The local manager: the keystone in agile transformation

The agile transformation can be a complex moment for the local manager.  Some managers will prefer to refocus on their expertise or combine supervisory roles with roles introduced by agility at scale. Product manager, domain expert, EPIC owner are all new career paths open to these profiles. 

Gwendolen Michau

An essential link between the management committee and their teams, local managers anchor individuals in the company’s endeavor and provide them with the conditions needed to successfully perform their responsibilities. They are accountable for their teams’ success in attaining objectives, explain the implications of the new strategic priorities, and facilitate change at the organizational, collective and individual levels. In a context where the aim is to successfully transition into agility or even to agility at scale, their role and challenges are all the more important. 

Striking the right balance between individual and collective needs

Local managers guide and support their employees to ensure that they succeed in their responsibilities. During the implementation phase of agile methods, their teams’ interactions and working environment are transformed. Previously working in close collaboration with their focus on a single activity, they must form a working group dedicated to a value chain. For the team members, this implies increased collaboration with a multidisciplinary and often co-local working group. This is a change that bears on the very structuring of their day-to-day work and can cause some to pull the brakes.

Most often, this is due to the fear of the unknown and the need to find their bearings in the new organization. Managers help their team members identify and move past their reservations. They must integrate their employees into agile teams taking two dimensions into account:

  • the ease with which each team member embraces change
  • and the company’s transformation timeline.

This requires a finer understanding of individuals, what motivates them and what holds them back, so as to bring them on-board as agile team members.

From top-down to bottom-up: a change in paradigm

Before being a change in working method, agility is a change in approach.

The self-sufficiency and responsibility of the production teams are now greater. Decision-making is all the more decentralized. Top management remains responsible for the strategic vision, middle management for its operational implementation, while the production team becomes fully responsible for the “how”.

The change is thus a major one for the local managers. In the past, they were responsible for organizing and planning out their employees’ teams. Today, they give their teams more freedom to find answers to the needs stated. They guide their team members as they raise questions and try to find their way. In parallel, they support the collective in turning the solutions devised by their subordinates into action. This means they have to show confidence and know-how to let go.

It can be difficult for them to get a hold on this greater responsibility at first. The reluctance can come from the individual to whom power is delegated, but also be lodged within the various layers of management. Managers play a central part in changing habits, including their own. They have to come to terms with losing some of their decision-making power and keep careful watch over their own behavior and that of their hierarchy so as not to disrupt the work of their teams. In this sense, they will have to evangelize to an extent, so that people can understand and apply the principles of agility. The managers’ role is thus one of leader-servant.

From project mode to product mode: a change in culture

When it comes to the digital product, priority-setting powers are entrusted to the team, so that the experience developed matches the customer’s expectations in every way possible.

Both the company and the teams adopt a learning approach. They adopt a humble attitude, in order to understand the needs – both stated and unstated – of their customers. Agile groups experiment to ensure the viability of the product and to uncover new opportunities that bring value. These tests include a degree of uncertainty and thus some failures. In established companies, the culture of failure is not widespread and in some cases even rejected.

Managers, therefore, have a dual part to play in this context:

  • ensuring that the team is able to experiment without putting the company at risk
  • and evangelizing the stakeholders so that they are able to accept failure.

Operationally, this translates into a need to quickly turn elsewhere, or bring a topic to a close. And this role falls to the managers because they remain accountable for the degree to which their team members deliver on the objectives set.

“Adjusting to change, more than following a plan”: how agile transformation impacts company systems

Local managers help optimize the procedures that impact their teams’ activities. They must ensure that the company’s new processes do not slow down the way actions are implemented. Consequently, they must adapt the operational steering processes to the responsiveness needed by the agile teams. They play an advisory role as the project portfolio governance processes are defined. They also ease dependency management between the various production teams. More and more frequently, they are called upon to prioritize and re-prioritize subjects addressed. They are key players in streamlining and aligning the company’s systems. Like their teams, they work collaboratively and cross-functionally.

In conclusion

With changing roles and responsibilities, the impacts of decentralized decision-making, flexibility in the face of change and team upskilling are all dimensions that local managers are expected to take up. By virtue of their people-centered functions, their familiarity with realities on the ground, and their understanding of the company’s strategy and structure, they stand at the crossroads. They are the link and bond necessary to the company’s cultural shift.

Some major French groups have clearly understood the role of the local manager in an agile transformation. To move beyond statements of intent and proof-of-concept, frequent adjustments are essential. This means consistent action to bring on-board, train and support managers so that they understand the perpetual transition ahead.

In a second article, we will go into some of the solutions deployed to support local managers in their new challenges.

Article written in collaboration with Baptiste Aubrée


Gwendolen Michau

Managing Consultant