Evolving the Role of the Manager to Focus on Removing Obstacles for Their Teams

In traditional hierarchical organizations, the manager is looked to as the person with all the answers, the Decision Maker, the “Head Honcho”…  As we evolve our ways of working, though, we’re realizing that energized, engaged, and empowered teams consistently deliver more value than those led in a traditional “Command and Control” manner.  For those who haven’t viewed David Marquet’s “Greatness” video, I’d absolutely recommend taking 10 minutes to view it, as he does an amazing job bringing these concepts to life.

As we transition to these new leadership agility approaches, the role of the Manager evolves as well. Once we’ve established stable, empowered, cross-functional teams, effective managers focus less on driving their teams to meet deadlines and more on enabling them to create amazing results.  Put another way, a key focus for Agile Leaders is to:

Create great teams, and then help remove any barriers or obstacles that may be getting in their way

In practical terms, this means that effective leaders and managers begin spending more of their time partnering with their teams to identify “Delivery Friction” and helping to remove it wherever possible. Delivery Friction is anything that makes it harder for the team to deliver value. It could be as simple as not having dedicated space to work in a colocated way or as complex as addressing Org. Design issues that require multiple hand-offs and intensive coordination to get anything done.  Regardless of the source of the Delivery Friction, effective leaders and managers make it a core focus to identify and eliminate team blockers wherever possible.

Over time, sources of Delivery Friction tend to fall into two categories:

  1. Team Growth Items (TGI’s):  challenges or dysfunctionality within the team that limits the team’s effectiveness over time
  2. Organizational Growth Items (OGI’s):  Blockers, Impediments, or inefficiencies external to the team that limit the team’s overall effectiveness

Managers can help address both TGI’s and OGI’s, but their approach needs to be distinctly different per type of Growth Item.  

Team Growth Items are generally best addressed by the teams themselves.  There are two ways in which managers can help teams address TGI’s more effectively though.  

  1. They can help ensure that teams have capacity to address TGI’s over time by defending the team from unreasonable unplanned work (also referred to as “inject” work”).  This is often in partnership with the Product Owner, but it’s an important role the manager can help play.  
  2. Managers may also consider securing coaching support for particularly complex TGI’s.  This approach should only be taken after the team has been given time to address the issue(s) themselves, and is particularly effective when the team itself requests the coaching support when needed.

Addressing Organizational Growth Items, in contrast, should be a core part of a manager’s role in Agile organizations. There is a wide range of ways in which organizations may inadvertently make it harder for teams to deliver value. Some common examples include:

  • Significant dependencies on other teams
  • Constantly shifting priorities
  • Significant “inject” requests
  • Overly burdensome/ineffective governance processes
  • Lack of automation across support groups
  • Unclear institutional priorities
  • Misaligned performance management policies and incentives
  • Lack of support for stable teams
  • Rigid funding and finance models

We recommend creating a specific “backlog” of both TGI’s and OGI’s and tracking their mitigation over time.  To build bi-directional focus and transparency on TGI and OGI elimination, we also recommend recurring, preferably monthly, demos of progress against both TGI’s and OGI’s.  The key is that managers become highly attuned to the needs of their teams and ways that they can actively enable them to be more creative, innovative, focused and productive.  

Additional information

By Jason Molesworth, Enterprise Business Agility Strategist

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

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