Your organization is “going agile.” They’ve selected their framework, sent people to be trained, brought in coaches, and told leaders they need to become more “servant like” — hey, it’s a mindset, folks!
The top of the org has done its part — set the north star (albeit an ambiguous one). The bottom has done its part — smilingly joined teams, embraced the practices, played the roles.
Now for the middle of the org — the middle is struck with fear, anxiety, ambiguity, and risks related to power, authority, accountability. The familiar role of a heroic leader (i.e., doing whatever it takes to achieve the goal) is no longer in the script. Leadership is no longer a position. It’s at every level — or so they say. So middle management has begun to morph into something unfamiliar yet surprisingly familiar.
What is a middle manager to do? You find yourself literally stuck in the middle, trying to juggle the conflicting demands from agile teams and senior leaders. You make a decision one day, only to be told that you need to empower your teams the next! You delegate authority and then find yourself in the boss’s office as they throw up all over you about the failure that has just occurred.
If your organization has selected a scaling framework, you may have been provided the illusion of a solution — shifting higher-level individuals into “agile” roles at the program or portfolio level while retaining the familiar sense of hierarchical structure. While this is a short-lived gain in an org structure that may be hiding longer-term opportunities, it is a pause in the chaos that you can use to your advantage. If your organization is less precise on your new role, the invitation to pause still exists. The pause is a generative opportunity to explore key questions and practices in service of your new role and your continued agency and growth. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Starting with building the foundation, find or create a learning group with your peers. Others around you are likely struggling with this same uncertainty. You have the choice to engage in watercooler gossip or take control by forming a learning group that is energized by the urgency and excited for the opportunity to leverage group intelligence to co-create possibility. In this group, you can discuss new information, look at it from different perspectives, evaluate it for your own purposes, and practice some of the teaming skills that your organization’s teams are likely struggling with as well.
Share your journey with your organization and ask for their help. This is not meant to be an invitation to cry on their shoulder or dump on their lap. As the saying goes, good leaders throw up, not down. What it does provide is the opportunity to practice confident humility, acknowledge shared experience, and collaborate in service of co-creating change in the larger organization — that which is beyond the team.
Listen attentively. Middles have been well-trained to listen to respond, listen to critique — thinking about what you are going to say before the person speaking has stopped talking. Instead, listen for understanding — what’s being said and what is not being said. Listen and check in on your understanding with those around you. Listen to co-discover possibilities. A practice you can start using immediately is to be aware of when you are listening to respond, let go of your response, and shift your focus back to the present conversation. It gets easier with practice.
Make decisions ONLY when necessary. Too often, in service of team empowerment, leaders unskillfully announce it and just assume those in their organization are willing to just jump in and assume the risk associated with newly-delegated decision making. A great model to check out is David Marquet’s Intent-Based Leadership, which leverages the pillars of competence and clarity as team members engage in the decision-making process.
To those around the middle managers, their leaders, and reports — this is not an invitation to weaponize this against management (they should be doing…). Turn the pointer from someone else to ourselves. We honor the achievements of the industrial era and the contributions of managers and have now arrived at this place and time, standing on the threshold of what is next.
A well-respected coach once said, “Once you let jack out of the box, you won’t be able to put him back in.” People long for the shift from machine to human in the workplace. So what MUST managers DO in an agile transformation? Make THE decision; are you IN?
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