Podcast Ep. 22: The Role of Managers in Agile Organizations with Esther Derby

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Episode Description:

This week, Esther Derby joins the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast! Esther is an agile expert and the President of Esther Derby Associates, Inc.

Esther started her professional career as a programmer. She realized fairly early that work environments had a huge impact on whether or not someone could be successful. And that even though she was a coder, her real work was in changing the way people worked and supporting them through that process.

In 1997, she founded Esther Derby Associates, Inc. and has spent the last 25 years helping companies design their environment, culture and human dynamics for optimum success. She helps teams and management understand what’s working and where there are contradictions that sap productivity and stifle innovation, as well as how best to maximize a team’s capacity for achievement.

In this week’s episode, Esther and Dan discuss managers, teams and agile environments. They explore the manager’s side in agile, why having a manager is key within an agile work environment, and what the manager’s role should be.


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Key Takeaways:

  • Why having a manager is key within an Agile work environment:
    • If you do not have one, improvement tends to get focused only on the team level and not the overall system
    • Teams function best within a high degree of bounded autonomy
    • What the manager’s role is:
    • The manager’s role is one of looking at the environment and trying to continuously improve it
    • “It’s not the manager’s job to get people to work hard; it’s to make it possible for people to work.”
    • The manager’s job is to enable the team to work, and then, to enhance their work environment
    • To make sure teams have enough contextual knowledge so they can make decent decisions on the front line of the organization
  • It’s important for the team to:
    • Bring systemic issues to the manager
    • Distinguish which decisions they can make without consulting the manager, which decisions they should make with a manager, and which decisions are entirely up to the manager
  • It is important for the manager to:
    • Pay attention to the system
    • Notice problems across the organization
    • Be supportive
    • Have conversations with the team on a periodic basis
    • Build in learning time and a learning budget so the team feels that learning is a part of their job, not in their free time
  • Challenges Esther has seen with managers within an organization:
    • Not all managers get along and it may take an effort to get them to all collaborate
    • When a business gets to a certain size, it becomes difficult to communicate across all the managers of different teams



Mentioned in this Episode:


Like what you heard? Check out our podcast page for more episodes full of interesting discussions, agile insights, and helpful resources.



Intro: [00:00] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann,

Dan Neumann: [00:17]  Welcome to this episode of agile coaches corner. I’m your host, Dan Neumann, and I’m excited to be joined today by a friend and agile expert, Esther Derby. And we’ll let her um, well let me share some thoughts today and we’ll kick around some ideas about managers and agile environments. And before that, just a reminder that of course the thoughts and opinions are just those of myself and Esther and not those of AgileThought or other folks or other companies, so people get our opinions. Esther. So for folks who maybe aren’t familiar with you, I know the first place I encountered your name was with the book Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. And that is still something I go back to and use as a framework, so appreciate that contribution.

Esther Derby: [01:04] Well that’s really great to hear.

Dan Neumann: [01:05]  Oh, it’s fantastic. Uh, I keep waiting for somebody to move significantly beyond that and, um, but, but that’s still my touchstone. Um, what else might people want to know about Esther?

Esther Derby: [01:20] Some people don’t know that I started my professional career as a programmer. So, um, I realized fairly early though that even though my, my job title was programmer and I spent a lot of time writing code, I realized fairly early, I believe that one, our work environment had a huge impact on our ability to be successful. So I got really interested in paying attention to work environments and two that, even though I was writing code, my job was about change. I was changing the way people did their jobs, I was changing the way people felt about their jobs. Sometimes I was changing things that rippled throughout the whole organization. So I started paying a lot of attention to how people in organizations change.

Dan Neumann: [02:05]  And then not as part of your explicit job responsibilities, but just by nature of how you brought yourself to the job, it sounds like.

Esther Derby: [02:14] Well, I think that for most many people, maybe not all people, maybe not even most people, but certainly for managers and team leads and coaches, whether or not their job has changed management in the title, their job involves change. I certainly saw that to be true with the work I was doing writing programs changing the way people did their work. Sometimes they liked it, sometimes they didn’t.

Dan Neumann: [02:45]  And within within agile kind of bringing that the change thing back, the agile principles have it very clearly, you know, stopping and improving the system periodically or whether that’s what the scrum retrospective or a kaizen event or whatever other thing you want to call it, continuing to improve over time. If you’re going to say you’re agile in any way, it has to be part of, of your DNA and how you bring yourself to work.

