The Changing Role of Middle Managers

This is an exercise that we run to help understand how manager’s roles change.   This is a re-posting of a session at Agile Open Northwest 2009 [[]].  I opened with stories describing the reality that Senior Leadership is declaring their companies are “going Agile,” and that doing it well presents many difficulties. A potentially intractable problem centers on equipping Middle Managers to be supportive of agility within the business strategy. For sure, their job needs to change from a little to a lot. This is an exercise first described by Pete Deemer [[]].

Defining Middle Managers for this Discussion

We need a definition to continue. In this session we settled on

  • Not Senior Leadership
  • Not individual contributors
  • Intermediaries at any level in between

The discussion of a team versus individuals did not force us to reject this definition as sufficient.

Gather and Process Data

We broke into small teams of 3-5 people and wrote down the “things managers do:” one per sticky note

Next, we had the groups integrate (removing duplicates as we go) their work onto two flip charts labeled:

  • Fine in Agile
  • Conflicts with (or not needed) in Agile

We then reviewed the “Fine in Agile” information. With a bit of work, this could turn into a valid job description.

In the “Conflicts with (or not needed) in Agile” area we realized we could convert this into an action list to change to role of manager for the better.  We also found items that could be re-written in opposite form and included into the job description (e.g. Change “maintain status quo” to “challenge status quo”).

The “Hook”

Then we asked:

  • Would you be more or less useful if your role was like this (pointing to the “Fine in Agile set of roles)?
  • Would your job be more or less interesting if your role was like this?

The majority of everyone who answers these questions would prefer to have a job like the one described on the “Fine in Agile” chart.


  • This can be run with Managers to help them define their new roles
  • This can be run with teams to provide input into the organization
  • Take these to Senior Leadership and HR (Who else?) and help equip the organizations middle managers to support Agile!
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