Hirotaka Takeuchi’s and Ikujiro Nonaka’s 1986 paper “The New New Product Development Game”, set in motion a new era in product development. Their key message was that the sequential way of building products, which resembled a relay race, was outdated. A faster and more flexible model that included self-organizing teams was taking its place. The new model would look more like “a holistic or rugby approach—where a team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth”, said Takeuchi and Nonaka. Building upon this new model, the Agile Manifesto was created in 2001, and the Agile movement was under way.
Nowadays, it is common knowledge that agility is crucial for product delivery. This is especially the case in software development. A whole slew of Agile frameworks exists to build products faster and better. In fact, an entire industry for Agile training and certifications was born two decades ago due to this need.
While product development evolved over time, managing agile delivery remains misunderstood. What is the role of management when it comes to modern agile delivery? Here are a couple of common views I encounter.
- The Agile purist. The Agile purist operates less from a practical standpoint, and more from theory. Their belief is that management plays a minimal role in Agile delivery, if any. They contend that most organizations have unnecessary managerial overhead. Management should fund, staff, and empower teams, then get out of the way. The purist has in depth knowledge on Agile, yet often what they advocate is unrealistic for organizations.
- The Agile enforcer. These folks are strong advocates of Agile. They bring in Agile training, start Agile clubs, and promote Agile to the nth degree. Yet behind the scenes, their behavior resembles something different. Unaware of the contradiction, they apply a command-and-control scientific management theory (Taylorism) style. They often focus on tools and processes, but they tend to be strong in delivery and trusted by leadership.
Both examples, though extreme, have benefits and drawbacks. While the agile purist promotes empowerment and trust, in the real world, managers are accountable for delivery. It would be wrong for managers to give up complete control of product delivery. Yet, managers need to empower as much as possible, and not interfere in the delivery process.
So, what is the most effective way to manage agile delivery? Over the past ten years I’ve been consulting for organizations in a delivery lead capacity. Sometimes as a Scrum Master/Coach, other times as a program manager or capability/product manager. Here is what I have learned. The key to effective agile delivery management is balance.
Below are four key areas to apply balance:
- Empower others, but do not relinquish all control
- Trust, but verify
- Coach instead of giving orders, but apply appropriate pressure
- Focus on emotional intelligence and relationships, but stress accountability
Managing agile delivery is an art form. Effective managers apply a healthy balance between empowerment and control. They manage agile delivery using an approach that combines both theory and practicality. In short, to manage agile product delivery, one needs to be agile with their management approach.
About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is a principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting, providing leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and IT Project/Program Manager.