Esther Derby: [03:12] Absolutely. And it’s, it’s very explicit in the agile manifesto and the principles. Um, what often happens though is that the improvement gets focused on the only on the team level. So teams are expected to improve, but sometimes there isn’t a lot of attention on improving the overall system, which I think is a shame. That’s really a shame.

Dan Neumann: [03:41]  And can you just elaborate a little? I agree. It’s a shame. I’m curious if you can elaborate a little more on the, uh, the thoughts you had in your head about why that makes it such a shame.

Esther Derby: [03:51] Well, I don’t hear this as much now as I did in the early days. Uh, but I used to hear a lot of people say, you know, we’re agile, we don’t need managers, we don’t need no stinking managers we’re doing scrum now where’s self organizing. And I I think, um, for one thing that, that uh, reasonably so, um, made a lot of people worried. But I also think it communicated that there is no real role for managers. And while I think, agile teams function best when they have a high degree of bounded autonomy, you know, they’re working within an organization and they are at least self managing of their own work. I think there’s a hugely strategic role for managers in looking at the work environment, improving the system. And that gets overlooked. The whole system is not going to improve this if someone isn’t paying attention to it. And in improving individual teams is a worthy goal, making their work better, um, influencing to the extent that they can. But if no one’s paying attention to, well, how did our teams of teams work and how is, you know, work flowing into those teams and you know, all those other things, it, you know, some, some positive change may happen, but might be an accident.

Dan Neumann: [05:27]  Right. And so the manager’s role is one of looking at the environment in which the work is happening and trying to continuously improve that as opposed to maybe a more traditional role where the managers are tasked with kind of driving efficiency, getting tasks…

Esther Derby: [05:44] Getting people to work hard.

Dan Neumann: [05:47]  At least look like they’re working hard.

Esther Derby: [05:49] Yeah. Well that’s usually, um, yeah. Yeah. That sort of gene, that’s what happens. Yeah. You brought up an interesting little quote to, um, from Tom Demarco and Tim Lister saying, you know, I not going to get the quote perfect. Maybe have it in front of you that, um, it’s not the manager’s job to get, um, people to work hard. It’s to make it possible for people to work.

Dan Neumann: [06:14]  Correct, yup.

Esther Derby: [06:15] Yeah. So I think about that as, um, um, enabling and enhancing, right? So enable people to work and then enhance their work environment. So, so putting the conditions in place and then constantly scanning, um, and observing and testing to make the system work even better.

Dan Neumann: [06:39]  I think of the scanning, observing and testing it, it brings to mind the, uh, the empirical process that’s part of scrum. So we want people to gather data and use that to conduct some experiments, some hypotheses that they would then try to change the system with it. It also makes me realize within the scrum framework, there’s a lot of, well, you know, no managers in the retrospective no outside team members, well, you know, we’ve now we don’t want to destroy safety within the retrospective. And so maybe something managers could look at is how to create more safety so that the team isn’t sitting there thinking about issues or, or, um, burying issues instead of bringing them up to somebody who can do something about the environment in which that team operates.

Esther Derby: [07:30] Yeah, I think there are often good reasons not to have managers in the retrospective, um, it may be that, you know, the team is so used to relying on the manager to solve problems that they will default. It may mean that the manager is so used to taking on problems that they’ll take them on by default. Um, and both of those situations can be infantilizing for the team. Right. Um, and I think in many cases, uh, it takes a while for team members to feel safe enough around their managers to speak up, particularly if they’re coming from, um, an organization or a part of an organization where looking bad in front of your manager, admitting a mistake in front of your manager, results in a ding on your performance review or, um, you, you, you know, you fall in the manager’s estimation. Right? And then the manager is always looking to see if you’re making another mistake just because of confirmation bias. So, so I think there’s good reasons not to have managers in, but I think if you’re, if you’re, if you’re dealing with this system problem, then invite your manager or, or if you, if, if the team discovers something that they believe is a systemic issue, then they talk to their manager about, right. So, so this, this thing is, it’s been getting in our way for three sprints and we don’t control it and we don’t influence it. We need, we need you to work at for us or with us.

Dan Neumann: [09:14]  Right. Bringing that to their attention. Even though the team set up, if you’re trying to create the team that is independent and has all the skills and the people and other things they need to do their job, resources, not meaning people, but computing power, money, whatever it is. The managers ought to be playing a big role in setting that up. And so if the team isn’t set up well, that’s certainly something to bring to that manager and enlist them in resolving.

