Leadership, Management, Transitioning to Agile

Johanna Rothman has worked with several management teams who want her to train them or their project managers to take over the agile training. While on the surface this doesn't seem an unreasonable request, when one considers the self-managing, self-organizing nature of an agile team, the incongruity of this thinking begins to shine through.

I’ve been working with several management teams who want me to train them or their project managers to take over the agile training. It’s not unreasonable from their perspective—it’s how they’ve transitioned to all the other process improvement approaches over the years.

Except, none of the other process improvement approaches have been built on the notion of self-organizing or self-managing teams. None of the other approaches have been built on the idea that leadership emerges from within the teams, not from the top. And, I, the queen of tact and diplomacy, need to find a way to describe this to my clients.

Agile and lean provide a team with plenty of benefits: visualizing the work in a backlog, ranking the work so it’s clear what the first thing to do is at any time, making it possible for a team to swarm around the work, knowing what done means, demoing the work often. All of these benefits make it possible to allow for frequent change, which is the biggest benefit of all.

But the reason agile and lean work so well is that the team drives the work. The team is at the very least, self-directed, where the team works together, but still has some management guidance because they don’t know how to manage their team membership, for example. Many agile teams are self-managing, and some teams are self-organizing.

If the senior management or project management teaches agile, especially if they have never lived agile, it’s incongruent. It would be more congruent to have the team members teach each other agile. That would be the team driving the work.

I can sympathize with management wanting to cap their expenses transitioning to agile. And, training project managers as trainers who have no experience in agile is not a cost-effective way to create a successful transition. Neither is training managers with no experience. The problem is this: in order to teach agile, you need experience doing it so you can diagnose the problems as you see it in the training, because there is no recipe.

There is no recipe because every team of people is unique. There may be common patterns of pitfalls, but how each team solves those problems is often unique to their context.

This is a problem. It means that in one organization you might not have just one definition of agile if one project has silo’d teams across the world and another project has cross-functional teams in one location. The definition will come from the people on the team who will discuss what done means for them, and how they will handle the issues of where the people are, and how to manage the deliverables. The team members will lead from within the team.

How have you explained this notion of the leadership arising from the team to managers?

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