Coaches, Managers, Collaboration and Agile, Part 3

I started this series writing about the need for coaches in Coaches, Managers, Collaboration and Agile, Part 1. I continued in Coaches, Managers, Collaboration and Agile, Part 2, talking about the changed role of managers in agile. In this part, let me address the role of senior managers in agile and how coaches might help.

For years, we have organized our people into silos. That meant we had middle managers who (with any luck) understood the function (testing or development) and/or the problem domain (think about the major chunks of your product such as Search, Admin, Diagnostics, the feature sets). I often saw technical organizations organized into product areas with directors at the top, and some functional directors such as those test/quality and/or performance.

In addition to the idea of functional and domain silos, some people think of testing or technical writing as services. I don’t think that way. To me, it’s not a product unless you can release it. You can’t release a product without having an idea of what the testers have discovered and, if you need it, user documentation for the users.

I don’t think about systems development. I think about product development. That means there are no “service” functions, such as test. We need cross-functional teams to deliver a releasable product. But, that’s not how we have historically organized the people.

When an organization wants to use agile, coaches, trainers, and consultants all say, “Please create cross-functional teams.” What are the middle managers supposed to do? Their identity is about their function or their domain. In addition, they probably have MBOs (Management By Objective) for their function or domain. Aside from not working and further reducing flow efficiency, now we have affected their compensation. Now we have the container problem I mentioned in Part 2.

Middle and senior managers need to see that functional silos don’t work. Even silos by part of product don’t work. Their compensation has to change. And, they don’t get to tell people what to do anymore.

Coaches can help middle managers see what the possibilities are, for the work they need to do and how to muddle through a cultural transition.

Instead of having managers tell people directly what to do, we need senior management to update the strategy and manage the project portfolio so we optimize the throughput of a team, not a person. (See Resource Management is the Wrong Idea; Manage Your Project Portfolio Instead and Resource Efficiency vs. Flow Efficiency.)

The middle managers need coaching and a way to see what their jobs are in an agile organization. The middle managers and the senior managers need to understand how to organize themselves and how their compensation will change as a result of an agile transformation.

In an agile organization, the middle managers will need to collaborate more. Their collaboration includes: helping the teams hire, creating communities of practice, providing feedback and meta-feedback, coaching and meta-coaching, helping the teams manage the team health, and most importantly, removing team impediments.

Teams can remove their local impediments. However, managers often control or manage the environment in which the teams work. Here’s an example. Back when I was a manager, I had to provide a written review to each person once a year. Since I met with every person each week or two, it was easy for me to do this. And, when I met with people less often, I discovered they took initiative to solve problems I didn’t know existed. (I was thrilled.)

I had to have HR “approve” these reviews before I could discuss them with the team member. One not-so-experienced HR person read one of my reviews and returned it to me. “This person did not accomplish their goals. You can’t give them that high a ranking.”

I explained that the person had finished more valuable work. And, HR didn’t have a way to update goals in the middle of a year. “Do you really want me to rank this person lower because they did more valuable work than we had planned for?”

That’s the kind of obstacle managers need to remove. Ranking people is an obstacle, as well as having yearly goals. If we want to be able to change, the goals can’t be about projects.

We don’t need to remove HR, although their jobs must change. No, I mean the HR systems are an impediment. This is not a one-conversation-and-done impediment. HR has systems for a reason. How can the managers help HR to become more agile? That’s a big job and requires a management team who can collaborate to help HR understand. That’s just one example. Coaches can help the managers have the conversations.

As for senior management, they need to spend time developing and updating the strategy. Yes, I’m fond of continuous strategy update, as well as continuous planning and continuous project portfolio management.

I coach senior managers on this all the time.

Let me circle back around to the question in Part 1: Do we have evidence we need coaches? No.

On the other hand, here are some questions you might ask yourself to see if you need coaches for management:

  • Do the managers see the need for flow efficiency instead of resource efficiency?
  • Do the managers understand and know how to manage the project portfolio? Can they collaborate to create a project portfolio that delivers value?
  • Do the managers have an understanding of how to do strategic direction and how often they might need to update direction?
  • Do the managers understand how to move to more agile HR?
  • Do the managers understand how to move to incremental funding?

If the answers are all yes, you probably don’t need management coaching for your agile transformation. If the answers are no, consider coaching.

When I want to change the way I work and the kind of work I do, I take classes and often use some form of coaching. I’m not talking about full-time in person coaching. Often, that’s not necessary. But, guided learning? Helping to see more options? Yes, that kind of helping works. That might be part of coaching.

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