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Should Managers be On the Scrum Team?

Should Managers be on the Scrum Team

Anthony Mersino

December 28, 2019

8:20 AM

Article at a glance
    • Removing hierarchy is crucial for effective self-organization within Scrum teams, while still recognizing the importance of leadership.
    • Transitioning to Scrum requires evaluating the role of managers based on organizational needs, manager skills, and the goal of team empowerment.
    • There are five common roles managers can take when transitioning to Scrum Teams: remaining managers, becoming Dev Team members, serving as Scrum Masters, becoming Product Owners, or acting as Coaches or mentors. Each role has distinct considerations regarding hierarchy and team dynamics.

At a recent client, I noticed the managers participated as members of the Scrum Team. When I asked about whether they thought there was an issue with hierarchy, they quickly responded “not at all” and “my team members see me as their peer”. I was told that the team members spoke freely with the department managers on the team. And when I asked who did the performance review for the team members, the manager responded that they (the manager) did. Does anyone else see this as a conflict?

Deciding what managers should do is a common challenge when organizations move to the Scrum Framework. Sometimes the manager is a key part of how the work gets done on the team. It is thought to be counter-productive to remove the manager from the team in that case.

On the other hand, agile teams are supposed to be self-organizing. Can self-organization happen when there is hierarchy on the team? In other words, if I report to you for HR purposes, and you do my end-of-year performance review, would self-organization be effective?

I don’t think so. In fact, when forming Scrum teams I recommend that issues of hierarchy be removed entirely. That doesn’t mean you don’t have leaders! In fact, there will absolutely be leadership within the team. It may change based on the domain or the sprint so that different people will step forward to provide leadership for the Scrum Team.

So what do we do with managers when moving to the Scrum Framework? Should managers be on the Scrum Team?

Transitioning from Traditional Development Teams to Scrum Teams

I don’t believe there is any one solution for what managers do when moving from traditional development approaches to Scrum. It is completely situational and will be driven by the needs of the organization, the skills and preferences of the manager, and on the desire for team empowerment and self-organization.

The typical organization structure prior to moving to Scrum is to have a functional silo. The manager is typically in charge of all the front-end developers, back-end developers, analysts or testers. In some cases, the team is cross-functional and that will smooth the transition to Scrum.

In Scrum, the team needs to be cross-functional, meaning, it needs to have all the skills needed for end-to-end development. To build out those cross-functional teams, you will likely need to pull people from multiple departments. The org structure will look different and in most cases, it won’t make sense to have the same manager responsible for the Scrum Team. This is a good opportunity to evaluate how best to leverage the expertise those managers have.

[See how the Global Markets Team at Bank of America solved this challenge: Bank of America Customer Success Story]

What If Managers are Crucial to Development?

When you have managers who are crucial to the development effort, it might be good to step back and evaluate why. Is the manager a better developer or technical resource than they are a manager? Has the manager empowered and developed the people on the team to become great developers themselves?

Perhaps the manager has special knowledge or experience that the team members are lacking. In that case, it may make sense to have structured knowledge-transfer sessions to bring the team members up to speed and reduce the dependency on the key person. It may be best for the team members working for that manager to get out from their supervision and stand on their own two feet.

If it turns out that the manager is a great developer, then it may be best for them to become a Scrum Team member. They can also take on other roles, if they have specialized knowledge. Let’s explore how they can do that without introducing hierarchy within the development team.

Roles Managers Can Take On When Moving to Scrum Teams

There are 5 common roles I have seen managers take on when moving to Scrum Teams. These are listed below and explained in detail in the sections that follow:

  1. Manager
  2. Dev Team Member
  3. Scrum Master
  4. Product Owner
  5. Coach

#1 Managers stay Managers

The most common result that I have seen in Scrum adoption is that the managers remain managers. Their team members form cross-functional development teams but the reporting structure back to the manager remains in place.

Those managers that remain in a manager role should expect their relationship to change. As noted, Agile Teams self-organize to get the work done. So the manager should avoid getting into the details of HOW the team gets work done. If they are asked, the manager should evaluate whether it is really helping to step in and tell the team how to work. The manager and the team both need to learn to shift from manager providing the direction to the team providing the direction. That shift may take some time.

Another likely change is that the manager should not tell the team WHAT to work on. In Scrum, the team will have a Product Owner and prioritized backlog of work. The manager should work with the Product Owner to make sure that the backlog contains the right work and is prioritized appropriately. Managers should not directly assign work to Scrum team members or pull them aside for special projects.

The manager responsibilities for getting the best talent on the team and helping to resolve problems and impediments will not change. However, if you move to Scrum and have Product Owners determining WHAT to work on and Dev Teams determining HOW to accomplish that work, the need for managers will be greatly reduced. There simply will be less need for managers in those traditional roles. [See: Another Benefit of Agile Transformation]

#2 Managers Become Scrum Dev Team Members

In some cases, it will make sense for the manager to join a development team as a team member. Managers on the Scrum Team is most common for strong developers or architects who understand the domain, have current technical skills and have a desire to develop.

Should they join a team with their department members? Absolutely not. Where possible, those hierarchy issues should be avoided by having the manager become part of a team of people that they did not manage.

Should the manager lose their title or pay status? My answer is a resounding no, though is a question that each organization will need to address. Generally it is best not to associate growth and advancement with becoming a manager. Rather, creating a path for continued technical growth and development will help to incentivize people to perform the roles most needed.

#3 Managers Become the Scrum Master

In some cases, managers have the skill and desire to become a Scrum Master. It is imperative that they understand the role of the Scrum Master and recognize that it is a servant leadership role. [See also: Puzzled About the Scrum Master Role]

The key challenge here is for the manager to avoid directing people or telling them what to do. Depending on their style as a leader, this may or may not be something that is achievable.

Similar to the previous item, the manager who has become a Scrum Master should avoid hierarchy issues by only supporting a team or multiple teams OTHER than the one that they previously managed.

#4 Managers Become Product Owners

It is less common, but sometimes it makes sense for the manager to become the product owner. This may make sense if the following are true:

  1. The manager has been the key person negotiating with customers on what they need. They may have a keen understanding of the business domain or have established credibility or a network of relationships that is required to deliver solutions to disparate.
  2. There is a broad group of users for the solution that the team is developing and no one business person can represent all their interests. I’ve seen this with ERP and CRM systems.

Generally, with Product Owners there is less of a conflict from the hierarchy perspective. Still, teams and Product Owners will be more effective if the hierarchy issues are eliminated.

#5 Managers Become Coaches

There will be some cases where Managers can make the greatest contribution as a coach or mentor. I’ve seen this work for the manager to become an agile coach. I’ve also seen this work for managers to become technical coaches or mentors for Dev Team members.

I hope this have been helpful. For more on the manager role, you can read about how the Global Markets Team at Bank of America made the transition to Scrum in this Case Study.

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