The Leader Role in Agile Transformation

2020-11-03 14:02:34
Renee Teng

Leaders and managers cannot be left behind in the process of creating a high-performance agile team.  Robert Galen shared a comment from a LinkedIn group discussion by an esteemed Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) on his experience of team performance with and without management involvement.

I have witnessed Scrum teams work at high performance with no manager involvement. I have also witnessed them work less effectively with manager involvement. I have not witnessed a Scrum team perform highly with the involvement of a manager. My experiences align with the conclusions reached in research and study by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith about teams (the Wisdom of Teams and The Discipline of Teams). According to them (and my experiences support their position), single leader work groups cannot reach the high performance of "real teams" for a variety of reasons, primarily because they are not autonomous and cannot leverage mutual accountability and other social contracts., formerly CollabNet VersionOne, finds out in the 14th annual state of agile report that management issues are one of the top five factors that contributes to failure in the Agile transformation. 

What the 14th annual State of Agile report says

CULTURE IS STILL A THING. The highest-ranked challenges to adopting and scaling Agile continue to be related to organizational culture. General organizational resistance to change, inadequate management support and sponsorship, and organizational culture at odds with Agile values remain in the top 5 challenges. A new choice this year, not enough leadership participation, also ranked in the top 5.

Mike Cottmeyer proposed that agile transformation needs managers to cooperate on the transformation with three common ways to begin transformation:

  • System: the current work frame and the value of the organization. Build a cross-functional team, first focus on value and flow, and then change the practice and culture.
  • Culture: the team mentality and thinking will change the structure and practice of the system.
  • Practice: the method, the tool set or the framework, and then the institutional structure and culture will change accordingly.

How to form a team, minimize dependencies, and create more value like a business leader in agile transformation?

Differentiate team roles first

In an organization, a big boss, project managers, product owners, test teams, operation and maintenance, PMO, quality management, human resources, administration and finance roles are involved. Before agile transformation, the following two questions need to be clear up:

  • The different roles in agile transformation. Every role is closely related to production and has to participate in the transformation. Define what each role play in agile transformation;
  • Who initiates the transformation and how to do it. In addition to which role to initiate the transformation, what is more important is about how to do it, which part to start with, what process it is, and what needs to be paid attention to.
Four types of roles are involved in agile transformation.

Activity in Agile Transformation

Senior Management

As the top level managerial, responsible for decision-making and strategy implementing, clearing impediments, and guiding  agile transformation

Middle-Level Management

(PO, Scrum Master, PMO, QA)

Product owners are at the beginning of the value chain. Scrum Masters are the direct managers of production. PMO and QA are in charge of quality and process control. They are the mainstay of agile transformation.

Agile Team

(Design, Dev, Test, DevOps)

As first-line productive forces, they are the solid foundation for agile transformation.

Support Department

(HR, Admin, Finance, Marketing)

As support departments, they provide support for agile transformation.

The top-level leaders who guide the direction and the middle-level who play a mainstay role in the transformation should start the transformation.

What the top managerial do

The top-level can make changes from a strategic level and allocate resources to create a favorable environment for transformation, then there will be fewer obstacles for the team to transit. However, they might be in the command-and-control mode, because they are responsible for the results of the transformation, which might make the team be afraid of taking the initiative. This contradicts the self-organizating team in agile, and tends to be a look-like-agile-but-actually-not situation, which hinders the transformation. Therefore, senior managers and leaders must change their traditional management and thinking, and be agile thinking, and adopt agile technology to enable the team to be truly self-organized. Ultimately, the agile transformation could be done and their competitiveness is much improved.

Refer to the steps below for agile transformation:

  1. Evaluate the agility within the company. Clarify the problems and advantages.
  2. Introduce the agile transformation steering committee, agile coaches, agile training, and specify transformation goals and strategies.
  3. Pilot. Select a project and implement agile. Review and feedback on the pilot.
  4. Popularize agile within the company. Build an agile community and prepare plans for objections.
  5. Nurture the agile culture within the company. Continuously improve agile transformation and train the team to be agilist.

What the middle-level managerial do

In the agile transformation, the role of middle-level leaders and managers is crucial. The Project Manager/ Scrum Master plays a key role in building a cross-department team to do an end-to-end delivery; the PMO and QA department are responsible for the internal process and quality control. The Product Owners input project requirements which have to be input in the agile way. The roles and management methods of middle-level management have to change. If they do not change, they will be obstacles. Therefore, the recognition and acceptance of agile by the middle-level managerial determine the possibility of a successful transformation.

What the middle-level managers do is Step 3 and Step 4 mentioned above.

In Step 3 Polit, middle-level managers

  1. Listen to the feedback from the team and do agile training and get support from the team
  2. Plan. Set the sprint goal, choose the right agile practice, and set the duration of the sprint.
  3. Practice. Define team roles, implementing Scrum events, and follow up on implementation and adapt.
  4. Feedback. Update outcomes, share data and analysis, and report team changes

If the pilot is successful, then the company will do what is mentioned in Step 4 Popularize. Middle-level managers will implement agile in other projects. If not, the reasons for the failure should be addressed. whether to choose other projects to continue piloting or stop using agile. This is when the top managerial should step in and make a decision. 


Agile is not a panacea. It depends on the company whether to transform into an agile team or not. Constructive suggestions to partner with leaders and managers in the process of transforming to agile are also provided by Galen as listed below:

  • Treat all managers as unique individuals, and support them in their transformation to be agile leaders.
  • Be empathetic and patient with them.
  • Build partnerships with them.
  • Listen to them with purpose.
  • Have an open conversation and tell the truth.
  • Don't underestimate the value of leaders.

Start with small and then change the big.

See also