Evolution of the Agile manager

Agile manager

How will the role of the manager change in an Agile organisation?
This is a question that keeps every manager busy when they start their Agile journey.
In this blog I describe the pattern of a changing management style. The behaviour is based on my observations when coaching the Agile manager.

The Pattern of an Agile Manager

A crucial part of an Agile transition is the mindset and acting of the manager.
Many managers have a hard time changing. Not because they don’t want to change, but mostly because the world around them isn’t ready for it.
Agile managers need teams to self-organise. Especially when it comes to operational, detailed, day to day activities. Daily, operational work is too complex to be involved in every detail.
However, self-organisation doesn’t just happen overnight!
Agile managers need to create an environment where people\teams organise themselves. Traditional management roles will evolve into leadership roles.
The pattern below describes 5 stages. In every stage the manager changes behaviour and lets go of an old behaviour.

Agile manager

Each of the stages has a relation to the maturity-level of the Scrum team. An Agile manager cannot grow when the Scrum Master, Product Owner and Development Team are not growing along.

The Director

The Director wants to be in control. He has a highly directive management style and tells people what to do; sometimes, even how to do it. The Director compares a Scrum team with a factory or an execution-machine.
The organisation is a top-down hierarchy. Plans are made at the top of the hierarchy. The Director makes sure that people below in the hierarchy (Product Owners included) focus on execution.

The Director gives people individual targets to ensure efficiency, quality and responsibility for the outcome.
Profit and shareholder happiness are the main measurement for progress. Teams commit to time, scope and budget to make sure plans are executed.
Directors in a transition to the next stage have difficulties, since:

  • The whole organisation is so used to this management style that it is very hard to change it.
  • Targets are still efficiency\shareholder driven.
  • People in (Scrum) teams are not used to self-organise (although they might be open for it).
  • Teams aren’t stable enough to continuously learn and become self-organised.

The Influencer

Being a Director in a world with uncertainty and change is stressful. At some point he needs to delegate stuff to people he can trust. That’s the moment where Directors become Influencers. A Manager needs some maturity from the Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Development teams to make that shift.
The Influencer still has a need for control. He still makes the top-down plan and then tries to get buy-in on these plans.
Once he has buy-in, he delegates the less critical tasks. In this way the Influencer can focus on escalations and high important\long term decision making:

  • The Influencer delegates Planning execution to the Product Owner.
  • Product Owners have to provide frequent progress reports.
  • The Influencer imposes improvements on Scrum Masters by providing guidelines on processes and tools.
  • The Influencer ensures quality by setting up predefined standards for the teams.
  • He challenges teams to increase their velocity.
  • He adds extra resources if this is not possible.

As a result of delegating work, people will start to feel responsible for some of the work. The Influencer creates more room for self-organisation, but people still struggle to get in control.

The Facilitator

When Scrum Masters succeed in building good teams, standards and responsibility grows. An Influencer needs this to feel comfortable enough to delegate more work and responsibilities. Influencers turn into Facilitators when this happens.
The focus of the Facilitator shifts from staying in control\ensuring compliancy towards keeping employees and customers happy.
The Facilitator takes strategic decisions, but leaves the details to consensus and mutual agreement:

  • Planning decisions are an agreement between Product Owners, stakeholders and himself.
  • Product Owners become the spokesmen to customers and stakeholders.
  • He tracks progress by frequently visiting Sprint Reviews.
  • In Sprint Reviews he participates as stakeholder or helps stakeholders to make the right decisions.
  • He provides the boundary conditions for teams to setup their own quality-practices.
  • He uses velocity as an indicator for fixing issues instead of enforcing it to the team.

The directive management style of the Facilitator management has changed into a supportive approach.
People feel responsible and in control. They now want full control over their work.

The Advisor

Once the Facilitator dares to let go of critical decision making he becomes an Advisor.
In this stage he only gives advice. Decisions are made by the people doing the work:

  • Scrum Masters decide on the processes, tools and improvements to be made.
  • The Advisor consults or helps the Scrum Master in solving difficult problems.
  • Product Owners decide on product planning & stakeholder management. The Advisor has no need to be in between.
  • Instead, he facilitates interaction between Product Owners, Stakeholders and Development Team.
  • Development Teams are responsible for quality and how they do their work (using the Definition of Done)
  • The Advisor facilitates the Development Team to get the resources for building high quality products.

There is a big overlap in the work of a Scrum Master and an Advisor. While the Scrum Master is focussed on coaching the teams, Advisors coach the Scrum Masters and\or Product Owners.
Once in a while the Advisor inquires if decisions do not lead to issues. He is still responsible for budgeting, but leaves the decision making with the people doing the work.

The Servant Leader

Mature Scrum teams feel ownership for the full value chain. The Servant Leader feels safe enough to hand over full control to these teams. Instead, he has has a holarchical view on the organisation, while teams continuously improve on their own level in the holarchy.
This is what real self-organisation looks like:

  • Development team members are responsible for product quality.
  • The Servant Leader randomly samples if customers are satisfied with the quality.
  • Product Owners are responsible for budgets, profit and loss of their product.
  • Scrum Masters are responsible for continuous improvement of the team and the organisation.
  • The Servant Leader facilitates entrepreneurship at every employee.
  • He makes sure everyone in the organisation has focus on creating customer-value.
  • He focuses on capturing opportunities, solving problems and getting results.

