Apply “How Little” Thinking to Agile Management Control

Most managers I meet want to do a good job. They want to provide the vision for the people doing the work. They want to provide coaching if people need it. They want to know that people can deliver the outcomes the organization needs and the managers want.

As their organizations move to agile approaches, these managers have problems: their organization (managers above them) wants to measure them by the old rules which demand control. The people doing the work want less control and more servant leadership. The managers feel stuck in that “messy middle.”

Too often, managers feel this tension because the agile approaches challenge the organizational culture. The culture has not yet changed to encourage experiments, team-based collaboration, and team-based risk-taking.

Here are some examples I've seen:

  • Managers estimate on behalf of other people or a team. The managers want to encourage/control how long the work will take.
  • Managers ask architects to help a team to control the design of the product. They want to control the risks of not being able to add to the product in the future because the architecture is “broken.”
  • Managers create the teams, not asking people to create their own teams to control the risks of not having “the best” teams.
  • Managers create the team's board the team is supposed to use. That controls the risks that the manager can't understand the team's data. (Sometimes, agile teams are supposed to produce Gantt charts.)

There are many more, but that's enough for now.

It's time for managers to apply “how little” thinking to their management control.

I first wrote about how little can we do in relation to projects.  I discussed how little thinking in Manage It! I explained more about how little thinking can help create small stories, continuous integration, and a better agile approach for many teams in Create Your Successful Agile Project.

How might managers apply how little thinking to their management, especially around issues of control?

  • Be explicit about the risks the manager wants to prevent. When managers say, “I am worried about this risk,” the team can say, “Thanks. Here's how we will manage this risk.”
  • Ask if people want help, don't assume. This goes for team organization, whether people need an architect or a UI person, or any other person not normally on the team.
  • Ask for the results the manager wants. If you're worried about product integrity, say so. If you're worried about performance or reliability or security, say so. If you're worried about budget, say so. Managers can even request that teams show how the team will deliver these outcomes.

The problem I see is that too many managers are so focused on preventing problems, they don't let the people experiment on their own. The managers “take care of” the people, not realizing how that feels.

If you are a manager in the middle of an agile transformation, you might struggle with these and other “how little” issues. Consider joining us at the Influential Agile Leader workshop.

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