Advocacy Enterprise

Develop Agile Managers, or Agile Dies

Something is Wrong, It Must Be Agile

To sustain rapid adaptation and innovation, we need good agile managers. But management talent is rare, and agile management talent even rarer.

Danger lurks when executives and managers don’t understand agile. You can tell when managers don’t understand agile: they don’t use it themselves. Agile methods, Scrum particularly, are perfect for managing creative teams, including management teams planning and executing strategy (see Strategy Scrum Teams). [suth2014]

Over the past 7 years, I have studied and experimented with agile organizations [gree2010] [gree2013a] [gree2013b] [gree2015]. What has consistently emerged? Agile sustainability depends completely on management agility. If you’ve got an agile executive, your agile transformation will stick. If you’ve got a good executive who doesn’t understand agile, it probably won’t. That isn’t hopeless: we can teach good executives and managers to be agile. But, if no executives have innate managerial talent, it is hopeless: mediocrity is guaranteed and coaching won’t help [gall2015].

Agile managers lead teams and companies with metrics, experimentation and iteration. These practices allow agile managers to rapidly sense change, manage risk and create value in a chaotic economic context. It all sounds great, until you examine the cost—in increased discipline, iteration overhead and training. So use agile where you need it. It improves results in any environment that demands creativity—software development, marketing, business development, automobile design, content development, etc.—but most of all in running your organization.

Whether agile managers realize it or not, they typically adopt five agile base patterns: they measure economic progress, proactively experiment to improve, limit work-in-processpromote collective responsibility, and solve systemic problems. It turns out these patterns have analogues in good (non-agile) manager talents. That’s a relief, because we can focus agile manager training on extending the talents good managers already have.

Good Managers are Rare

Good managers are rare. Gallup’s State of the American Manager reveals that at least 70% of a team’s success correlates to its manager’s innate talents. Only 10% of employees demonstrate strong innate management talent, and coaching can help another 20% of employees to manage acceptably. Managers drawn from these two groups produce, on average, 48% more value than others.

Good managers, according to Gallup,

  • Motivate employees
  • Assert themselves
  • Create an accountability culture
  • Create informed, trusting relationships
  • Make informed, unbiased decisions for their teams and organizations

Most managers are bad. American businesses select people for management only slightly better than random: 30% of all employees have at least some management talents, 38% of existing managers do.  The remaining 70% of employees cannot serve as good managers, regardless of development or coaching. Unfortunately, those low-talent managers comprise 62% of all current managers.

What should we do with our many bad managers? Most got promoted to management through tenure or individual contributions. We should move ill-fitting managers back to more complementary individual contributor roles, where they can shine. In many cases, they despise management tasks anyway. We should pay talented individual contributors well; it reduces the incentive to seek manager jobs. Great individual contributors can often produce 4 times or more value than average contributors, so they deserve premium compensation. If no employees make more than their manager, I’ll bet your organization has mediocre managers.

Agile Managers are Even Rarer

How do good manager talents line up with agile manager talents? Let’s group Gallup’s manager talents into corresponding Agile Base Patterns.

Agile Manager (Agile Base Patterns)
Gallup High-Talent Manager Gallup Limited-Talent Manager
Measure Economic Progress (Motivator) Challenge themselves and teams to continually improve and deliver distinguished performance. (Motivator) Lack excitement and expectations for outcomes.
Proactively Experiment to Improve (Assertiveness) Overcome challenges, adversities and resistance. (Motivator) Allow team performance to stagnate.(Assertiveness) Struggle to create change or drive performance improvement.
Limit Work-in-Process (Accountability) Create the structure and processes to help their teams deliver on expectations. (Accountability) Fail to organize team workflows, making it harder to meet performance expectations.
Embrace Collective Responsibility (Relationships) Build a positive, engaging work environment where their teams create strong relationships with one another and with clients. (Relationships) Suffer dysfunctional teams that lack cohesion and disengage employees and clients alike
Solve Systemic Problems (Decision-Making) Solve the many complex issues and problems inherent to the role by thinking ahead, planning for contingencies, balancing competing interests and taking an analytical approach. (Decision-Making) Seek the convenient solution over the best solution, not taking into account all of the pertinent information and/or complexities.

While every Gallup manager talent roughly aligns with an Agile Base Pattern, there are significant differences.

Metrics are used more pervasively by agile managers. Agile methods experiment, requiring measured hypotheses and validation. Since agile managers limit work-in-process, they experiment frequently, and thus gather much more data.

