The 4 Ts of Engaging Management

Teams self-organize and self-direct, so much of the Taylorist views of what a manager can do seem to not apply at all. What is the working arrangement between an agile team and their manager?

  • Time (schedule) - As a steward of the schedule, a manager needs to know where the teams' effort stands--are they behind or ahead the expected schedule? Does the release need to be delayed or de-scoped? The manager is best positioned to communicate issues and evaluate the larger impact to the organization.  When the schedule needs change, we find that your chance of success is greater the earlier the matter is communicated to management. While human nature may lead one to avoid delivering bad news, it is usually better to share problems with people who are in a position to help.
  • Talent (talent pool) - A manager may bring in additional talent in the form of trainers, consultants, staff augmentation contractors, or new employees. Sometimes having an eLearning course, a visiting expert, or a short-term consultant can make a huge long-term difference in the team's technical proficiency.
    A manager may change hiring criteria to bring in the kinds of developers that will help the team to work in a more fluent and productive way.
    Likewise, a manager can remove or reassign a team member who just isn't working for the current team. These kinds of issues require coordination with HR and possibly even legal representation, but are a good use of your manager's time. See also Robert Sutton's research on maintaining a productive workplace.
  • Target (direction, goals) - Agility (strictly defined) is the ability to change direction gracefully. Sometimes a change of technology or target audience can greatly improve a product's chance of being accepted in the market. Additionally, agile teams would rather face failures early when they're inexpensive (fail fast) than have hopeless projects run on until resources are exhausted. Any a significant change in direction, whether cost-saving or value-creating, will need to involve management.
  • Treasury (funding) - There are times that spending a few hundred or a few thousand dollars can make the difference between the team working fluidly versus struggling and slogging along. Is your biggest need for a distributed build product? A better build server? An alternative testing tool? A local version control server? More reliable intranet? A better library or framework? A minor hardware upgrade? An online training course?
When a problem can only be solved using one or more of the 4Ts, then it is clearly a management problem. Make use of your manager's sphere of influence to improve the team's chance of success.

Agile supports the empowered, competent team. The team should own their problems and push forward with solutions and data-based decision-making.  On the other hand, a team can hardly be called "resourceful" when their management assets go unused. Remember that the manager is a member of the team, and often managers pride themselves on problem-solving.

For problems in the gray area where some solutions are purely technical, it may be wise to involve management in triage. You would be surprised how many times teams have struggled with a work-around only to find that a manager would have been happy to solve the problem outright through his contacts and resources.

In your next retrospective, consider adding solution category called "take it to management." See if it helps your velocity over time.


  1. Sometimes when faced with a problem, teams may say, "Let's take this to management." Now they have two problems.

    Sorry, couldn't resist... :-)

  2. Yeah, so you are saying that the agile manager shouldn't Tayorlistically assign tasks but should watch out for the health of the organization. I've always repeated DeMarco's thought that Slack was required to make improvements. I recently wrote more on this:

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