Don’t fight but help middle managers

More and more organizations have started to transform themselves to be more Agile/Lean organization, through the way of bottom-up or top-down and start the journey through pilot team or product. And the outcome were very encouraging. Then the organizations started to try to scale the success to all the other areas. Then it seemed not as good as we expected. Teams started to feel even more suffer. When you started to look at the situation closely, usually you will find something like

  • People managers are keeping on shuffling team members across different teams to try to keep “high utilization rate”
  • Project managers are forcing teams to do more 
  • Managers prefer to have more specialized team instead of cross-functional team

And when you tried to communicate with those middle layer managers about Agile principles and values, you got resistances from them and then the transformation was stuck. It likes a trap in many organizations’ Agile transformation journey.

So how to break this glass ceiling? Should we treat it like a battle between the change agents and middle managers? We may try to fight back. We may try talk with top managers to force things happen. But in most of cases, we will lose. WHY? Because this is the wrong strategy and push everyone to the corner of “live or die”.

Regardless of the professional background, we are all human being. Middle managers are all good in person. Some of them even can become good friends of life. So, use this empathy, let us think about, why middle managers believe that they are doing the right thing? For example, why people managers shuffle people cross different projects all the time? Will they really enjoy it  and value it? I personally don’t believe it. At least, most of the people manager won’t like it. But if the organization operation is more cost-driven rather than value-driven, it will force the people managers to pursue high utilization rate because it will reduce the cost. Even they don’t like it but their personal performance will rely on it. If we could understand this, treat people managers as blocker is wrong. We need to find a way to change the organization’s value system. So the performance is rely on the value delivered by the team rather then how busy people is. This will help the people managers to focus on more value things instead of working on spreadsheet to tweak the percent of people allocation.

Also, many times people resist new ideas because their previous success experiences make up their beliefs and some of them are not fit for the new development needs. But they haven’t been aware of it yet. So we need to help them to build that awareness, this is the first step of change (please refer to ADKAR model). To do that, we may start from their current pain points and try to help them through different approaches. We may also invite them to participate some forums or conferences to see the different world. We may also try to connect them with their buddies who have good experiences about Agile. Or, we just wait until they start to knock the door and look for help.

In conclusion, as a coach, our value is to help organization to be Agile. This also include to help people to have better and more value life. We need to help middle managers to be aware of the needs of change. Because this will let them to have better life.

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