Managers in Agile

I am currently working on my dissertation for an MSc Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck University of London, with the title “Manager experiences of team formation related decision-making in large scale agile organisations”. Not the sexiest title, but a topic I am very intrigue about. Preparing a dissertation proposal is a journey of learning, reading and reflection. I have read a great amount of interesting content related to the role of managers in agile software development organisations. I was particularly intrigued about what it their role is said to be in theory vs. what reality looks like. I share some key learnings in this post.


Agile frameworks producing companies such as SAFe(R), consultants such as McKinsey & Company, Cutter Consortium or Industrial Logic, and manufacturers of agile enabling tools such as Planbox, are among those who have documented what managers in agile environments (sometimes called “agile managers”) are expected to do (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Overall middle-managers in agile organisations are portrait as visionary leaders who architect the organisation’s strategy and operating model, coach individuals and teams, and serve as catalyst to set up priorities and pursue performance improvements (6,4).

The roles of managers and team members in organisations adopting agile practices change compared to more traditional plan-based (often referred as waterfall) practices. Researchers from IEEE state in organisations using agile software development practices:

Team leaders shift from traditional planning, controlling and directing duties to others that require being a facilitative leader, team advocate, resources allocator, boundary manager, and generally increased savvy about managing organisational change” (6).

Managers lead more and manage less. Some responsibilities traditionally associated to managers are delegated to the agile teams, embracing the following Agile manifesto principle:

“The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organising teams” Agile Manifesto.

Organisations which adopt agile practices at scale are characterised by relatively flat networks of cross-functional nearly self-organising teams which assume responsibilities typically associated to managers in traditional organisations (1). How this is implemented in practice varies in each agile implementation, as autonomy may include different aspects in different implementations and practitioners are encourage to tailor agile frameworks to their needs (6).

On the one side, De Smet (2), from McKinsey & Company, suggest agile companies typically adopt dynamic matrix structures with two types of reporting lines, and middle managers can play three roles when their companies switch to agile practices:

  • Capability lines are associated with chapters, which are responsible for “how” the company works, and typically a long-term home. Managers are chapter leads, responsible for building the capability to resource squads. People-wise they are responsible of hiring, developing and letting go; also responsible for tools and ways of working. The most widely used framework for agile at scale, SAFe(R) also sees these ¨pre-agile¨ responsibilities to remain with managers (1). However, other authors (4), suggest hiring, development and letting go might be delegated to the agile team. How this is approach in each agile implementation my differ. Teams might have different degrees of autonomy (e.g., goal-definition, structural, resource autonomy, social autonomy(7), external autonomy, internal autonomy and individual autonomy (8)), which can evolve as the team matures.
  • Value-creation lines are linked to tribes, responsible for “what” the company delivers. Managers act as tribe leaders, “mini-CTO”s, who work with chapter leaders to form squads with the right people to deliver value and business objectives.
  • Squad leaders are individual contributors who help plan and orchestrate execution of work. This is leadership role which does not involve people manager duties. Effectively, some leadership roles in agile are not associated with managerial positions (e.g. scrum master). Hence, it is important to understand that no all literature related to leadership in agile is only applicable to management roles.

On the other side, some agile frameworks, such as SAFe(R) do not explicitly defined managerial roles, but a long, ambiguous and open to interpretation list of responsibilities to be covered by them as a wrapper to the better-defined roles of the framework (e.g., release train engineer, scrum master, product owner) (1) and which are loosely relatable to Agile Principles:

  • Personnel and Team Development
  • Supporting and Reinforcing SAFe Core values
  • Responsibilities in Program Execution
  • Responsibilities for Alignment
  • Responsibilities for Transparency
  • Responsibilities for Built-in Quality

As such, some agile frameworks leave organisations on their own to figure out what to do with managers when applying the framework of choice.

Real life experiences

Multiple studies report a management and leadership related challenges in successful agile adoption. Out of 52 research studies about large-scale agile transformations, a systematic literature review (9) the following management related challenges: Management unwilling to change (10%), Middle managers’ role in agile unclear (17%), Management in waterfall mode (14%). And management related success factors were: Management support(38%) and change leadership (17%). A 2021 study with participants in organisations using SAFe(R) reports issues with politics, difficulties getting management buy-in, and lack of clarity about the role of middle managers (10). The 2021 State of Agile report (11 ) highlights similar challenges: “Absence of leadership participation 41%” and “Inadequate management support and sponsorship 40%”, and highlights the key challenges organisations face when adopting Agile have remained largely unchanged for the past several years. Challenges with organisational culture, resistance to change, and lack of support and skills continue to be problems.

From Benefits and Challenges of Adopting SAFe — An Empirical Survey by Abheeshta Putta1(B) , Omer Uluda˘g, Maria Paasivaara, and Shun-Long Hong (11)

Research in leadership focuses on understanding what makes an effective leader. When referring to leadership in agile organisations, multiple types of leadership are stated to be “the right” type of leadership (12). This systematic literature review between 2000–2019 list the following as styles related to the agile leadership umbrella: adaptive leadership, shared leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, ad-hoc leadership, mentorship, situational leadership, expert-leadership and super-leadership. This review, as others in the field of team leadership (e.g., 13), point out that research about what makes an effective leader have inconsistent results and further studies are needed, particularly at present, considering COVID-19 driven impacts (14 ).

Agile team is the centre piece that makes things happen, and the guidance in many frameworks states that success of agile practices relies on agile teams being autonomous and self-organising. Agile trainings I have attended highlight the importance of agile coaching for teams to become autonomous. Hence, managers are encouraged to build up coaching skills and behaviours. Nonetheless, this does not suffice and are not guarantee of success. Research across 34 self-managed teams suggests that team design is more important than team coaching when striving for self-organisation (15).

Managers’ roles and responsibilities provided by consultants and frameworks might be ideal to aspire too, but intermediate steps may look different to the final picture. For example, research suggest that the role team leaders in agile adoption evolves, from playing first a role of team designers, evolve to working with the team to develop goals, norms and help the team’s learning, and finally act as a team coach (17, 18). Based on this, a case study about “What an agile leader does: The group dynamics perspective” by Gren and Lindman (16) uncovered that, in practice, agile organisations face challenges not covered in the agile process-focused frameworks, such as those related to team maturity, team design and culture and mindset, and that leaders action to mitigate them are key for successful agile adoption and enabling team self-organisation over time.

Overall this summary has covered the two sides of one coin that represents the role of managers in agile software delivery organisations. I hope this helps realising that the idealistic scenarios pictured by frameworks and evangelist are not without challenge. If organisations embrace these challenges and do invest time in filling the gaps of agile frameworks by defining clear roles for/with their managers and leaders and constantly evaluate and support their role as it evolves throughout the agile adoption marathon their leadership teams, them, their teams, their organisations, and ultimately their customers, family, friends and neighbours may benefit.




By day, engineer leading cloud adoption in a tech company. By night, organisational psychology MSc student. I aim to bring the best of both worlds together.

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Amaia Lesta

Amaia Lesta

By day, engineer leading cloud adoption in a tech company. By night, organisational psychology MSc student. I aim to bring the best of both worlds together.

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