One of the challenges that managers face is when their employees are working on projects separate from them. This is especially common when their employees are part of Scrum Teams or Product Teams. The manager may feel sidelined and out-of-touch with what their reports are working on. Even worse, their disconnection with employees’ day-to-day work may affect their ability to give meaningful and constructive feedback and coaching. Fortunately, there are ways of staying connected and involved. First, though, it’s important to understand why this type of structure exists and the benefits it can provide an organization.
The cross-functional team is a powerful tool. It equalizes authority, utilizes specializations, and leverages and promotes long-standing team bonds. Contrary to organizations that operate in functional silos, scrum teams focus on the right combinations of specialized skill sets to get the job done, reducing overhead and empowering high-bandwidth communication.
The casualty of the adoption of the “Scrum Team” is the definition of the manager role. There is no explicit place for managers within Scrum, as hierarchy is counter to the equality that this structure aims to create. The manager, however, continues to play a critical role in the organization and for the employee experience.
In order to adequately support their team members, managers will need to learn and adapt new techniques and strategies to effectively manage someone operating within a scrum team. These techniques will help them stay well-informed and connected, even without being directly responsible, or even adjacent, to their employees’ work. Simply put, the manager will need to reframe how they view their responsibilities to both the organization and their employees; this means focusing less on what the teams are building and focusing more on how things are being built. This allows the managers to focus on people and processes, not on projects and tasks.
It is generally accepted that one-on-ones should not be used as status reports. This is absolutely true, assuming that the goal of the status report is to simply “communicate up.” Scrum teams have mechanisms in place for stakeholder communication, roadmap planning, and launch preparation. This information is valuable to the manager as well, but for different reasons.
In order to maintain a mutually-beneficial relationship between manager and direct report, it’s important to understand what both individuals are doing every day. It is important for the manager to know the tasks (or at least the types of tasks) the employee is working on, the working relationship they have with their coworkers, how tasks are assigned, and the type of tasks they find exciting, mind-numbing, easy, challenging, etc. Similarly, the employee must also know what the manager is working on day-to-day. This isn’t status reporting; this is simply context setting and sharing.
Simply asking “So, what are you working on these days?” is a simple, yet effective, way to get this conversation started. However, it’s not enough for the manager to simply get a list of tickets that are being worked on; it is imperative that the manager dig deeper into how their team member is thinking about solving their current problem. Through a manager’s genuine curiosity, the employee will be able to articulate the particular challenges they are going through, to talk about the systems and processes they are working within, and to list the people they are working with or are dependent on. The employee may or may not ask for advice, yet they’ve already painted a detailed picture of where you, as a manager, may be able to help.
One of the most powerful tools that a manager has is the ability to recognize trends and patterns on a macro scale in the organization. In an environment where the manager is not directly overseeing an employee’s work, such as in a Scrum environment, employees have the freedom and flexibility to work on new and interesting projects while preserving the relationship with their manager. With their team members working on a variety of different projects and initiatives, managers can take advantage of all of these perspectives to understand how the organization is functioning at a higher level. The manager no longer just has a view into one team; they can form new opinions and hypotheses based on the experiences of all of their team members. For instance, the types of frustrations that one team member is having on one team may be similar to another team member on an entirely different team. Or perhaps there is one individual who is regularly helping several people across the organization behind the scenes who would otherwise not be publicly recognized for their contributions. This is all data that can lead to action by the manager.
Building and maintaining a valuable and personal relationship with every direct report allows a manager to craft a unique and objective perspective into the inner-workings of the organization. By taking advantage of this unique visibility into the system (which we’ll discuss a little further on), a manager is able to “work on the business” by helping to identify and fix any underlying systemic issues and leave the project work to those best equipped to tackle it.
The perhaps overly simplistic, singular goal of a manager is to develop other leaders. Regardless of seniority, tenure, skill set, or job function, if someone participates within a Scrum team, they are acting as a leader in some capacity. The manager needs to be intentional and diligent about leadership development among their direct reports, in spite of the manager’s lack of involvement in their employee’s day-to-day work.
Communication is at the heart of all leadership-related growth opportunities, and this is a valuable place for managers to start. An employee simply being able to communicate goals or a clear problem statement to their manager is good practice and is oftentimes a great coaching opportunity. Taking it a step further, the manager may be able to offer advice and guidance on how the team member can be a more effective participant and leader on their team (whether it’s through skills such as prioritization, conflict resolution, mentoring, technical training, or anything else). By virtue of the manager not being the “voice of authority” in meetings with their team, this provides space for their team members to lead.
This is also an opportunity for the manager and employee to discuss how the daily work is contributing to their larger career aspirations. If a team member is not feeling fulfilled by the work they are doing, there may be other opportunities within the organization or there may be unrealized potential within their existing team.
The disconnection of a manager from the day-to-day work of their team members means that it is incredibly difficult, or even impossible, for the manager to independently assess how the employee is doing. Tooling and systems only go so far in providing visibility into individual performance. Fortunately, the act of requesting feedback is a valuable opportunity for both the employee and the manager, and it can help establish a culture of transparency, honesty, and candor.
The ability and willingness to ask peers for feedback is a valuable skill managers can teach their employees. These peers could be anyone who works closely with the employee, whether they have the same job function or are cross-functional partners. In a typical peer-review cycle, the manager compiles a list of individuals who can provide feedback about the team member (typically speaking to what the person is doing well and how they can improve) which is handed to the manager, compiled, and delivered to the employee. Lost in this process, however, is the ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue, since the feedback is abstracted and even anonymized. Instead, team members have an opportunity to be engaging in frequent feedback sessions with their peers, asking questions such as “How am I doing?,” “What can I do to help more?,” and “Is there anything I can work on that would make me a more effective team member?” The output of these conversations can then be discussed openly with the manager.
It is still valuable, however, for managers to reach out directly to their employees’ peers for feedback. Aside from the obvious benefit of hearing a perspective of the employee’s performance directly, it is also valuable for the manager to maintain these relationships with others in the organization. While it may be tempting to simply note the feedback, aggregate, and regurgitate, it is paramount to take a critical eye to the feedback being offered. In many cases, this can turn into another coaching opportunity: one where the person offering feedback may be encouraged to provide timely feedback directly to their team member rather than having it proxied through the manager.
Regardless of whether it’s being requested by the manager or directly by the team member, it’s important to focus on the questions that can offer actionable feedback. Some examples of these may include discussing the team member’s biggest contributions to the team, advice for dealing with anything the employee has struggled with, and suggestions for what they should do more of. It’s important for the manager to hear this feedback both directly and through the employee’s perspective; both techniques are valuable for ensuring the manager has the proper context to assess the employee’s performance and ensure their future success.
Having team members organized in different cross-functional Product Teams or Scrum Teams can bring a tremendous amount of value to an organization. Unfortunately, the role of the manager of those team members can be ambiguous if not deliberately established. By leveraging one-on-ones, becoming an expert in pattern matching, focusing on long-term professional development, and developing systems for acquiring and delivering feedback, the manager can leverage this structure to improve the employee experience and develop leaders within the organization.