Managers, huh! What are they good for? …

Just completed another training course, preparing more Scrum Masters to be let loose on the world, and, as is often the case, their stated intention is to go back to their workplace and tell their management how “they are doing it all wrong”.

For those with any understanding of Scrum and agile management, that wont be a big surprise. Despite the Scrum management framework being around for over 20yrs in software engineering (and the underpinning ideas for a lot longer), there is still a huge amount of passive resistance. That is, many organisations ‘want’ (or, at least, see the need) to manage their businesses in a far more agile way, responding quickly to the fast-changing world we live in, but, at the same time, they also want to hold on to the comfortable management structures that they have been used to. As a result, they subvert the Scrum approach into a hybridised form that bears little resemblance to that envisaged in the Scrum Guide (

Over the last few years, I’ve delivered countless courses on agile management in a variety of business sectors, to all kinds of delegates, in places as diverse as Beirut to Milton Keynes. This recent course was attended by developers from a UK government department. Last week I delivered a course to senior directors in a large multi-national business. There are always particular issues of course, but if there is one consistent gripe, it is the difficulty of getting management buy-in.

I have pondered if the Scrum or agile ideal is simply a utopian dream that can never be achieved. I have seen it work reasonably well, and I’ve read the case studies of other successful deliveries, but there is always some variance from the Guide. Of course ‘Agile’ is not a state to achieve. The goal is to conduct our business more effectively, by becoming more agile. If Scrum is an impossible ideal, it is still worth pursuing it, in the pursuit of greater agility.  However, as plenty of folks in the ‘Agile World’ have argued, if it is so hard to adopt Scrum, maybe we shouldn’t try. Maybe we should work towards more effective delivery in ways that are less revolutionary for businesses.

The thing is that Scrum resonates with me, and also with plenty of the delegates I train (and the teams I work alongside, in consultancy). Delegates frequently go away frustrated that what they see in the classroom is the way they’d like to work, but knowing that it will be far from like that back in the workplace. The fact that so many see the potential encourages me to think that it is certainly worth pursuing.

But, if so many people want to make it work, why is it that it is so hard to adopt. Business is often complex of course, and there are all kinds of challenges to succeeding. However, I’d suggest there is a simple solution for most businesses seeking to be more effective: get rid of managers. That might sound nonsensical and naively simplistic, but I’d argue that is because we are simply used to a certain way of doing business that is based on traditional norms, which make it seem ridiculous. Many organisations are very ineffective, because the people who are doing the work, the people who actually know what needs to be done, are powerless to make decisions. While, the people with the power to make decisions, often have very little understanding of what really needs to be done.

It is a common gripe, that management are out of touch with reality, and the answer is often to try to adopt some new technique or management methodology to redress the balance. But that is only because most companies couldn’t imagine a world without managers. However, just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be done – and, in case, many organisations in recent years have begun that revolution to more holocratic and team-based forms of management.

In 1986, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi published their influential article: The New New Product Development Game. The subtitle, Stop running the relay and take up rugby, is still as relevant, if not more so, to our present day and points us in the direction of a better metaphor for running effective businesses. Rather than base our structures on out-dated, hierarchical, command-and-control management structures, we should base them on team structures and build high-performing teams. We wouldn’t have managers running onto the pitch to tell a rugby player where to run with the ball, so why do we insist on managers telling knowledge workers how to solve complex development problems?

Let’s get rid of managers, share management between the people actually doing the work and train servant-leader Scrum Masters to support and coach delivery teams to help them become the best they can be. It may seem idealistic, but it has to be better than the alternative in many businesses.