Esther Derby: [09:44] Yeah, yeah, for sure. Um, I mean that’s their job enabling and enhancing the ability of other people to get their work done.

Dan Neumann: [09:53]  You’d mentioned bounded autonomy in passing as far as where you’re going. And it reminded me of an analogy. I hope it was not a real life story about a, a dog on a porch with a, an electric fence and the, uh, I think it was like one of those shock collar things. And if you keep moving the fence, if the dog doesn’t know where it can go and eventually it will just stay on the porch for fear of getting shocked for going anywhere.

Esther Derby: [10:21] I’m sad to say that was a real story.

Dan Neumann: [10:23]  I was afraid of that.

Esther Derby: [10:24] Yeah, it was, uh, it was, uh, a neighbor’s of mine, who they were going to get around your building a garage. So they didn’t want to burry the electric line and every time the wind blew the line and those dogs never knew where it was going to be on any given day. Um, they have a real fence now.

Dan Neumann: [10:47]  Oh good.

Esther Derby: [10:47] I don’t know if they still have the electric one. But yeah, well that’s the thing about those electric fences. They may keep your dog from, um, leaving the yard under normal circumstances. But if they see something really worth chasing, they may not work and they don’t keep bears out. And we have a neighborhood bear. So, you know, anyway, they have a fence now.

Dan Neumann: [11:11]  But that’s just like very much, very much likes like teams though. You know, you keep moving the fence. Yeah, absolutely. They don’t know what to do. And I don’t know what’s the, uh, corporate metaphor for bear would be, but something comes in and reads them.

Esther Derby: [11:25] Well, I mean, I’ve seen this happen a lot that managers will say that they want, they want people to take initiative and they want people to like step up and take responsibility. And then as soon as somebody makes a decision that is not optimal, they get slapped. Right. And that’s the corporate, um, that’s the corporate equivalent of that. Um, so I think it’s useful to have that sort of discussion about, um, which, which teams or which decisions the team can make without consulting with anybody. Because they know, you know, well, we’ve got, you know, we’ve got $10,000 to spend on training this quarter. They can make the decision what they think they need. Um, you know, we have $30,000 to spend on a test tool. Well, you know, whatever it is. So they have some founded autonomy about that, but they also know these are the sorts of decisions that we’re going to make, um, together with, uh, you know, someone in management because they have a different view of the organization. They have a different view of how certain things might affect other parts of the organization. They generally have more spending authority, although I have met managers who had no spending authority at all, which puzzles me. Um, and then there are some decisions that are entirely up to the manager, either because of legal or, or fiduciary regions. And I think that’s a really useful conversation to have. And most managers I meet when they, when they actually think about it, it’s like, oh yeah, the team could make a lot of these decisions. I’m just a bottleneck. Um, but if you don’t have something else to do, if you haven’t been given a more strategic role of enabling and enhancing, you know, paying attention to the system, then you know, it can feel like, well, if I’m not making decisions, you know, what’s my role? You know, what, what use do I have here?

Dan Neumann: [13:22]  Let’s talk about that. Paying attention to the system. And maybe I think it strikes me a little bit like the phrase servant leadership. It’s like, okay, I hear it. I kind of get it. I think a lot of folks, if you start to poke at what they mean by servant leadership gets really fuzzy and vague, really fast. And I mean it sounds Nice, but what the hell does that mean? Um, and I’m, I’m curious if maybe that strategic view of managers, if we could maybe make it a little more concrete. Like, are there a couple of examples that maybe come to mind where you’ve seen managers kind of go from some of this tactical activity to a more strategic view and, and maybe what does that look like in practice?

Esther Derby: [14:04] So one group I worked with, um, there were, I think there were like 40 teams on this program and they were all, you know, the majority of them were running into technical difficulties with their test environment. And, uh, yeah, you could have said, okay, teams figured this out, but then they would have been able to do no feature work and they didn’t have the budgets to do it. So when the managers started realizing that, no, this isn’t just one or two teams, this is like 15 teams or 20 teams, then they started paying attention to what’s really going on that this, this particular piece of technology isn’t working. Well, it turns out it was really, really new. And so then they had to, um, you know, find people who had the expertise to actually deal with it because no one there did. Um, so that they got involved in, in, in working the budget, working the consulting, um, access to consultants, um, bringing that up as an as a point of attention that was putting the entire program at risk. So they shifted from, you know, why aren’t you getting your work done? Paying attention to my individual team to, um, let’s see if this problem is affecting other teams. Oh, yes, it is. So let’s, we, the managers work together to solve this really difficult problem.

