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Top Four Behaviors of a Bad Agile Manager

Successful organizations hire quality managers who understand Agile and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as well. Good Agile managers don’t waste the organization’s time and money micromanaging employees. Instead, they strive to unleash the inner abilities of their employees by removing impediments. They trust their employees and spend most of their […]

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August 09, 2022

Successful organizations hire quality managers who understand Agile and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as well. Good Agile managers don’t waste the organization’s time and money micromanaging employees. Instead, they strive to unleash the inner abilities of their employees by removing impediments. They trust their employees and spend most of their time working to improve the system, providing the tools and processes that enable employees to maximize value in the shortest sustainable lead time.

A bad Agile manager isn’t necessarily a bad person. If your manager exhibits any of the following bad Agile manager behaviors, they probably don’t truly understand the Agile values and principles. Or, they do, and they aren’t able to adapt.

Bad Agile Manager Behaviors

1. Manages the workers instead of the work

A bad Agile manager focuses primarily on an individual’s throughput and utilization. Based on that sliver of isolated data, they identify employees who take on and complete fewer tasks than other team members. Then attempt to “motivate” the “low performers” by punishing or rewarding them to get through more stuff faster.

This type of management tactic is flawed. The quantity of tasks an employee completes in a timeframe does not correlate to customer value. Suppose that last week Employee A completed twice the items Employee B did. But, unbeknownst to the bad manager, many of Employee A’s tasks didn’t add value. And some of the items they completed contained defects requiring rework. Employee B completed less work, but their work was a true value-add. To improve throughput, work accounted for must be something of value and high quality. The bad manager praises Employee A (who churned out garbage), whereas they punish Employee B for completing fewer items of value.

In this example, the bad Agile manager only thinks about the workers. They fail to see the bigger picture. They fail to objectively look at the entire value stream and evolve overall processes and expectations to improve. The employees perceived as high performers aren’t bad, but a bad Agile manager incentivizes them to do more garbage faster. So, they continue to do that. This comprises the end goals of the organization.

2. Lacks systems-thinking

A system is an interdependent group of components working towards a common goal. To create and support a successful product, you usually need expertise from people in various departments such as business, implementation, operations, finance, and marketing. The bad Agile manager doesn’t map out and understand the whole system their direct reports work in.

The bad Agile manager focuses only on a single component of the system: the component involving only their direct reports. Then, they attempt to optimize that single component in isolation from the entire system. As a result, they are likely to introduce sub-optimization into the system. Sub-optimization is when one component of a system works in isolation, optimizing its success alone. As a result, it reduces the overall success of the entire system.

For example, suppose your finance department’s isolated goal is to reduce the cost of labor by 10%. To optimize their component’s goal, they only allow hiring people at a 10% reduced-market salary. For them, they are winning! But the effects of this sub-optimization can have negative consequences. It could delay the hiring process and lead to departments having to hire less qualified people. This prevents the system from meeting its overarching goal: better value to end users.

A good Agile manager understands the interdependencies between multiple components. Then, they work to improve the system. They collaborate with managers across departments to improve the overall flow of value.

3. Prevents sustained focus time

A bad Agile manager doesn’t intentionally allocate dedicated hours each day for uninterrupted work. Complex work takes laser focus on the task at hand. When people multitask, switching back and forth from one task to another, productivity declines. According to David E. Meyer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.”

A bad Agile manager steals focus time by requiring employees to attend meetings that don’t add value. They interrupt dedicated focus time by emailing, calling, or messaging their direct reports during that time. For example, asking employees for status updates randomly throughout the day. A good Agile manager doesn’t reach out to individual contributors for status updates. Instead, they get the information they need by consulting the data in their Agile management system and talking to the team’s Agile coach for further inquiry. A good Agile manager schedules focus time for the team, then works to protect that time from interruptions, not just from themselves but from others outside the team.

4. Is not a leader

A manager’s core mission is to maintain the status quo. They collaborate with upper management to define an immutable target. Then spend their time making sure each employee contributes “equally” to reach the pre-defined target.

A leader understands, envisions, and communicates the overarching goal. They work to inform, inspire, and motivate employees toward a greater purpose. A leader then assists the team where they can tactically so they can achieve the overall purpose.

A bad Agile manager manages, but fails to lead. They don’t look for better ways to coach and grow people, manage work, or improve customer value. Instead, they think they must provide all the answers. A bad Agile manager doesn’t try to adjust their thinking when employees present them with information that contradicts their worldview. They have a fixed mindset, rather than a growth one. One person can’t know everything about everything. When employees do offer feedback that differs from their perspective, they simply ignore that feedback or challenge feedback that goes against their agenda. They may then inject their preset agenda and miss what may be a better solution to overall success. This cripples the entire system.

A good Agile manager asks for and genuinely considers their employees’ concerns and ideas. A good Agile manager considers all feedback and adjusts their agenda accordingly to serve the over-arching goal. A good Agile manager hires intelligent, capable people, relying on the wisdom of the whole to tackle complex problems.

In Conclusion

For those of us who are accustomed to a command-and-control management approach, managing in an Agile environment isn’t easy. It requires a mindset shift. Every manager is capable of being a good Agile manager. They can start by opening their minds to doing something different; something better.

To develop your skills as a strong Agile manager, consider our Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) training!

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