Agile Leadership for Mid-Managers

Len Whitmore explores how the growth of agile changes the roles, responsibilities, and titles of mid-managers more so than any other management group, because agile practices require more leadership and less of what is considered traditional management techniques.

This theme of "agile in the mainstream" is interesting. If you search for it on the internet, you find articles by Forrester and CIO with statistics that show X percentage of organizations do agile software development. While impressive, a more pertinent indicator that agile is in the mainstream is the revolutionary changes going on in organizations’ management practices, with the agile movement being a major factor in causing these changes.

Recently, I read about the “Management 2.0 Challenge” quest by McKinsey & Company, in conjunction with the Harvard Business Review, which invited management innovators from around the world to share their most progressive ideas. Tony Salvaggio, president and CEO at Computer Aid, Inc. and the founder and sponsor of the IT Metrics & Productivity Institute, submitted the response, “Mass Wisdom with a Smart Management System.” “This submission defines “mass wisdom” as a new approach to managing a business in a web-centric world.  Our goal is to ensure that institutional wisdom is shared, pervasive, and effective in action.” Tony said.

Maybe a more telling example of the revolutionary changes going on in organization management practices is the article “Are Managers Needed in Agile Development, or Do They Get in the Way?”by Yvette Francino, the site editor for In this article, Yvette comments on Skip Angel’s presentation at the Agile Development Practices West conference where he answered the question, “Where do managers fit?” As part of her closing statement, Yvette wrote “As organizations transition to Agile, many of the roles change, including that of the manager. However, Angel reminds us, ‘We need leaders. We need people who are catalysts to make these changes stick.’”

As both business and public sector organizations become increasingly dependent on IT, there is growing recognition that IT leadership is an essential part of broader corporate structure in this new age of adaptive complexity. This is even truer for mid-managers, as more and more organizations transition to agile. The changes to mid-managers’ roles, responsibilities, and titles will be of greater impact than any other management group because agile practices require more leadership and less of what is considered traditional management techniques.

For example, many managers have the idea if they do not drive their people constantly, they won’t get their work done. This attitude will not work with self-organizing teams of professionals, especially where there is “protection” (such as a ScrumMaster) from management or others who might assign tasks that would take team members away from their commitments to the team.    

Having spent many years teaching leadership, I can absolutely say there is no such thing as a “born leader,” rather, leadership is learned! These leadership skills are not just theory or something you can achieve by reading a reference book like you can for many programming languages, these skills need to be practiced by the individual to become proficient.

Fortunately, some leaders of the kind that are needed on agile projects do exist. Having worked for and with this kind of leader, I have gained insight into leadership skills that mid-managers can learn.

While interacting with these “agile” leaders, one of the first things I have observed is that they posses an open, collaborative style that enables them to have transparent and consistent communication, which is fundamental to organizing successful teams.

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