Dan Neumann: [15:50]  Esther when you were talking about managers and their ability to notice problems across the organization. You know, they can go get the consultants and the funding and bring attention to it. That also made me think of scenarios where managers may know that while they’re seeing a team or two struggle with something, they also may be aware of somewhere in the organization where that problem’s been solved or others, a place to go tap wisdom with because of their authority and their visibility across the organization. Um, have you seen that or what kind of other challenges do you see with, with that type of scenario?

Esther Derby: [16:27] I have seen, I’m not coming up with a specific example right in this, you know, in this moment, but I have seen managers who were, had good networks across the company and had good relationships with other managers who were able to tap into knowledge about stuff that was happening in other parts of the company. But it is not a given that managers are going to have great relationships with other managers. Cause very often, um, particularly middle managers are kind of isolated, right? And sometimes they’re even in competition with each other because they’re competing for budget, they’re competing for their manager’s attention, they’re competing for promotions. And so sometimes it takes some effort to get, um, to get managers collaborating, to look at that kind of thing. But I think it’s super important for managers to build their networks and, and to, to start to start looking at that broader view of the organization. It’s really far more strategic than focusing on a team or even a handful of teams. And, and real making sure people are getting their tasks done there. Most of the people we work with are adults and are capable of making sure they’re getting their own tasks.

Dan Neumann: [17:45]  I would, I would hope so.

Esther Derby: [17:48] I would hope so. Yes. Until they’re infantilized at work or they’re so scared that they’ll make a mistake that they wait to be told what to do. Like those four dogs next door.

Dan Neumann: [17:58]  And I’ve, I’ve seen that, you know, where teams are so used to being told what to do or team members are used to being told what to do. They just wait to be told what to do because there’s no benefit in taking the initiative.

Esther Derby: [18:12] Right. Well, there’s another factor that plays into this, which is a systemic issue and that is that um, when organizations get to a certain size, the knowledge in that organization tends to bifurcate. And so the, the, you know, when you’re a 5 or 10 person company, you know, everybody knows what’s going on and they know why you’re building the product and they know what’s important. And they know the business model and all this other stuff, but when you start getting much bigger than that, the, the people who were the founders and the people who are certain management roles may understand, you know, who our customer is, what our business model is, how we make money, you know, all of these other things. Um, which I sometimes call the contextual knowledge, but the new hires may not, the new hires know how to get things done on a day to day basis, but they may not understand, right? You know, all of this contextual information. So they can’t make good decisions, right? The have to wait to be told what to do or they’re going to make a big screw up. And then the flip side of that is that at a certain point, um, you know, as companies grow and the founders may move further away from their, you know, what the technical work they were doing initially, they no longer have a complete understanding about what it takes to get anything done in that organization. Right. So it’s, you know, it’s just bifurcates and, and you, you, you can’t eliminate that. But I think you need to make sure that people have at least enough contextual knowledge to make decent decisions at the, at the local level, at the frontline of the organization where the work is being, where the code is being written, where the services are being provided, where people are interfacing with customers. You know, they have to have that knowledge if they’re going to going to, um, to, to make good decisions and, and, and make quick decisions because otherwise you’re stuck kicking everything up the chain, you know, and then you’re back to a bunch of bat bottlenecks.

Dan Neumann: [20:17]  Right. I’ve seen you draw that as an inverted pyramid at the top and a regular shape pyramid at the bottom with a skinny little point where the two points touch in the middle. Yeah. And the desire to expand that intersection.

Esther Derby: [20:30] Yes. It makes a little diamond shaped. So you need to expand the diamond, get a bigger diamond. Everybody wants a bigger diamond. Right.

Dan Neumann: [20:39]  That’s what I hear. Some people are just disappointed though. Yeah. Well, you can want all you want.

Esther Derby: [20:47] Yeah, but it’s not going to make your life any better really. But in a corporate situation and the company’s situation, having a big diamond of shared, overlapping contextual and you know, day to day what it takes to get things done. Knowledge that’s mutual.

Dan Neumann: [21:02]  Yes it is. We’ve talked about the, the system improving the system part and then one of the other areas of the manager’s role then is helping the people grow. And maybe we can talk about that for a little bit as we, uh, come on in towards the, towards the latter part of the, the podcast. So the, the, the value of that. Yeah.

