Managers Need to Work as Teams

We hear about agile teams, in the form of product or feature teams. However, too many managers still work independently. That’s a problem when the teams have organizational problems a single manager can’t solve. Instead of managers working alone, what if we had teams of managers?

A client, Bob, had that very problem. He said, “As a manager, I'm supposed to be on the hook for what the team does. Which is a problem all by itself.”

I nodded.

Then he said, “I miss the team-based problem solving I did with colleagues back when I was on a product team. I need other managers to work with me to deliver what my teams need. How can I get my colleagues to work with me?”

We’re accustomed to product or feature times. We have senior leadership teams. Why don’t we hear about first-level or middle-management teams?

I suspect that my experience mirrors yours—those first-level or middle management teams are informal, not formal. Too few organizations realize they need managers to collaborate to facilitate the product or feature teams.

I showed Bob this picture from Book 3: Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization, and he said, “Yes! That's what I need!”

If we want business agility, managers need to work in teams—maybe even before we think about product or feature teams.

Benefits of Management Teams

Management teams help the organization in many ways:

Your management teams don’t need to be formal. However, managers need to collaborate to address organizational problems.

First-level management teams might address team workspace issues, build automation, and even how to help customers use the product faster.

Middle managers manage the project portfolio, identify new opportunities, and gather data for training across the organization.

You might think the managers should facilitate the teams they serve. Also, when managers collaborate, they can see where other teams have similar problems. (I assume that the teams work towards self-management.)

The more you feel the need to reward a manager on their work, the less likely they will collaborate. Yes, you’ll need to rethink the reward structure.

Bob's Results

Bob suggested that the first-level managers meet once a week, for 45 minutes, to gather common problems and see what they could do.

They learned that some teams had successful experiments with faster builds and different tools. Some teams still struggled with their build speed. Several first-level managers took action items to let their teams know. The managers could address this issue at their level.

The managers also learned that some teams had overloaded product people. Those product people were supposed to “support” several teams, which meant they didn't spend enough time with any team. As a team, they escalated the overloaded product people problem to the middle managers.

The middle managers started to meet once a week, too. They hadn't realized the project portfolio pressured these overloaded product people. They worked together—with the product people—to rationalize the workload. That was a tough problem because these overworked product people felt ownership and responsibility to those products—even though, as product people, they felt they shortchanged the products and the teams.

This is a people problem, created by structural and cultural problems. Managers—with the way they make decisions, how they explain those decisions, and what they reward—can address structural and cultural problems.

If you see problems across the organization, consider asking the managers to collaborate. They, like Bob, might love the collaboration. And, because they can see across the organization, they'll gain some insight on if or when to change. Or, what to do if senior management wants them to change.

Let’s not restrict agile teams to product or feature teams. Let’s ask managers to collaborate, too. (Check out Book 3 if you want to know more.)

2 Replies to “Managers Need to Work as Teams”

  1. I worked hard in my current role, where I have some managers reporting to me, to build a “first team” of these frontline managers and their product-manager counterparts. There had been some bent feelings and fingerpointing, classic engineering-vs-product stuff. I wanted to build greater understanding among all of the pressures product faced and engineering faced. It was starting to gain traction when a project realignment and reorg dismantled my team and gave me a new one. Just call me Sisyphus.

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