What does management mean in the agile world? Malte’s thoughts.

At this year’s GOTO Conference in Copenhagen, Malte talked about the topic of management. What is management? How can we approach it in an agile way and if we want to approach it in an agile way – what do we have to change in a way that it would succeed? Here you will find Maltes thoughts about this complex topic, which he talked about in an interview.

Management in General

What is management for you?

Malte: In my opinion, management is setting the stage for work. If we approach it from that angle, we also might think about what management does and who does it. I also like the word “self-management”. But teams often only see the “self”-part and forget about the “management”-part. Who does the management then? A lot of organizations are bigger than one team because a lot of products need more than one team. The question of management that arises here is: how do we organize several teams?

You mentioned that management sets the stage for work. What do you mean by that?

Malte: Setting the stage means building up the social system. In reality, there isn’t just the product itself, which is represented by the technical system. There is a need to support the technical system through the social system – and building that social system means a lot of work, which needs techniques and a lot of communication. It isn’t just simply there.

What do you think is the role of management in agile?

Malte: It is quite complex to fully understand the role of management in agile. But that is exactly the point of social systems: they are complex and understanding how they work is a constant experiment. While responding to the ever-changing environment and world, we also have to change the way we function as an organization.

A Community of Practice and Manager Roles

There is quite some overlap with the role of a Scrum Master and a manager. Scrum Masters are serving the team but also the organization. So couldn’t Scrum Masters build up the social system by simply talking to each other across the companies?

Malte: Yes, Scrum Masters are part of the management because they are setting the stage for the team. But also the self-managing team-members are part of the management because they are self-managing. For example: doing their daily is management.

But when there is more than one team, the teams need to be coordinated – a coordination board is necessary. Scheduling meetings for example is management and can be performed by Scrum Masters.

My advice for multiple teams sometimes is: think about the team as only one person. And then scaling works in a way that we do Scrum or an other agile technique again. So you just use the same technique again but think of the team as one person, being represented by a real person, which is coming from the team. There we have a manager again because we have someone who manages these teams building a social system.

The interesting question now is: how much of this can we do in networks? How can we give coordination tasks or even ownership tasks of the social construct to networks, e.g. to Communities of Practices?

Malte: When you think of Scrum Masters or Product Owners being managers, we do have a network of people. But there must also be a person in each team that makes things, like scaling for example, happen. Most people are focused on the work they do, but this work must also be coordinated between the teams. So, especially in larger companies or companies with a large, complex product, there is a need to have people who look into depth and people who look in broadness, like a portfolio. They can’t do both because that would be a high cognitive load and our brain is limited.

How can you scale then? Even in agile processes we see the scaling part failing again and again.

Malte: Absolutely, it is failing again and again. But I think we need to start dividing up work if there are multiple teams. In a team, there usually are individual responsibilities, but when it becomes larger, there will be other teams doing their stuff and not being asked about it – they are just making their own decisions, because they are self-managed – which we want. And suddenly, an organization makes decisions in which they are not involved and they need to be comfortable with that.

And that is difficult because we learned that agility means “I am being asked and involved” but with multiple teams in a large organization, you just can’t be involved in everything.

So scaling is easier said than done?

Malte: Yes. If we think in our team “I want to be involved”, that is good and part of being in a team. But with more than one team, I simply can’t be involved in everything. We have to accept that and need to have a shift in our thinking.

Separation of Management Powers

Do you have parts in your presentation here at GOTO Copenhagen that address that?

Malte: Yes, my presentation (download here) consists of three parts:

  1. Why do we need to talk about that?
  2. How can we solve that?
  3. What can you do?

The third part is an open question to the audience, to start the thinking process on what I can do rather than what other people should do.

So we still don’t have a solution yet. But what we often see in companies is that a people-manager for instance also has a product accountability. How can you be a product managers and a people manager at the same time?

Malte: I would say you should separate that. Have someone who really focuses on setting the stage and someone that is focusing on where the organization needs to go.

But it seems like that some managers like both hats. And the career path kind of leads to having people-responsibility to move upwards.

Malte: Well, I think that is where we come from: the classic view on management in which we have one person who knows it all. And maybe it is again the teams and managers who should give up that view that there should be only one person as manager.

I just think that having the people responsible or having the responsibility of building the social systems seems like it is not respected very much, unfortunately, in many companies. In our company some managers say that being responsible for people is not always enough. In my opinion, we need to have more respect and acknowledgement about this topic.

Malte: Exactly. And I think we need to solve this problem. If not, we are stuck with agility at the team level and then we will lose it because it is not enough – organizations usually are not only made up by just one team.

The Management Side of Agile

That’s what we see all over the place, right? Agile is implemented beneath the hierarchy – sort of “we call things other names and now we are agile”.

Malte: But I think there are a lot of managers out there who would like answers. In my opinion for teams, we already solved it somehow. All those management ideas are about 1500 years old and the cool things about e.g. Kanban or Scrum is that it gives recipes of how to apply those ideas within a team.

But on a management level, they are not giving them anything. It is sort of “you managers should behave differently now – figure out yourself how”.

Also, all theories are created from the bottom-up. So it is driven by people who actually do the stuff, build the products or whatever. But we don’t see much drive from the CEOs or CTOs, do we?

Malte: I am not sure if that is true because we, wibas, are typically called from the executive suite. So there are two levels of the organizations who really want to change things. And I believe that the top executive suite is not only calling because they want to earn more money but they really care about the structure.

