Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Advice for Agile Coaches on "Dealing With" Middle Management

Over the past few months I have been fortunate to attend a number of Agile Conferences. A theme I observed, particularly in open spaces and social conversations, related to the role of middle management in an Agile Transformation. Questions like: what to do about Middle Management, how to deal with the "frozen middle" and what is the role of an Agile Manager kept coming up.  To be honest the answers given often surprised me. The most common view I heard advocated is "get rid of them".

Strangely, I have also found I tend to be the only middle manager in the vicinity, or least the only one willing to own up to being a middle manager, when the topic comes up. Hence, I  have been known to inject a different perspective into the conversation. What if middle management weren't a blocker to change, but actually the key to unlocking change? I have a theory that middle management lead change is often the most successful. As my boss always says, its the middle managers who actually make things happen across the company.

When working with development teams, the buy in of middle management is critical. Middle Management can be either a force for good or kryptonite to an agile transformation effort. If teams perceive that management does not support agile, how will they ever feel safe to experiment and risk failure? I have seen agile adoption attempted in organisations where management still holds a traditional mindset. It can be devastating for teams that have invested in agile values like transparency, to be reprimanded by management for exposing the truth.

So what should you do with middle management? In my view you need to embrace them. When I reflect on my journey, I am forever grateful to my coach for the time he put in to helping me learn. +Mark quickly established my "office hours", working out that I came in early and left late. He would drop by to chat either first thing or last thing and sometimes both ends of the day. In the beginning, he did more listening than talking as he invested his time in understanding what drove me and the organisation. While these days I am a huge advocate of the "seek first to understand" approach, at the time it would be fair to say that Mark's desired to understand drove me completely batty! (Much to his amusement.)

After what felt like an eternity, our discussions about what was puzzling me evolved to include observations he had made and advice for tackling challenges. Some days there was more laughter than advice and other days there were raised voices as opinions were passionately debated. Don't get me wrong Mark was not always right, and there were times I didn't listen to him and he was, but the time he invested in me as the "middle manager" of the group, allowed me to become an important part of the success of our agile transformation.  (For those who are not familiar with this part of my journey, I shared how Mark used "embarrassing Em" to kick start our cultural transformation in a previous post.)

While my coach was lucky enough to have a willing middle manager to mentor, not everyone will have that good fortune. Some managers are going to find Agile threatening. Implementing agile most likely means change and no one likes having change done to them.  In this scenario, rather than “pitching” Agile to resistant managers, perhaps consider the advice +Dennis Stevens and +Mike Cottmeyer, gave at Agile 2013 and don’t talk abut Agile. Instead, focus on the objectives of the business and how you can help management achieve their goals or alleviate their pain.

Another approach I have seen work is what Chip and Dan Heath refer to in Switch as "Find the bright spots.". That is find relevant examples of successful agile transformations where middle management has been a key enabler and shine a light on it. For example, one of the services we offer to the broader company and the local IT community is tours of the EDW Agile Release Train. We have a constant stream of agile folk wanting to bring their management to our “Unity Day” event and to “walk the walls”. I think the thank you note I received from a coach who brought his leadership team through last week is a perfect illustration of how shining a light on the bright spots is working for us:
"Thanks for today.  It was great to see how far you and the EDW team have come.  It has really helped to enforce the agile change ideas within my [Department] leadership group and show them what is truly possible if you put your mind to it "
The life of a middle manager isn't easy, they are essentially the “meat in the sandwich” between the organisation's Senior Executives and operational staff. It is not unusual for middle management to have more responsibility than authority.  This can be immensely frustrating and it makes me wonder if the prevalence of command and control style management is a direct consequence of how dis-empowered middle managers feel in large, bureaucratic organisations. Shifting the focus of middle management away from frustration with organisational red tape to improving the lives of the folk who work for them can be rewarding for both the manager and the teams. Don't forget, middle managers are just as prone to the WIFM (what's in to for me) factor as anyone else.  They have to understand how agile will make them successful.

If you are still not convinced middle management has a role to play in an Agile Business, let me share one last story about the fishbowl conversation I joined at RallyON13 with +Zach Nies, +Jean Tabaka and +Jim Benson. Jim spoke about an organisation he worked with where they “killed all the middle managers” and “it was horrible”.  Jim’s emphatic advice was “Don't do that!”. Jim's argument was that in large organisations we need middle management to maintain order. I would add to this, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, middle management driven change can often be the most successful. I certainly like to think that my passion and drive for agility has been one of the secrets behind the success of the EDW Release Train. Whether you agree with my point of view or not, I would like to leave you with Jim's conclusion on middle managers: "they are people too, they are just stuck in the system”.


  1. Great post. I am encouraged that the middle managers like you are playing the active and vital role in the journey of Agile transformation! This is absolutely what we need.

  2. I'm with you too Em.

    Another thing to throw into the discussion is the distinction between middle managers who manage people versus process and policy makers (the technocrats).

    1. Thanks, Craig.

      I need to give "dealing with technocrats" some more thought. Perhaps a future blog post will emerge!

  3. Great post Em. I'm with you, but then I work for you :).

    The difference between you and most other middle managers is that you go out of your way to learn. A lot don't and I believe they're the ones Agile coaches feel like they're forever "dragging them to Agile" rather than guiding a journey they are committed to for themselves.

    I remember a comment by Dean (may 2012) where he said he had 2 kinds of customers 1. those with real leadership, and 2. those in terrible pain, and nothing much in between. That comment resonated with me as at the time I was coaching in a setting where they were all too comfortable and change was not being lead by senior or middle management management.

    Deming talks about understanding "the theory of knowledge" for your given domain. I believe middle management still need to make a personal commitment to get an education in Lean/Agile principles and work methods so they can lead and not block or passively resist at every step of the journey.

    1. Thanks, Smartie.

      You make a valid point about the willingness to learn. I have certainly seen scenarios where the lack of self driven learning by middle managers has resulted in a stalled or failed agile adoption.

  4. Nice article Em. Thanks for providing a manager's perspective.

    All these days I took an aggressive approach while dealing with 'Middle Management' and end up being frustrated. Now I realized that they are humans who are caught in the so called SYSTEM! I need to have a gentle approach while dealing with them. Rather than pushing Agile on them, I need to understand their business objectives and become a partner for their success!

    I am yet to implement my new approach since I am waiting for my next assignment . Hope it works :)

    1. Thanks, Dyaneshwaran. Good luck with your next assignment.

  5. OK how about if you have a middle manager who is instigating the agile change but he clearly doesn't understand it or want to let go of the old ways, so you get a half-arsed approach. Such as:
    * "This project will be 1 sprint of 4 weeks"
    * "Retrospectives always bring the same issues up so we wont bother doing one"
    * Has to be the only one who leads the scrum
    * Has to be the only one who leads the planning
    * Doesn't allow the team to self organise - dictates orders, does not listen to feedback

    What then?