Are Agile Self-Managing Teams Realistic with Layered Management?

Amy E Reichert

Posted On: October 25, 2022

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Read time6 Min Read

Agile software development stems from a philosophy that being agile means creating and responding to change swiftly. Agile means having the ability to adapt and respond to change without dissolving into chaos. Being Agile involves teamwork built on diverse capabilities, skills, and talents. Team members include both the business and software development sides working together to produce working software that meets or exceeds customer expectations continuously.

Agile success stems from delivering quality, working software to customers. Agile includes a manifesto and a list of 12 principles to follow. One of those core principles proposes using self-managed teams to foster innovation, quality, and team productivity.

The principles are meant to steer software development in a positive direction while accepting and adapting to changes as they come along. Agile teams must work together and continuously change processes and procedures with the shared goal to improve the software as well as the development process.

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However, in a business world that is typically layered with management levels, are self-managing Agile teams realistic or possible?

This guide discusses the reality of using self-managed Agile teams when a business includes multiple management layers.

Key Takeaways:

  • What does the term Agile team self-management mean?
  • Learn if it’s possible to allow self-managed teams according to the Agile principles.
  • What is layered management?
  • How do layers of managers impact the ability of Agile teams to self-manage?
  • Discover the benefits of enabling and promoting self-managing teams.

What does Agile Team Self-Management Mean?

Self-managing teams are Agile teams that draft their members, identify team issues, and resolve all work or team problems internally with the guidance of a Scrum Master. Self-managing Agile teams collaborate with other teams and keep the lines of communication open with Product management and design. Teams are allowed the freedom to become productive and successful or fail, re-evaluate and try again without repercussions.

Most development teams expect management intervention. However, the extent that management intercedes tends to interrupt or break a team’s ability to self-manage. Most organizations are not willing to let Agile teams manage themselves. Large organizations with layers of management roles have trouble letting teams self-manage regardless of the success of the team. Even teams close to perfect, that are highly productive and working at an exceptional level often suffer from management interference.

Effective management for Agile teams provides goals, guidance, and an operating framework but leaves the team to manage all other aspects. The reality is that organizations with layered management cannot let go of the need to direct. Self-management within teams is not a natural occurrence and it’s not an easy one to adopt.

What is Layered Business Management?

Layered management refers to organizations that have top-level managers in the form of Development and QA Vice Presidents or Directors, followed by Development and QA Managers, and Development and QA Leads. In this simple example, there are 4 layers of management. Layered management refers to organizations where multiple manager roles interact to manage an application development group.

Add to that the possibility of a Product Management Director, Product Owner, and Product Manager also impacting the work within an Agile team. Layered management tends to manage by directive and often tends to produce micro-managers. The problem becomes each manager’s role works from different directives to build the business and produce software but rarely agrees on a direction. The direction and even software development methodology of the organization tends to change frequently based on which manager becomes dominant.

What are the Impacts of Layered Management on Self-Managing Teams?

Signs that management is interfering with Agile team management include:

  • Team members are given an immediate mandate to change approaches from an external source
  • Any team changes that require approval from a manager or committee.
  • Team members are removed or added without input from the team.
  • Development or testing directives are significantly changed externally but the team is expected to immediately adopt changes.
  • Managers from any level step in and take over managing the team’s work process and deliverables.

Management interference often comes from the upper levels such as Directors or VPs. Typically, when upper-level management interferes it changes the focus and intent of the Agile team by altering work processes or team alignment. Middle management layers are even more disruptive as managers work towards moving up their career ladder. Often middle managers push process changes external to the team, that team members must incorporate into their work processes even if they don’t fit with the Agile team’s chosen workflow.

Wherever the external management changes come from, they disrupt the team’s workflow, processes, structure, and working relationships.

Removing the Fear and Reaping the Benefits of Agile Self-Managing Teams

Most Agile teams, in my experience, are not self-managing with the guidance of a Scrum Master. Rather, the team develops an internal management mechanism and then also adapts to the changing external management requirements. There’s never a point where the Agile team is truly self-managing.

When or if an organization’s management has the courage, foresight, or ability to let go a bit and encourage the team to self-manage, then employee productivity and engagement improve rapidly. Encouraging team ownership and accountability improves team performance and produces teams that are productive, profitable, loyal, and customer-focused.

Layered managers must learn to take several steps back and allow the trust to grow by allowing the Agile team to make decisions. The rewards gleaned from allowing Agile teams to self-manage include increased job performance levels, engagement, and significant productivity improvements. Teams are not only more productive, but they produce higher quality work products. Self-managing teams foster greater innovation by using continuous improvement. Continuous improvement may mean experiments fail, but the team needs to be allowed to regroup and try again without retribution or punishment.

Can Agile teams truly be self-managing? They can if an organization allows them to without constant external interference. Layered management is often the structure associated with larger software development organizations and impacts the ability of Agile teams to create innovation and improve productivity and employee engagement.

If an organization’s management can step back and advise, coach, and guide an Agile team without controlling it, the process works. Self-managing Agile teams are possible but rare. Take advantage of the benefits of allowing, encouraging, and guiding the Agile team rather than controlling them – see if stepping back produces improvements in employee morale, loyalty, and the drive to build a higher quality product for customers.

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Amy E Reichert

Amy E Reichert is a Freelance writer for a variety of topics focused mainly on QA testing, Agile, and technology trends. Amy has 23 years of professional experience as a QA Engineer/Analyst within the ERP, healthcare, and business management sectors. Many years of developing test process, leading diverse and inclusive teams as well as testing on mobile and web applications.

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