What do they call and say? Do they call and say “hey, we want to be agile” or “agile is shitty – fix it please”?

Malte: Neither. The typical call is “we want to be more responsive”. They see that they need to be more focused on the market and that they need an answer. And that answer needs to involve the current managers because that is where the organization starts.

But then we often see that they call consultants like you with the words “we need to be more responsive” and “please go apply all that responsiveness to the development layers”. Are the managers prepared to completely change their way of working?

Malte: They are. They know that management is important for building the organization because they have been raised through the typical hierarchy and they know they have to change it.

But they know that we are not giving easy answers. And when people give answers like SAFe or LeSS, which are incomplete and definitely not perfect, they start throwing them away instead of experimenting with them, making iterations over them – but they need answers for the whole organization. And it is not going to solve anything by just denying it.

It is good that you manage to change the executive managements view of this, but we see many managers not wanting to change because the way they are reimbursed and compensated is based on some old reward schemes.

Malte: That is true but we can change that. We need to understand what we need to change and also offer a perspective of where they can go. We elaborated on Scrum and Kanban for 50 years and now the management side is expected on changing in only five years for example. We are not giving the managers all the things we have learned for ourselves: respect, taking time and making iterations – it is not allowed on the management level and that must be changed.

Experimenting on the Management Level

Yes, that is right. I think there is a lot of expectation and then managers receive a plan of “this is how you are now and this is how you are going to be” instead of saying “we need to change – lets try to be agile about it and be prepared to fail our organizations once, twice or more often”. The psychological safety for the teams must also be given to the management.

Malte: Yes, exactly. All the things we apply to the teams must also be re-thought on the management level. If we do that, I think we could get somewhere.

And who asks managers not to load themselves 100%? 100% utilization is bad on team-level, but what about the management-level, who talks about that?

Malte: We talk about making errors and iterative thinking, we say it is about respecting what is there and respect the principles. And also the Kanban principles: respect the current situation, don’t threaten the current roles and make prospective on new ones.

So can we do anything to help management?

Malte: Maybe small experiments would help: the same principles for the team, just on the next higher level. Thinking recursively.

What if that leads to 100 people being fired because an experiment failed – would that impede how much we can experiment with?

Malte: I think it would impede and as a manager, if you feel responsible for it, I think you would never let that happen. At least for me as a manager the last resort would be leaving or letting people go. So the experiment needs to be smaller in size.

Or more money is needed to burn on experiments and allow yourself to fail.

Malte: But I don’t think the experiments are that big. They are more like seeing if a coordination or meeting structure works or change a role for example and see that it works. And that must be done in a respectful environment.

So maybe it is not so much about “how much new products should we make” but more on the organizational stuff.

Malte: Yes. I have one example from a smaller company that has Dev and Ops, so it was separated in two different teams. They wanted to become DevOps. They started with a Product Owner that looks at Dev and Ops. Then suddenly a discussion arose about the Product Owner not doing the right job and that the PO doesn’t understand what he is doing. My answer was: It is a new job – you need to do something and then inspect and adapt what the job really looks like. It is as simple as that. And then give them 1-2 years of time to go through several iterations loops to understand how this new job is working.

And why would management not giving them the time?

Malte: I think it is not the managers, in my opinion it is the teams who don’t give the managers the time because after some time, they might say about the Product Owner “he is doing a bad job”. But they must understand that the Product Owner, who is now responsible for Dev and Ops, must learn it first. And besides that, he is not just learning this job – the job itself is being created.

I have the feeling that there are a lot of consultancy businesses that sell agile on false pretenses and are not good enough on selling. Everybody wants the fast way to change the organization. They are starting to sell agile Leadership courses – that is the huge business right now.

Malte: Yeah, but this is a start because at least you see that people want to learn and that is a good sign. You can only sell if there are people who want to know about different ways of management.

But the question is: do they want to change after learning about that?

Malte: Let’s assume yes, that would be a start. We assume they want to change and they see the problem too. Then they could do management guilds or communities of practices in the organization. Within the teams, they could simply think more about self-management and really about the management-part of it.

Maybe also accept that they are in a process. Engineering spent 1500 years on learning how to build a bridge and we are just 20-50 years in that process of building software in the organization. So we are bound to fail a lot of times. And we need to articulate what management means. Is it people in suits or a capability? In my opinion, it is more a capability to build a social structure.

Malte: Yeah, maybe think that together with people who do management. When we in the agile community start inviting CEOs and have this talk with one of them, I think they would be happy to do that. And that would send a good message to teams and executives would start thinking about how to build a good and responsive social sytem.

It would be nice to not have to use the term “agile” anymore and just talk about how we run companies in a modern way. When you say agile, it sounds like this specific way of doing everything.

Malte: I think that happens with every word that is being used a lot. But in the end it doesn’t change anything. If you now start saying “responsive” instead of “agile” then “responsive” will be burnt in ten years. But not saying the word doesn’t solve the problem.

No, we should solve it so well that we don’t have to say it anymore, I think.

Malte: That is just a normal way of work, that is true. We should have the next talk or thinking session with executives – we should try that.

How would you sell it to them to make them come, what would you say?

Malte: I don’t think we have to sell it to them. My first impression would be if you would call the top ten of executives in Denmark, I think at least three would come and thank you that you called.

You can also see the interview in this video.

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