Esther Derby: [21:27] Well I think, I think you’re right, that’s usually important is you have to grow people. And that’s not, there were a bunch of ways to do that. Um, I think, I think one of the fears people have is that when we have agile teams, the managers don’t, you know, necessarily have the day to day interaction with people to know what their strengths are or, you know, have an opinion about how they’re doing things. But I think there are a lot of ways that you can focus on what people still have an opportunity to grow by. Not, um, not allocating 100% of the time to building features. So you build in some learning time, you build in a learning budget. You, um, you know, you make it possible for people to consider learning as part of their job, not something that they have to do in their copious free time. And I say that sarcastically. Most people don’t have copious free time. Um, so I think that you can, you can do a lot of things that way. Um, you can help people make sense of the feedback they’ve gotten from other folks. You can have conversations with people on a periodic basis about, you know, how they, how they are viewing their work, where they would like to improve and have some conversations guiding that. And sometimes it’s a matter of saying, well, you know, this isn’t something we foresee happening at this company and here’s some ideas I have. But that may be something that, that, uh, you’d have to look elsewhere to get. And that’s actually a very respectful conversation to have rather than trying to hold onto people with false promises or try to try to keep them stuck in stuck in one place because they’re are technically valuable to you where they are. That’s one of the good ways to get people to leave actually.

Dan Neumann: [23:32]  By getting them stuck where they’re unhappy?

Esther Derby: [23:36] Well to, you know, oh, well we can’t possibly let you learn that skill because we really need you here. That’s bad management. That’s just bad management. Just call it what it is.

Dan Neumann: [23:48]  Right. I mean and organizations can always train another person for that role. Yes. It’ll take some time and that person may right now be a bus number of one, which is a problem in and of itself that managers should be trying to, to address. We, I help that person grow and find what is going to be a, you know, fulfilling for them and for, and for their personal values and purpose.

Esther Derby: [24:11] Yeah. I mean, I think, I think, uh, um, people are much more likely to be loyal to a company and recommend a company positively if their manager is not trying to suppress their learning, even if it is a matter of saying, I think you’d be great at that. We’re not doing that. I know someone at another company you might want to talk about. I mean, you don’t even have to do that, but, but um, yeah, just be supportive of it, I think goes a long way.

Dan Neumann: [24:44]  Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you taking time to explore the manager side and the Agile intersection between managers and agile with me.

Esther Derby: [24:57] I appreciate the conversation.

Dan Neumann: [24:59]  Good. And uh, I saw and have preordered a new book that you’re writing. I did. It’s very knowing. Just a little sad. I have to wait until August 6th, for it to release. So Seven Rules for Positive Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results is coming out. And maybe you can say a little bit more about, um, what people will get out of that and kind of why you wrote it.

Esther Derby: [25:29] Well, it goes back to something I said at the beginning of the podcast about whether or not you have changed management in your job, your job involves change. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a set of seven heuristics and heuristics are rules of thumb or guides that, you know, they’re not, you know, they’re not guaranteed to work, but they are very helpful in situations where, um, you don’t necessarily, you know, there’s no one right way to go. So these are ways to solve problems. They’re aids for problems, all it. So there are seven heuristics related to change. Um, and it’s, it’s written for people like you, like me, like managers, um, who, who are not necessarily working with a big persuasion campaign, you know, top down corporate change thing. But people who want to improve things and help help their team or their department or their, you know, their part of the organization move in a better direction and it’s a really very, very focused on complexity thinking. So it’s not for the situations where there is one right answer. It’s for the situations where you’re in a complex situation and you need to really consider the context and move forward on that basis. So it’s focused on complexity and humans.

Dan Neumann: [26:52]  That’s crazy. In the complex situations you only see the cause and effect looking backwards and so I like, I like that this is not a collection of best practices, which is usually a misused term, especially if you’re talking about complexity and so it’s, it’s heuristics. It’s some things to keep in mind, some, some guidelines and try them and see what happens and you know all that inspect and adapt agile stuff.

Esther Derby: [27:20] There you go.

Dan Neumann: [27:22]  Well fantastic. Thanks for sharing that Esther and we’ll look forward to that coming out.

Esther Derby: [27:28] I am very excited that it’s coming out.

Dan Neumann: [27:31]  Very good. Well thank you.

Esther Derby: [27:33] My pleasure.

Outro: [27:37] This has been the agile coaches corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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