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What Happens to Managers in Scrum?

This post is part of our new ScrumCast series of conversations with thought leaders who have successfully helped transform organizations and empower teams and individuals. Each episode will explore organizational Agility and Scrum patterns, tactics, and techniques that drive real-world success. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for the latest ScrumCast episodes. 

There’s a word missing in the Scrum Guide. This missing word can leave many wondering if they have a place when their organization adopts Scrum or launches an Agile transformation. 

That word is manager. 

And while there are obvious transitional paths for executive and other senior leadership, those loosely defined as middle managers may ask themselves which one of the three official Scrum roles they fill. Are they a Product Owner? Scrum Master? Team Member? 

This can also be a difficult challenge for leadership to solve. So I asked Avi Schneier and Dave Slaten, two of our Principal Consultants to explain how they help clients answer this question.

What follows are some of the highlights of that conversation. For more details and the full in-depth interview, click here or go to our YouTube channel


What Do We Mean By Middle Managers?

You won’t find the title middle manager on an org chart, or printed under someone’s name on a business card. This obviously broad term is used to describe a wide range of positions that vary from organization to organization. Here’s how Avi and Dave define that term:

AVI SCHNEIER: “I think we want to distinguish the fact that product managers are not always middle managers. They may actually end up being quite often team members themselves or the equivalent. I don't like to use a lot of phrases around hierarchy, but when you consider a traditional organization before they switch to Scrum, there is a tremendous hierarchy pyramid in there. And there's this layer of managers in between senior management or the executives in the C suites as well as the people who might be just direct managers of the teams. In some companies that may be directors, but more often than not, it might actually be even above that.”

DAVE SLATEN: “I'd actually float down a little bit below that Avi. I think there's definitely the middle management layer, but I’ve had a lot of experience getting down to the people who are right on the peripheral of the teams, before and after the transformation, they can end up struggling with the idea of where do I fit into this? Because Scrum has three roles and a  manager isn’t one of them.”


The Fast But Problematic Approach

When an organization transforms, executive and senior leadership can choose to move middle managers into Scrum roles based on the positions they currently fill as opposed to the skill sets each individual possesses. 

DAVE SLATEN: A number of times we'll go in an organization where executive leadership is looking for advice to do a direct one-to-one mapping. So all of these people are going to become this role in Scrum, and then all of this other group is now going to become another role in Scrum. The most common is that we see that one-to-one mapping try to happen is to take the project management office and turn them into Scrum Masters and take your business analysts and enroll them in the Product Ownership role.

And there are times when those translations work well. But again and again, what I've found is you might get started in that way depending on how the organization's culture is currently set up, but it really ends up being a case by case basis of who’s going to fit in best and where.”

AVI SCHNEIER:I would say the first mistake that we see has nothing to do with Scrum. The first mistake that we see is just very common in business. You got a sales team, somebody who's an awesome salesman, and they automatically promote that person. Just because you are a great salesperson doesn’t mean you have the ability to manage people. Maybe there's a correlation, but there is no causation. 

That's a huge breakdown. Now, the other breakdown that we see is that people are confused with what to do with the PMO? There is a way to transform it. At one of our clients, it’s one of the largest retailers in the world. Our client, it's one of the largest retailers in the world. They turned their Project Management Office into a Project Acceleration Office whose job is now to accelerate projects by understanding Scrum in the agile world. 

At some companies where we go to, the project managers instantly become Scrum Masters. At other companies we work with,  the project managers instantly become Product Owners. Dave said, nothing could be a bigger mistake because each one of them has a different personality trait that is required to do well.”


A Better Approach

A “try Agile” organization knows how to identify and capitalize on the individual strengths of their employees. This is particularly important when undergoing an Agile transformation. Knowing who best fits into each of the three Scrum roles will help define your success.

AVI SCHNEIER:So let me just give an example of what I do in my leadership workshops. I tell them there are three things here, Awesome Products, Awesome Process, and Awesome People. And I know you care about all three. But then I draw a chart with those three phrases and say by the end of the day you have to put your name in just one of the columns. 

Now if they put their name under Awesome Product they’re obviously going into the Product Owner role. If their name goes under Awesome Process, they’re going to become Scrum Masters. And if their name goes under Awesome People? There actually is a role for that as well. It's not an established Scrum role with a title, but it's generally like a functional owner or disciple owner. 

This is where management really fits. What's funny is that when you do this, you figure out that you don't need as many people deciding ‘the what’ as you thought you did previously. ‘The how’, that's what you need the most people figuring out because that's what we need, the innovativeness and the process.”

DAVE SLATEN: I'll start with a single team centric view. And, and this is one of the mindset shifts that people struggle with, is that we're kind of a team centric view. Now in Scrum, instead of a bunch of people going around and doing different projects, we're actually bringing work to a team. 

So if we look at awesome products, I refer to it as the strategic direction of the company. When you're in a standard corporate environment, you think you need hundreds of people to make these decisions. The reality is when you untangle it from the other two pieces of the puzzle that Avi described, you find that you actually don't need that many people.

