When the textile mills of northern England ushered in the industrial revolution, it cemented the role of the middle manager. The speed and scale of the new machines demanded new approaches to work. Middle managers stepped in to oversee the multiple processes and became the glue holding each part of the process together. They took the targets from the mill owner and worked out how to deliver on them.

Middle managers in today's organizations still act as the glue that enables things to happen. They connect, enable and provide what teams and first-line managers need to get their work done. They have experience in the work coupled with knowledge of the systems and processes of the organization. They know the right people and can navigate politics, ensuring their teams make progress.

But for all their necessity in a traditional organization, middle managers can also be a fundamental barrier to an agile transformation. They can undermine the change, introduce roadblocks and create an environment where agility dies.For the majority of middle managers this isn't because they hate the idea of agility, but instead due to their knowledge of existing processes and traditional reporting structures, their perception of risk and governance, and their belief that they have been entrusted to keep the company safe from harm. The disruptive influence of middle managers has led to many agile authors describing middle management as “the amorphous blob of middle management” or the “frozen center.”Love them or hate them, middle managers have a key role to play in any agile transformation.

Pivoting From 'No, Because' to 'Yes, And'

In many organizations, middle managers not only enforce processes but also are the people senior managers go to when asking if something is possible. Their experience and knowledge are crucial when understanding the risks and challenges of doing something differently. Clarifying the value of agility for the organization as a whole and for the middle managers individually is therefore critical.

For example, a medical device company wanted to introduce a cross-functional team with compliance testing integrated. When the team proposed removing the hand-off, senior leaders spoke with the manager of the independent, validation and verification (IV&V) department. No surprise, the manager found many really good reasons for keeping a separate compliance team. In fact, they recommended growing the team because the agile team was handing off work more frequently.

What was the incentive for this manager to help remove their department or change it to become a center of excellence or chapter?

Pivoting middle managers so they help solve the problem rather than creating more problems requires agile change programs to consider their needs and align and incentivize the middle managers. In the case of the medical device company, thinking about the future role of this manager coupled with short-term incentives could have encouraged this manager to help create the cross-functional teams that included compliance. In a nutshell, pivoting middle managers from no to yes requires organizations to:

  • Provide a picture of an end state where the actual middle managers have a place at the table. It is too easy to talk about self-managed teams and flatter organizations without regard for the people who feel disenfranchised because of this change.
  • Create a clear connection with incentives. If middle managers are paid and promoted on the performance of their existing function, then it is really hard to align them to the change. Introduce incentives that help drive the change.
  • Train middle managers on what agility means for them. Training the teams that do the work is often the focus on change programs, but without space for middle managers to understand the concepts, there will always be the opportunity for the lack of knowledge to create distrust. 

Related Article: Bridging the Gap Between Workers, Managers Is Critical to Hybrid Work 

Learning Opportunities

Middle Managers Own the Environment for Success

Think about it: when a middle manager reads the Scrum Guide or attends team-based Scrum training, they often end up feeling disconnected. They see clear positions for the business, for team members and for team leaders, but their role is rarely described. But without middle managers, Scrum or any agile framework will not succeed. They create the environment for Scrum to thrive. They support the team, fill in any gaps between the team and stakeholders and ensure no one falls foul of organizational dependencies such as HR, compliance and legal. Really good managers go the extra step of not only supporting the team, but also helping drive agility by providing an external perspective, challenging assumptions and role modeling servant leadership. They help drive the transition to agility. Building an environment for success requires middle managers to:

  • Seek to help resolve impediments that are outside of the team's ability to change. A number of things will impede agile transformations that the team has very little control over. These types of impediments are perfect for middle managers to help resolve. 
  • Ensure that incentives, promotions and other HR-related issues won't hurt the team later. By not thinking through the alignment of HR issues such as bonus payments, review processes and even promotion models, the team may suffer in the long run. By taking ownership of the changes necessary to those processes, middle managers can champion their team. 
  • Role model servant leadership. Moving from a culture of command and control is surprisingly difficult, and middle managers are often a key enabler to effective command and control systems. By role modeling the change, middle managers can provide a great example for teams who are often challenged with this change themselves. Examples include facilitating discussions rather than presenting a plan, asking the team for ideas before offering their own, and using coaching and mentoring rather than managing stances.

Related Article: Agile Manifesto: 20 Years on and Agile Remains Elusive

A Checklist to Get Middle Managers Started in Agile Transformation

Often middle managers are the last to be involved in an agile transformation with executive leadership telling them their teams need to be “agile” and consultants being hired, and teams trained. But middle managers are crucial for long-term, systemic change by being involved and sometimes owning the change. The following checklist provides examples of the types of activities a middle manager can do when part of an agile transformation.

Activity  Description
Get TrainedEven if you know agile and Scrum, it is important to use the same words and examples that the team understands. This provides credibility and also helps ensure you are not surprised by miscommunications down the line.
Understand OutcomesNo organization should embark on an agile transformation for its own sake. It is therefore crucial to know the "why" and to communicate it clearly and often. Middle managers have a unique role where they can remind both teams below and leaders above of the why and help frame any discussions in that context.
Engage the Team(s) Teams are often confused about what role middle management plays, so getting in front of that is important. Clarify the role you'll play and what the team can expect from you. This is also a great opportunity to understand what they need and any guardrails around event attendance, etc. For example, some teams will not want to attend Daily Scrums because it changes the dynamic to status reporting.
Engage Senior Leadership Just like the teams, senior leaders are often confused about middle manager's role, having been exposed to the idea that middle management does not exist in flatter, leaner organizations. Set expectations with senior leaders as to your role and how it connects to the outcome the agile change seeks. This might require a working agreement or at the very least an expectation of their requirements. This engagement often gives you an opportunity to push back on any expectations that are connected to the existing way of working such as the way status is reported or budgets are described.
Engage the Change Leaders

After the fancy slide decks and the excitement of kicking off a change program, the reality kicks in for change leaders that change is hard. Middle managers have a great opportunity to provide support for agile change leaders, helping to remove impediments or at least providing a shoulder to cry on. This council can help the program by connecting the ideas of the change to the reality of an existing organization.

Consider Your Future

Future organizations are flatter and there is less need for middle levels of managers. The skills and experience that middle managers have is still a huge asset to any organization. Future roles include Scrum Master, Coach, Product Manager, Product Owner, Chapter Lead, Guild Lead and of course Team Member. 

Middle Managers Are Unnecessary, Long Live Middle Managers

It is true that modern, agile organizations are flatter than traditional, industrial ones. And that often means removal of the very idea of middle managers. Executive leaders provide direction, empower teams and provide support. The teams make it happen. Teams also assume the responsibilities of connection, integration and reporting or remove them if they add no value.

But there is a difference between the role and a job title and the people and the skills they have. Middle managers can play a critical part in any agile transformation by helping teams deal with challenges, serving the teams and helping executives provide direction. Over time, as the teams mature, middle manager's role may change to either a supporting role or to become part of the team. But this can only happen if compensation is not tied to how many people report to you, but instead to the value and experience you bring. Without changes to the notion of what is important to the actual people and the organization, middle managers will continue to be a roadblock to real agile change. 

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