The Servant Leader provides guidance, possibilities and resources for new\unexperienced people to grow as a professional.
The major responsibility of the Servant Leader is to prevent the environment from re-creating old paradigms. Employees need enough room for experimenting with the values in the Agile manifesto.

Tips for the Agile manager

Traditional managers have a hard time becoming Agile leaders since many organisations still run on old, top-down, directive paradigms.
A Servant Leader stands out by breaking through these political power-hierarchies.
A few tips if you are planning to walk this path yourself:

  • If you work in an organisation that is still based on these old paradigms, make sure that you are supported by ‘someone above’.
  • It is often easier to become a Servant Leader in a small organisation. If your organisation grows, make sure that new employees also become Servant Leaders.
  • Focus on growing people….You can’t do this alone! You need Product Owners, Scrum Masters and Development Team members to grow with you.


If you want to experience what it takes to be an Agile Leader, you can sign up for my Scrum.org PAL-E training.

Professional Agile Leadership Essentials

More info

Read more about the evolution of the evolution of the Scrum roles:
Evolution of the Scrum Master
Evolution of the Product Owner
Evolution of the Development Team

Some good books on the role of a Professional Agile Leader:

15 Comments so far

BablofilPosted on5:39 am - Jun 17, 2017

Thanks, great article.

devops online trainingPosted on7:36 am - Jun 23, 2017

Nice Article. How it help to developer in terms of balance the day to day life.

Technical Project Manager and Scrum MasterPosted on5:37 pm - Jun 29, 2017

I like how we have female and male cartoons but you only use male pronouns. Another way of instilling hierarchy is through gender roles. Food for thought.

    roneringaPosted on12:05 pm - Jul 5, 2017

    That’s the male in me coming up….but also sort of a confirmation that the pattern is still male dominated. We could use more female intuition to deal with the matter, though 😉

MagnusPosted on10:05 am - Jul 5, 2017

Interesting article. I’ve kind of been through this journey myself over roughly 5 years now in the manager role in an agile organisation. Learnt a lot over the years, seen behaviours as in your model… Your greatest contribution for me with this article is that it provides some terminology to discuss these matters. That helps a lot I think 🙂

BugraptorsPosted on9:53 am - Dec 27, 2017

That’s really in the impressive way you have told the concept very clearly and symmetrically. The mindset and acting of the manager all play an imperative role in defining the concept of agile environment.

Ron EringaPosted on8:01 pm - Sep 12, 2018

Thanks Nancy,

Always love to hear this is useful stuff!

RichardPosted on8:06 am - Oct 17, 2018

Ron I wish there existed a buzzfeed-style “what type of agile manager are you” quiz online!

Agility SeekerPosted on8:27 pm - Jun 15, 2019

Wonderful article Ron. Glad I found it!

What would you advice (apart from being supported by ‘someone above’) to those managers/leaders who are still in a “old” paradigm environment? When does “old” makes sense and the “new” doesn’t, & vice-versa?

Perhaps (one/some of) the inner holon(s) want to embrace “new” as it makes sense for it’s functioning, but outer holon may believe “old” is better. How to grow in such a environment?

Thanks for your time!

    Ron EringaPosted on2:38 pm - Jul 10, 2019

    That is a very good question. It is almost impossible to give a simple answer, since there is a lot of systems thinking behind the transition from “old” to “new”. The best advice at this point is to be aware of how powerfull and resistant to change the “old” in the organization still is.
    I am working on a set of online trainings around Organizational Culture Design to help you answer this question. Keep watching the website AgileLeadershipSchool.com in the next few months!
    In the meantime you could start with reading ‘Reinventing Organizations’ from Frederic Laloux. This is how I entered the realm of Systems Thinking and Organization Culture in the first place 😉

VaibhavPosted on8:39 pm - Jul 23, 2019

Excellent article Ron! I loved the way each role has been segregated with just a little bit of overlap each time. The struggle we have faced in our organization is the traditional managers have now been transitioned into being Scrum masters. This creates some issues from my perspective:

1. It is not necessary that the traditional manager is well accustomed to working as a scrum master and subscribing to the servant leader mindset.
2. It creates conflict of interest if the manager (now SM) is also responsible for people growth i.e. members of the scrum team report directly to him.

Any ideas on how to circumvent these issues, especially in a consultancy based organization where the customer is king and adds a third dimension to the Agile team and leadership.


    Ron EringaPosted on5:04 pm - Jul 31, 2019

    Hi Vaibhav,

    The issues you’re describing sound very familiar.
    The switch from manager to Scrum Master can only be successful if the manager is not forced to loose:
    – financial security
    – status
    – relevance
    Although this idea is not very new (tip: start reading Ricardo Semler’s ‘Maverick!’ or Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organizations’), not many IT organizations have succeeded in implementing a shift like that.
    Shortly summarized: in order to make such a shift these managers need a sponsor in their higher ranks that supports this way of thinking who is willing to coach and challenge them.

Leave a Reply