One of the tenets of agile is forming self-organizing teams. This brings autonomy and ownership to the teams that helps promote the agile value that favors individuals and interactions over processes and tools. If the very definition of a self-managing team is a self-organized, semi-autonomous small group of employees whose members determine, plan, and manage their own day-to-day activities and duties, then what is the role of the manager? Many have argued that if we have self-managed teams, then we do not need managers. However, there always needs to be management or else teams can decline into chaos.
So how much value does a manager bring in a self-organizing environment? Plenty. This “external leader” walks the line and can manage the boundary between the team and the rest of the organization, for starters. She can build relationships, gather and share information, empower the team, and facilitate group processes as well. She can coach the team in agile best practices while also facilitate meetings and coordinate schedules. In short, a good leader of self-managed teams tends to do all these things and more.
Managing the boundary between the team and the larger organization can be a very delicate dance for the leader of a self-managed team. While managing that boundary, the leader needs to give direction to the team from higher levels in the organization and also report team progress/ status back to the higher levels. The leader basically represents the team’s interests in this flow of communication. This also means that the leader must manage accountability; she holds the team accountable to the goals it sets for itself and also takes responsibility when those goals are not met. The buck stops with the leader, and a good leader will lead her team by example.
Managing that boundary also requires you to build strong relationships both inside the team and out of it. Again, this is an agile value and can only help the leader of a self-managed team. Outside the team the leader needs to be both socially and politically aware of the organization she works for. Knowing how to navigate corporate politics will make her an asset to team so she can gain traction for their project needs. The leader will need to know how to gain external support for her team, and that means knowing the right people to contact when the need arises. Within the self-managed team, the successful leader will have also built team trust. Empowering the team by encouraging the make their own decisions and then delegating the authority to follow through on these decisions helps tremendously with trust.
Another way a leader can provide value and help to a self-managed team is by gathering and sharing information. In agile projects, we want collaboration and transparency. By seeking information from managers, peers, and specialists, a good leader can use this information to help diagnose and remove impediments for the team. This keeps the team’s momentum going forward rather than being interrupted. It also keeps the rest of the organization informed, as noted earlier.
That momentum can be kept going in a myriad of ways, and the leader of a self-managed team is the right person for the job! Having knowledge of the team’s work practices definitely helps in this area, but the leader can help facilitate the ceremonies of an agile project (planning, retrospectives, schedules, etc.). Getting the project started and keeping it going is something the team doesn't necessarily have the bandwidth to handle, so having a leader to keep things going and help the team respond to change benefits everyone.
Overall, having a leader on a self-managing team is not as oxymoronic as it sounds. Whether it’s managing the boundary between the team and the organization or simply keeping things moving forward, the successful leader can help behind the scenes to keep the cogs of the well-oiled, self-organized team on track for success.