An Agile organization, let’s lose all the managers?!

No more managers

Many managers think that their job will become obsolete, once their organization starts adopting Agile. However, we need Agile Leaders more than ever! The Agile philosophy is fundamentally different from what we are used to. We need Leaders with focus on turning the old organisation-reality into the new one. He/she resides in a continuous state of organization-transformation, enhancing team-ownership and cultural improvement. The role will change, but it will not become obsolete!

How managers were successful

As a manager in a traditional organization you have a number of roles: planner, quality-guard, director, budgetkeeper and human resource manager. All these tasks carry a large responsibility and are crucial for operating the organization. The most important responsibility is to maintain stability, planability and predictability.
These responsibilities are often obtained by a proven track-record of results, full business-awareness, measuring outcomes and guiding your people’s careers. Schedules are packed with bilaterals, steering committees, content meetings and in parallel you’re trying to keep up with all emails on content and process questions. And last but not least, you need to make sure that everyone stays within yearly budgets and plans!

Why organizations choose Agile

Changing market conditions, rapidly evolving IT-environments and increasing competition drives many organizations to choose the Agile approach. Organizations face an increase of complexity that requires more flexibility, transparancy, creativity and customer focus than ever. That is where Agile and Scrum kick in. Agile organizations are seen as a living system, evolving in an unpredictable and fast changing world. Agility has focus on customers and provides a stable, but flexible way of organizing.

Teams hit the glass ceiling

By applying Agile and Scrum, responsibilities will gradually shift. Once teams understand their role, they will want to:

  • Select their own team members
  • Have conversations on appraisals and rewards
  • Collaborate on plans and budgets together with the Product Owner
  • Make their own technical\quality related choices

Leaders will feel the limitations of the previously applied leadership style. They are not used to be rewarded for the structural improvement of the ecosystem and the teams: knowing the maturity level of the team and guiding them to the next phase.
In many cases this is where the Agile transformation stops or locks down, because Leaders experience this as a threat to their status quo. The experience of loosing the influence you have build up in many years can lead to frustration. In this phase you hear sentences like “we have been Leaned” or “Agiled” and that “the transformation was only meant to happen in the lower ranks and in the teams”.
The Leader will experience an identity crisis and a sense of emptiness. Am I still of any value for my organisation?….YES!!!!!

A different, but crucial Leadership Role

Leading to Maturity
It is the Agile Leaders job to turn Transactional Management into Transformational Leadership. In other words: You Manage Things, but you Lead People. He/she has the crucial role to bring the organization from “Doing Agile” to “Being Agile”. This is reverse career making: You are focused on Teams and not at the career ladder itself.

His daily job is to increase Team maturity by providing them a dose of freedom they can handle. Or maybe a little more than that. Too much or too few freedom might cause chaos, illness, burn-out or bore-out and increased turnover.
Coming back to Lean: When Leaders and Teams focus on improving, they probably won’t even notice that they are in a transformation. While continuously improving you make deliberate choices, guided by a common vision: on what to do and also on what NOT to do.

You Manage Things, but you Lead People

Your role as Transformational Leader

This is how a Transformational Leader operates:

  • Determine direction/vision/greater goals: Only speak in terms of WHY. You leave the HOW and the WHAT to the teams
  • When employees approach you, give trust: Do not solve it for them, but ask a question back or give them a hint
  • Provide clear boundaries: Clear boundaries provide teams with clarity and freedom to do what is needed for customers
  • Grow and Develop Teams: Apply a structured, step by step approach for Growing Team Maturity
  • Always blame yourself and show example behaviour: Not the organization or the teams were to blame. Only you are. In this way you set a new culture of responsibility
  • Protect your teams: for managers, steering committees, processes, systems and procedures
  • Measure and test customer results: You still measure, but now in terms of Customer Value and Employee Learning Capacity
  • Facilitate the organization: Create an environment where teams can excel and be successful. Daily improve the ecosystem

What competences do you need as an Agile Leader?

  1. Facilitator: Modest, giving meaning, emotionally intelligent, creative, hungry, curious, open minded. You Lead but you also serve. Focused on the organization as a whole.
  2. Connector: Team focused, sensitive, holistic view on processes and complex issues, helicopter view, down to earth. Focused on the internals of the organization.
  3. Coach: Making contact, delegate but follow-up, good listener, sensitive to others’ needs, creating a safe environment, a good sense for putting the right person in the right place.

Back to everyday reality

As you can see the Agile Leader is a crucial element in creating autonomous teams. New responsibilities will replace old ones. The Agile Leader is responsible to make the organization understand why change is happening. Only with the support of executive management, human resources, business and other departments he can create space to learn new and unlearn old behaviour.

In an Agile organization we replace Management by Leadership and this will not happen overnight!

Typical Pitfalls

A typical pitfall is to not involve the teams in defining the the WHY, HOW and WHAT questions. This often leads to confusion and a disconnect to the greater goal of the organization.
An Agile Leader always asks himself if he has the right people on board, before he starts asking questions. So the order is WHO -> WHY -> HOW -> WHAT.
Only when this is the case, people will actually help to improve and work on the vision. It creates involvement, ownership and energy in the workplace.

Most organizations have a vision, but it only lives at the board and management levels.
Self-organizing teams can only be created by involving people to the company mission…and that will cost time and paying attention!

More info

This article was co-created with Jeroen Stoter, at ‘Nederlandse Spoorwegen’ (the Dutch Railways). If you have any questions based on this blog? Don’t hesitate to contact me or join my Professional Agile Leadership training.

Ron (

2 Comments so far

PeopleNorthPosted on11:34 am - Apr 5, 2022

The information you’ve shared in this blog is very remarkable. Thanks for sharing such quality information.

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