Last week, someone tweeted that the C-suite “gets agile” but middle level management “resists” it. I also saw a tweet that the C-suite doesn’t get agile but middle managers do.

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

I have observed situations where both senior level and middle level management 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 level 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.

Take a look at the middle level management mindmap (or read through the list of middle level management skills reproduced below).

What Middle Managers Do

Maintain product integrity

  • Measure and monitor integrity of the code base
  • Build feedback into the work so people can self-correct
  • Technical standards

Activate cross-functional networks to solve problems

  • Open space
  • Ad hoc problem solving groups
  • Problem finding
  • Data gathering, analysis, hypothesis testing

Work on the work system

  • Evolve technical systems of the org
    • Improvements based on data
  • Measure and monitor the work system
    • Demand analysis
    • Measurement
    • Observation
  • Remove impediments
    • Look for patterns across team
    • Work across the organization

Create structures for people to work in

  • Enabling conditions for teams
  • Evolve social systems of the org
  • Demand analysis
    • Lateral coordinating mechanisms
    • Long-lived teams
  • Policies
    • Policies that support people and work
  • Information flow
    • Opportunistic cross-pollinization (lunchroom effect)
    • Formal
    • Informal


  • Problem finding
  • Experiments
  • Model
  • Gather and analyze data
    • What should be measured?
  • Develop hypotheses


  • 30/70 rule with report
  • What is said
  • What is not said
  • What the crowd noise sounds like
  • Tone of the humor
  • Content of rumors
  • Lullaby language

Create an environment for teams to succeed

  • Understand visible and invisible structures that drive patterns
  • Decision boundaries
  • Team support
  • Delegated funds
  • Team initiation
    • Access to expertise outside the team
    • Material support
    • Compelling goal
    • Information about the work
    • Real team


Develop people

  • Individuals (Side note: one-on-one meetings are the cornerstone of individual development in self-organizing teams)
    • Support for ongoing feedback
    • Long-term coaching relationships
    • Support for lateral skill development
    • Mentoring
    • Increase contextual knowledge
      • Business model
      • Market
      • Customers
      • Strategies
    • Build feedback into the work
  • Centers of Excellence (CoE)
    • Functional skills
    • Professional development
    • Scan for new developments
    • Peer learning
  • Teams
    • Peer-to-peer feedback
    • Conflict skills
    • Basis for trust
    • Technical skills development
    • Teaming skills
    • Build feedback into the work

Translate strategic plans into tactical plans

  • Cross-boundary release planning
    • Manage dependencies
  • Project portfolio management
    • Prioritizing
    • Value delivery
    • Canelling

Shifting the role of middle level management in your organization

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.

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