What’s a manager’s role on a Scrum team?

Did you know the word “Manager” does not show up once in the Scrum Guide? If I were a manager in a fortune 500 organization with a mortgage and two kids in college, I’d be concerned for my job. In this blog post, I’ll explain how it’s possible for managers to work with Scrum teams so no one has to worry about rebuilding their resume.

Scrum is a framework designed to get complex products to market while mitigating the risk associated with building them. Scrum is about getting work done, not about addressing organizational structures. Thus, it does not comment on reporting lines. Scrum can be used in various sized organizations including a 200 employee company or a 6-person start-up. Not all companies need or have managers so there is no real reason for Scrum to address the role of a manager.

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Scrum leverages self-organizing and cross-functional development teams to maximize the amount of value that can be delivered. You could consider anything that gets in the way of the development team an impediment that needs to be removed. Scrum also has a role called Scrum Master with several responsibilities. Those duties include teaching, mentoring, facilitating as needed, and removing those pesky impediments.

Did you notice how the Scrum Master role has a lot in common with a really good boss? If I think back on all the managers that I’ve had in my non-linear career, I can count on two fingers the number of managers I consider “good”. So what’s a “good” manager? Opinions may vary but I’d say it’s the kind that helps make work challenging and enjoyable. The kind that make you feel your work has purpose and makes an impact. The kind of manager that unifies the team. The kind of boss that has your back and gets you what you need to do your job right. It’s the kind that genuinely cares about personal and professional growth… and not just because its annual review time.

If you want to be the kind of boss that your Scrum teams admire and respect then keep reading. Set firm expectations for results, clear all roadblocks, and give your teams everything they need to achieve them. Hold them accountable to their commitments but ensure they’re committing to things that are committable (predicting the future delivery date of a fixed scope and cost project is not one of them.) Embrace self-organization and empower your team to make decisions they are capable of making, and this changes as they grow. Protect self-organization and turn your head away when the team asks for direction on something they can easily decide. Do nothing and I mean nothing that strips your teams of empowerment. Maybe take a PAL-E class to understand how you can be a Scrum-compatible manager.

The benefits of behaving like the above will become obvious quickly. You won’t be sucked into interpersonal team issues nearly as often. You’ll find the team self-regulates bad behavior. You won’t have to solve every team-level problem freeing your time for more important things. You won’t have to work weekends nearly as much. And you might just have some time to remove the impediments slowing your team down if you’re not so busy doing team level work.

You might be asking yourself what will happen if you don’t align your management style to the above recommendations. Let’s take a look:

  • If your team can solve problems better and faster than you, you won’t be needed.
  • If you have to be the technical genius all the time, eventually your skills will be stale; you won’t be needed.  
  • If your team doesn’t get the career guidance and growth they need, they’ll all quit you, which eventually gets noticed by HR. There’s no need for managers that lose all their employees.
  • If you’re used to giving your teams side projects while they’re working on some other primary initiative, expect the Product Owner to bring this up to key stakeholders who may out rank you. Start polishing that resume.
  • If you’re the type of boss who can’t stop telling the team how to write code, expect your team to operate at a minimum level of performance to comply with your requests. Expect all your top performers to find new jobs that do respect their talents. Do you really want to be a manager with only the lowest performers?
  • If your company is going through an agile transformation and you’re more concerned with keeping your direct line to the CIO than optimizing the company’s value generation abilities, expect a layer of management to go away soon.

My recommendation is this: don’t be that manager. The world has enough of them. Think of yourself as a team gardener and make sure your team flourishes. Give them all the sunlight and resources they need to be successful and have the guts to remove weeds that destroy team morale. Set clear expectations and trust your team to deliver. Have the backbone to hold them accountable to results but also create a safe environment in which your team can be open and courageous. 

Robert Pieper

Robert Pieper has been a licensed Scrum.org Professional Scrum Trainer since 2014 and National Public Speaker since 2013. Robb holds an MBA from Marquette University and an Electrical Engineering Degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering. Robb has 15 years of professional software development experience with a passion for making Scrum work delivering real products and services
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