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How crucial are middle managers in agile organizations?

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By Cliff de Laat

I have been involved in many organizations that have made the transition to an Agile way-of-working. In the role of either manager, program/project manager, product owner, or team member. In my personal experience, there was one key factor, one make-or-break role making the Agile way-of-working a dream or a living nightmare. This is the middle manager, team leader, department manager, etc. 

They either support or hinder success. Their role involves executing tasks at a tactical level, managing teams, and developing talent. As a consultant, I have heard colleagues at other firms criticize these managers as redundant or a waste of resources. My personal opinion differs significantly. In Agile contexts, middle managers play a crucial role in facilitating effective communication, fostering collaboration, and ensuring that Agile principles and practices are upheld. The following reasons explain the value of middle management: 

  1. Bridging the Gap: Middle managers translate organizational goals into actionable plans for Agile teams, aligning strategic objectives with Agile initiatives. 
  2. Facilitating Communication: They serve as communication channels between senior leadership, Agile teams, and stakeholders, ensuring alignment and resolving conflicts. 
  3. Supporting Team Autonomy: Middle managers provide resources, guidance, and mentorship to empower self-organizing teams, removing obstacles and fostering innovation. 
  4. Promoting Agile Mindset: They advocate for Agile principles, educate stakeholders, and champion successful Agile implementations to foster an adaptive culture. 
  5. Aligning Performance Management: Middle managers align individual and team goals with organizational objectives, providing coaching and feedback to foster growth. 

The middle manager is critical to the success of an agile department. I have witnessed successful managers identifying when to intervene and when to enable their teams to resolve problems. In my recent experience, I have seen some managers act as the spokesperson for the team, thereby relieving the team of accountability for their actions. As I believe that many organizations and middle managers struggle with making the right decisions, I felt the need to contribute to the community. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a few principles on my LinkedIn that can serve as a kind of Middle Manager Manifesto (MMM, no pun intended 😁). I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences. Let’s support our middle managers to make our companies successful with them as our hero leaders! 💪 

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Cliff de Laat
Talent coach | Management Consultant 6 532 315 03