organization is functioning, and whether they are trending in the right direction.

The ratio of fixing work to feature work. How much time are people spending developing valuable new features vs. fixing stuff that wasn’t done right the first time? If you can figure out the sources of fixing work and make some progress there, you have a boost to productivity. Agile methods can address some of the sources of fixing work…but not all of them.

 Cycle time. How long does it take to go from an idea to a valuable product in the hands of a customer? Again agile methods can help with delivery. But if it’s the upstream process–planning for products and releases–is broken, you may not see improvement until you address those issues, as well as the development process.

Number of defects escaping to production. This is a category of fixing-work that is a direct indicator that the quality of the development process is improving.

For each of these metrics, it is the trend that is important, not an absolute number.  The trend will tell you if your attempts at improvement are having an effect. Remember, most changes take time to take hold. If the trend doesn’t move in a month, it may not mean you have taken the wrong action and need to change direction. If the trend isn’t moving over time, then, examine what is happening in the development area. But also look at other aspects of the system. There are few one-to-one cause and effect relationships in complex systems and the trend you see may or may not be directly related to your change. One company I worked with was alarmed to see that defects released to production went up after they started using agile methods. It turned out that prior to the effort to measure defects released to production, no one paid much attention unless the defect brought down a customer site. The increase in the defects trend was related to reporting, not a failure to improve quality.

I find that the three metrics above are generally useful for understanding how a software development organization is functioning as a system. But your reasons for adopting agile methods may be different.  Consider the goals you are trying to achieve.  What signals would tell you that you are moving in the right direction?  How might you measure those?  When you think about measures, be wary of target numbers. Measuring against targets almost always causes distortion. That means that people will behave so as to reach the target, perhaps in ways that are counter to the actual goal behind the target. Distortion will keep you from seeing the real picture, and may also cause real harm to your organization.

Useful metrics give you a window into how the system is functioning, and whether your change is having an effect. The numbers themselves are neither good nor bad. They are information that signals you to go and find out, investigate and reason about the system.

Real Coaches or Hierarchical Control in Coaches Clothing

I recently met with a group of managers who work in organizations adopting agile methods. Several of them asked whether functional managers should become ScrumMasters or coaches.

That’s a risky road.

One manager was adamant. In his view, making managers ScrumMasters was the best course of action. According to this fellow, managers already know people’s strengths and weaknesses. They know the domain, and the organization. So, he reasoned, the managers are already equipped to tell people what to do.

Errr. Not so much.  Coaches and Scrum Masters rarely tell people what to do. Usually, they work by different means–modeling, coaching, teaching.

But it begs the question, can a manager be an agile coach or ScrumMaster?

Here’s what I look for in an agile coach/ ScrumMaster.

Experience. If your company has used serial life cycles or ad hoc methods changing to agile methods is not a trivial matter. Nor is it simply a matter of adopting a few engineering practices or using time boxes.  Succeeding with agile does require engineering practices and time boxes. But the real change happens between peoples ears. It’s a shift in thinking–and not just by the development team. Some people change the way they work by changing their thinking. But many more change their thinking by changing the way they work.  Book learning and training is good, and it’s no substitute for experience in the agile way of working.

A deep understanding of agile practices and methods. Coaches need to know the why and when, as well as the how. They need to understand how practices fit together, the intent behind practices. People do need to adapt methods to local conditions.  Without understanding, adaptation is risky. I’ve seen teams and companies “adapt” themselves right back into the situation they were trying to fix because they didn’t fully understand the “why” behind some agile practices. An agile coach needs to be able to think through what adjustments maintain the essence of a practice, and which adaptations sustain the current pattern.

Coaching skills.  Seems obvious. An agile coach should know something about coaching. That means helping people learn skills through practice and feedback. It means helping people think through issues and see new alternatives.  It may mean providing answers, facilitating, or acting as a mirror. If often means helping people think about the way they are thinking, and helping teams get unstuck.  (It does not necessarily include “life coaching.”)

Coaching is tricky when a person also has the responsibility to rate and rank individuals. Coaching requires openness and trust. When people fear that revealing lack of knowledge or skill will show up on their annual review, they are less likely to ask for help. I know of several companies where managers are now “coaches” (and managers). Its confusing for the team members.  They don’t know who they are talking to–the person who helps, or the the one who will hand out a rating at year end.

Understanding of teams and team dynamics. Another skill that would seem obvious, but is often overlooked. When the job is coaching a team, the coach needs to understand something about how people behave in goal-oriented social units. He needs to know the foundations and enabling conditions that allow teams to form and thrive. He needs to recognize when problems are related to the design of the team, when they are system patterns, and when there are individual problems.

Interpersonal and collaboration skills. Coaching is about enabling other people to be more effective. The zeroth step is to make contact with people. If a coach cannot do that, he won’t be able to build relationships and trust. I do sometimes meet coaches who are all about “me.” Doesn’t work. Coaches need to be able to work with others, share credit, and let others shine.

Influence and organizational smarts.  It is silly (or worse) to expect a ScrumMaster to remove significant organizational impediments and drive organizational change–even though that’s often the hype. Coaches need to be savvy about the organization and to have influencing skills, so they can help managers understand the costs of impediments.

If you want empowered teams, you need to change the dynamic between managers and teams.  Slapping a new tittle on a manager (or project manager) will not change the dynamic unless the manager’s mindset and actions also change.

Of course, some managers do have all the qualities and skills to make the transition.  And some teams have the gumption to call out their former managers when they slip back into command and control thinking or acting.  Even when the mangers is willing and capable of changing the way he interacts with a team, it will take time for the new pattern of interaction to take hold.

But for many companies, calling managers “coaches” or “ScrumMasters” is really hierarchical control in coaches clothing.

Organizations still need managers.  Call them managers, and have them do management work–improving the organizational system and translating strategy into action. And get a coach to be the coach.