A Managers Guide to Attending Agile Team Events

I have always been a proponent of keeping most Agile events and rituals open and transparent. If anyone in the organization would like to stop by a daily stand-up session or experience a sprint review, the more the merrier…

…with one exception.

If you are a manager with direct reports on an Agile team (you are making performance, promotion, or salary and bonus assessments on one or more team members), I believe a set of expected behaviors should apply to you.

This is not meant to be exclusionary but your presence, reactions, words, and body language WILL impact team dynamics – sometimes negatively.

For example, I was in the stand-up meeting for a well-performing team a while back when a manager for some of the developers appeared unannounced. This manager proceeded to stand right next to the information radiator. When team members talked about the progress of their work and their impediments, the manager would ask for clarification on what was being done and asked technical questions about what was being developed.

As the stand up continued the tension grew. By the time the last person spoke all attention was focused on the manager and instead of speaking to the team about their progress everyone was looking at the manager when they spoke. When the manager left everyone just looked around as if to say “What just happened?”

This may be an extreme example but it demonstrates the impact someone in authority will have when interacting with direct reports on a team established around the principles of self-organization. When I talked with the manager later they didn’t realize how they had shifted team dynamics.

So, if you are a manager and would like to attend an Agile team session, here are a few suggested behaviors to consider:

During Sprint Planning
Give the team space. A temptation will be to jump in and provide solutions to the team but allow them the experience of working with each other and learn how to solve problems together.

Step in only when necessary. Especially with new or inexperienced team members, coach, train, or mentor as needed but tread lightly. If your direct report is experienced and competent, consider not attending at all. They will appreciate the trust you have in them.

During Daily Stand-ups
Observe and listen. Well-run stand-ups are fun to watch. Stand back and enjoy. If the stand-up feels unorganized or unstructured, have a chat with Scrum Master after it’s over.

Do not participate. Allow the team to get through their daily stand-up without interruption. If you have a question or would like to get more details on team activities, wait until the stand-up is over  (known as the 16th minute). If it appears someone is not “pulling their weight”, follow-up individually and ask probing questions to determine what is really happening.

During Sprint Review
Provide input but respect the product owner role. If you have questions about a feature or why something is being built, follow-up with the product owner after the review.

Encourage and praise. Don’t just walk out when the review is finished. If the team is doing well, tell them. If you don’t, they will be asking themselves “Did we do ok?” Hang back and chat with your direct reports and let them brag a little bit about what they accomplished. Your words and actions are noticed…make them count.

During Sprint Retrospective
Don’t attend, ever. The team should be comfortable sharing areas to improve when necessary and when they believe something may come back to haunt them or someone else in a performance review they may not say what should be said. If you are sensing something is not right with the team, setup a different time with your direct report, the team, product owner and/or Scrum Master to discuss your concerns.

Feel free to forward this on to your managers…or leave an anonymous copy on their desk :) If you have any other suggestions, please add your comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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10 thoughts on “A Managers Guide to Attending Agile Team Events

  1. Would really love this info in an infographic type form to use as a propoganda type poster to influence managers who don’t seem to get this as part of agile transition.

  2. Hi Len, I’m coming back to this post, because I’m starting to coach managers at the organization I’m working with. Regarding having managers in Retrospectives, one of my observations is that often teams come up with great ideas for changes, which then die on the vine because managers haven’t been party to the discussion.

    Due to team safety concerns, I agree that managers should not be part of Retro…so what’s the best way to get the managers involved in a way that they feel inspired to implement the team’s recommendations? A follow up, post-Retro meeting with the manager? What I have observed is that managers are MUCH more likely to act on recommended improvements from the team if they talk directly to the team (rather than through the Scrum Master). Curious to hear your thoughts/experience on this one. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for the comment and question Gretchen. Definitely a sticky subject…

      This issue comes up frequently during a coaching engagement and here is the coaching I gave to the Scrum Master and Manager:

      If something is emerging in a Retrospective that is bigger than what we can solve ourselves (within the team), go get a Manager in real time if possible. Have the discussion about next steps and who will be responsible for taking action. If they are not available, then a follow-up with those interested in the resolution or solution is fine. Perhaps the whole team, but maybe not.

      So, the general rule I have used is this. Attendance of the Manager in a Retrospective is at the discretion of the team not at the discretion of the Manager. I have seen too many Managers “surprise” the team by showing up to a Retrospective unannounced and the team starts shutting down. But if necessary pull the Manager in and coach them that they are there for a specific purpose – removing big impediments – we’ll take care of the small ones. http://illustratedagile.com/2013/03/01/removing-big-impediments-part-4-of-the-agile-leadership-engagement-series/

      Hope this helps! If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, please continue the conversation. Thanks again!

    • I’ll add one observation to what Len said in his response June 17.
      Be sure to differentiate between changes that the team can make by themselves, and impediments or changes that must be addressed by someone outside (and typically higher in the organizational hierarchy than) the team. Obviously, changes the team can make themselves can simply be implemented.
      Less obviously, changes (and especially impediments) that require someone outside the team will surface again. And again. And again. It may be uncomfortable, but there will be additional opportunities to bring these ideas up with others.