The second thing Avi mentioned was awesome process. The analogy that I'll commonly use is when we go into organizations, it's often kind of a four wheel drive, bumpy dirt road, and with the Scrum training and a little bit of coaching, we can have a team tuned up to be operating as a high-performance sports car. But if we're going to take that high-performance sports car out of the garage and they're going to drive on a four wheel drive, bumpy dirt track, uh, then it's not going to go very fast. So the awesome process is very much akin to the organization needs to sort out all the garbage and friction and issues that they've got that keep people from actually being able to do their job.

And that is awesome people. So if we have some folks who come from a very technical background or they enjoy mentoring. Or they want to make sure that their professional colleagues are up to speed with the company and industry standards and that they're all kind of talking from the same playbook. And this is where the professional development, which often gets forgotten or deferred or delayed or deprioritized because we're always so busy doing everything else”


Identifying The Right Product Owners

Even those familiar with Agile and Scrum can not fully understand the role of Product Owner. So I asked Avi and Dave for the characteristics they’ve identified as key for success in this role.  

DAVE SLATEN: The Product Owner is fundamentally responsible for guiding the team. And choosing what outcomes and accomplishments the team needs to contribute to the business bottom line. So stemming from that, the Product Owner needs to be decisive in choosing the direction that we're going.

That decisiveness should be predicated by knowledge of what the business needs, whether it's internal stakeholder delivery, whether it's external market interaction, the Product Owner needs to have or at least be strongly inclined to expand their domain knowledge so that they understand it.

And here's another place where I think a lot of Product Owners fall down, they shy away from understanding the market because they don't necessarily have the skill set to talk to the people, the stakeholders because they've had more of a technical upbringing.”

AVI SCHNEIER: “It's about not making the decisions in a vacuum, thinking that you know better than your, the customer does. I used to work in the stock market, and it’s a common mistake that people think they know better than the market. Nobody knows better than the market. The market will teach you very bad lessons if you think you know better than it.

The Product Owner is the liaison, the known stable interface between the team and the rest of the world. Whether the rest of the world is another team or in the company at large or particularly the customer.

And in that way Product Owners have to be customer experts. Understanding what makes them say yes, what makes them want to buy. It's all about the psychological aspect of understanding what makes our customers tick and what makes them want to use our product and how's it going to help.” 


Identifying The Right Scrum Masters

For those unacquainted with Agile and Scrum, the Scrum Master can seem like a nebulous role. They help teams accelerate by improving processes and removing impediments. I also asked Avi and Dave for the characteristics they’ve identified as key for success as a Scrum Master.  

AVI SCHNEIER: “To me, we have to remember that when you're talking about management, then you're talking about large groups. There's a great article from the Harvard Business Review, on how much money we've been wasting in America on management practices.  We spend a lot of money on low-value ad management activities versus high-value ad activities. 

Whatever best practices or, as we like to say in Scrum, better practices because you're never truly at the best, that's part of the Scrum Master cycle, to figure out how to standardize and spread those from team to team to team so you're not wasting time reinventing the wheel.”

DAVE SLATEN: “I love the Scrum Master role. Back in 2012, my journey in Scrum started by figuring out how to bring Scrum to a team, and the fundamental role of Scrum Master is exactly that. Figuring out how to coach the team to get work done in a better way. 

I think there's, there's one thing from the project management mindset that translates really well into the Scrum Master role. And that’s looking at data and seeing where things are either on a schedule or on a budget or a number of risks or whatever goes into your regular status report. 

The project management mindset is very good at taking all of this information and making it visible not just to upper management as a report, but also make it visible back to the team. The team can respond to it on a Sprint by Sprint or even a day by day basis if they do it well, and we can tap into that at the Daily Scrum.”


Middle Managers In General

Not every middle manager will fit neatly into a Product Owner or Scrum Master role. That’s  where a lot of fear comes in. Here’s how Dave and Avi approach the tough conversations that can follow.

DAVE SLATEN: “I would take them through a conversation that begins with you're still here. Your title has changed. But your employment has not. And really dig into where do you fit in the spectrum of strategy, problem-solving, or supporting people? And I’d ask for examples of where they flourish. And work to get them into that kind of spot. I would have them take away is that they are still valuable to the organization. Their time and tenure are unique and specific. There's definitely a place for them. We just need to adapt the way that we think about it.”

AVI SCHNEIER: “I'm in the exact same place. I've had this conversation actually quite often. We tend to deal a lot in leadership levels before and during the rest of the transition.

One of the things I say to middle managers is you have job security. What you don’t have is role security. That's what it comes down to. Then what I like to do is I like to try to take them back before they were a manager and say, what did you really love doing here?

Was it, was it building X? Was it helping the team work better together? Was it mentoring the new, the new folks that came in? 

It's about finding that passion that you have for the work that you do and then turning that into what Scrum role fits that piece. So if you're passionate about making stuff, maybe you go back to the Team, or if you're passionate about talking to customers, then you're going towards the Product Owner or Chief Product Owner side. And if you're passionate about the process, about getting everybody to work together, which a lot of product managers are, then Scrum Mastering might be for you. 

The whole point is to bring more value to the customer, more revenue to the company, and greater job satisfaction for those people who do the work. That is true across the board. That is Agile management."



No, Scrum has no role called ‘manager’. But that’s not the important point to make. What matters is how you capitalize on their individual strengths in order to move them into the right new role. One that sets both the organization and individual up for success. 

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