The agile manager

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Aaron De Smet for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

To learn more about the McKinsey Quarterly, please click here.

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Who manages in an agile organization? And what exactly do they do?

The agile workplace is becoming increasingly common. In a McKinsey survey of more than 2,500 people across company sizes, functional specialties, industries, regions, and tenures, 37 percent of respondents said their organizations are carrying out company-wide agile transformations, and another 4 percent said their companies have fully implemented such transformations. The shift is driven by proof that small, multidisciplinary teams of agile organizations can respond swiftly and promptly to rapidly changing market opportunities and customer demands. Indeed, more than 80 percent of respondents in agile units report that overall performance increased moderately or significantly since their transformations began.

These small teams, often called “squads,” have a great deal of autonomy. Typically composed of eight to ten individuals, they have end-to-end accountability for specific outcomes and make their own decisions about how to achieve their goals. This raises an obvious and seemingly mystifying question for people who have worked in more traditional, hierarchical companies: Who manages in an agile organization? And what exactly does an agile manager do?

Lay of the land

The answers become clear once you understand that the typical agile company employs a dynamic matrix structure with two types of reporting lines: a capability line and a value-creation line. Nearly all employees have both a functional reporting line, which is their long-term home in the company, and a value-creation reporting line, which sets the objectives and business needs they take on in squads.

In agile parlance, the capability reporting lines are often called “chapters” and are similar in some ways to functions in traditional organizations (you might have a “web developers” chapter, say, or a “research” chapter). Each chapter is responsible for building a capability: hiring, firing, and developing talent; shepherding people along their career paths; evaluating and promoting people; and building standard tools, methods, and ways of working. The chapters also must deploy their talented people to the appropriate squads, based on their expertise and demonstrated competence. In essence, chapters are responsible for the “how” of a company’s work. However, once talent is deployed to an agile team, the chapters do not tell people what to work on, nor do they set priorities, assign work or tasks, or supervise the day-to-day.

The value-creation reporting lines are often called “tribes.” They focus on making money and delivering value to customers (you might have a “mortgage services” tribe or a “mobile products” tribe). Tribes are similar to business units or product lines in traditional organizations. Tribes essentially “rent” most of their resources from the chapters. If chapters are responsible for the “how,” tribes are responsible for the “what.” They set priorities and objectives and provide marching orders to the functional resources deployed to them.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

 

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