Where does line management sit in a Scaled Agile organisation?

By Tina Hjort Ejlertsen, Helle Gundorph

Agile has gained momentum. In the last year, we’ve seen a staggering rise in organisations adopting Scaled Agile practices. They’re making Agile more than an IT delivery model based on Scrum teams. They’re using it to truly transform roles, processes, governance, mindsets and operating models.

When organisations use the Scaled Agile Framework®, Agile Release Trains (ARTs) of five to 10 teams self-organise and work together. ARTs are cross-functional, designing, building and testing solutions independently in 10- to 12-week cycles. They’re organised around the enterprise’s value streams and have the mandate and budget to deliver continuously. And they show the products and services they produce every two weeks, and can adjust and adapt their ways of working.

With the ARTs often being long-standing, organisations usually face a lot of questions around the role of line managers. When we spoke with Dean Leffingwell, Chief Methodologist and Co-founder of Scaled Agile Inc., he recognised the line management challenge.

We’ve seen organisations take different approaches. Some decide to go all-in and reorganise themselves completely around the ARTs. Others launch ARTs and work via a virtual organisation, where the old organisational structure and departments stay but most people work almost full-time to the ARTs.

Either way, it’s important to see a line manager as a set of responsibilities rather than a role. We see eight areas that traditional line managers look after:

1. Managing and delegating the pipeline of work

In an agile setting, whether virtual or completely reorganised, this is partially redundant and partially taken over by the Product Manager (PM) and Product Owner (PO). Self-organising agile teams pull work from the backlog rather than have it delegated to them. The PM or PO own and prioritise the management of the pipeline of work, or the backlog, and make sure they feed the right amount of work with a clear vision, mission and priority.

In a large Nordic bank, we saw a head of concept development switch from managing a team to owning products in an ART. They switched from being a line manager to having a role in the agile organisation that made the most of their domain-specific knowhow and broader knowledge (in this case, developing workable digital products).

2. Quality assurance

In both scenarios, this will happen within the teams and through demos, where the team, PO or PM, and other relevant stakeholders give feedback on the product. Quality assurance is part of the process, not an afterthought, and is explicitly explained, linked to customer outcomes and delegated to teams. While the team takes part in quality assurance, the PO and PM will evaluate products against acceptance criteria.

3. Competence development

Communities of Practice (CoP), where people meet across teams to share knowledge and learn, take over parts of competence development. In a virtual context, line managers still drive aspects like building domain knowledge and ensuring people get the right training courses.

4. Recruiting and on-boarding

In a fully re-organised organisation, the Release Train Engineer (RTE), Scrum Master or Lean Agile Centre of Excellence can handle this. We’ve also seen recruitment delegated to the team so they can choose their own colleagues.

In a virtual setup, line managers will still ensure there are enough people with the right knowledge and skills in the wider organisation. And the RTE will bring the right resources from the organisation together into the ART.

5. Long-term career development and coaching

Longer-term career development needs a relationship between the employee and their line manager. In a virtual set-up this stays with the line managers, but for re-organised organisations this can be more complicated.

In an IT delivery company in the financial services industry, the need for prompt feedback on career development was so great that the PO took on this responsibility. This worked for them, but the risk here is that you might give too much power to the PO and reduce the Scrum Master to a meeting facilitator and coordinator. And once the PO gets involved in line management, there’s a risk of losing the team’s ability to push back when work isn’t ready or the PO is pushing for more delivery and jeopardizing quality. There’s a risk that you upset the balance in the self-organising agile team if someone in the team manages others. As a rule, it’s better to separate the management of work and the management of people.

With fully-established ARTs, we’ve seen organisations create ‘career angels’, either in the ARTs or HR, that function like an agile version of a school’s student counsellor. Performance conversations should then focus on long-term goals and the need for continuous adaptation and learning, with the team discussing daily performance.

6. Nursing, care-taking and motivating

Taking care of people is a priority in an agile organisation – especially as agile ways of working is a substantial change that can be equally energising and frustrating.

In a virtual setup, this responsibility can be split between the Scrum Master, who has close day-to-day contact with the team, and the line manager, who can contribute an ‘outside perspective’.

In a fully re-organised organisation, the Scrum Master can work with career angels to handle the day-to-day, while a HR partner takes care of more sensitive or personal issues that the team of ART can’t handle.

7. Reward and performance management decisions

In truly agile organisations, teams understand that learning means improving, so feedback is given freely as part of team-based, day-to-day interactions. As a result, the layers of performance management administration and process are scaled down, but it’s critical for a core framework to exist. So, the responsibility lies between the Scrum Master, who has everyday performance improvement conversations with the team, and the career angel or HR, who take care of long-term conversations.

In virtual organisations, the line manager also has a role to play in long-term performance conversations.

8. Administrative duties like managing days off, sickness etc.

Administrative duties still exist in agile organisations but some of the work will be lighter.

For example, a self-organising team could manage time off together to support their sprint plans. In a virtual setup, they would naturally coordinate with the Scrum Master, RTE and line managers to ensure a holistic view of work planning.

In a fully reorganised organisation, the Scrum Master in collaboration with the RTE would handle time off as part of the work planning.

So, what do you do with the people who have always been line managers?

In a virtual setup, ARTs cover some of the line manager’s responsibilities. The line manager still takes care of elements of recruitment, competence and career development, reward and performance management, and overall motivation. On top of that, they’re responsible for building domain knowledge within their professional area. But managing and delegating the pipeline of work and reviewing it becomes the role of the ARTs.

To work out what your line managers should do with the extra time, you need to understand their strengths and see where they can deliver most value. They could take on roles like:

  • Managing the backlog of work as a PM or PO.
  • Managing capabilities and ensuring specific competencies as a CoP lead.
  • Guiding the work across teams as a RTE, Scrum Master or part of the Lean Agile Centre of Excellence.
  • A career angel working with people across the organisation.
  • Managing high-level designs and architecture as a system or enterprise architect.

When embarking on a Scaled Agile transformation, you’ll have to make tough decisions. One of them will be how to best use your line managers. In this situation, it’s easy to fall victim to the politics and emotions of such a career- and potentially identity-changing decision. Taking the time to understand the needs of your people as well as the individual strengths of your line managers will pay off. In fact, getting this decision right will be key to the success of your agile transformation.

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