Agile managers try many more ideas than non-agile managers.  They see a higher failure rate, but their failures cost much less than those of regular managers. For greatest learning, experiments should invalidate the hypothesis about 50% of the time.  Agile managers understand that low-cost failures lead to more rapid learning, and challenge their teams to learn faster. Overcoming challenges, adversities and resistance (a characteristic of good managers) is effectively built into the agile base patterns. Agilists are the existentialists of work philosophy: they ride the edge of low-cost failure and success to deliver long-term value in a chaotic world. (For readers interested in philosophy, see Existentialism.)

Agile managers abandon doomed projects early, because they get data much earlier, and have lots of ideas about how to redeploy resources. This heightened alertness to responsibility and opportunity is typically absent from slower-moving non-agile managers.

Agile managers tend to work more strategically than operationally (see Strategy Scrum Teams). Agility requires rapid sensing, adapting and creating, hence agile managers emphasize limiting work-in-process (good-but-not-agile managers don’t). Agile managers do more than deliver on expectations (a characteristic of good managers). They manage expectations with hard statistics, gleaned from early and iterative delivery, which has the happy side-effect of reducing risk.

Agile managers create deeper team spirit than non-agile managers can achieve. In agile teams, individuals feel personally responsible for the team’s collective output. Agile managers achieve this by aligning organizational, team and individual goals. Team members learn to fill-in for each other. These activities occur naturally under an agile manager.

Finally, agile managers gain expansive influence when they “solve systemic problems.” Inevitably, agility suffers under non-agile organizations or when interacting with non-agile departments. Agilists have many tools for these circumstances, such as Five Whys problem solving, Value Stream Mapping, and Theory of Constraints. In using them, agile managers often end up helping those other departments become more agile.

We Need Agile Managers and Executives

When we hire or develop agile executives, great things happen. In 2009, my CEO served as Chief Product Owner for our company’s portfolio backlog (with a team of Product Managers to back him up), the company’s VP Engineering coordinated team allocation and I served as Enterprise ScrumMaster. The improvement was dramatic. In the two years that followed, the product release rate increased 10 times, quality improved and we gained market share against better funded competitors.

Unfortunately, good executives, who happen to usher in dramatic agile transformations, may never deeply learn agility themselves. These good-but-not-agile executives can inadvertently destroy agile. I watched helplessly as a highly agile company made a dramatic agile reversal, after good-but-not-agile executives blindly accepted a non-agile expert’s recommendation to silo engineers in product lines. The company abandoned a healthy portfolio backlog, because engineers were allocated by yearly budget to different departments. Difficult economic tradeoffs became less contentious, but only because leaders lost freedom to make big tradeoffs. Engineer mobility declined. And the organization went from excellent to mediocre.

Many colleagues tell similar stories. One large online retailer spent millions on agile coaches in five waves, one every 18 months or so, training only developers and engineering managers. Each time the agile coaching effort started to transform work, it also encroached on political turf. Each time, threatened mediocre managers blamed the coaches, the executives fired the coaches, and the mediocre managers went back to their pleasant world. But then, each time, the pressure of agile competitors attracted executives, again, to “convert their engineering department to agile,” and drove them to seek out “better coaches”. Five waves! Isn’t that ridiculous? Blaming others was a waste of time, they had problems at home. It’s more common than you think. A similar thing happened at a large search firm. And a dominant social media company.  And a bunch of other respected names.

If you want to become and stay agile, but don’t want to develop executives and high-level managers, it’s possible (I think) but expensive. You just create a big agile coaching budget, and expect to keep it going indefinitely. Most large companies seem to have to hire an army of external agile coaches long-term to maintain their agility. When they drop the coaches, the agility declines.

The exception is when key executives are agile themselves. But key executives can be lost. Over time, I noticed a correlation: the loss or disempowerment of a high-level agile manager foreshadows agile reversion. That prompted me to look for the key characteristics of agile managers.

Agile Leadership Patterns, Dan Greening interviewed.
And that is really what led me to define agility broadly, through the agile base patterns (see Are We Agile?). Only with a broad definition of agility, could I assess and coach executives to be agile. Currently, the only widely recognized definition of agility is the Agile Manifesto, which addresses only software development. Foisting the Agile Manifesto on managers and leaders has led agile coaches to tell managers and executives to get out of the way, or spend their time removing impediments. That negative coaching has been unfortunate, because we desperately need agile executives and managers to sustain agility.

What Now?

Enthusiastic agile executives and managers make the difference between sustained and ephemeral agility, and they generate tons of money. I am lately studying agile executives, such as Bill Gross, the head of Idealab, and Steve Blank, former head of E.piphany. Both earned millions from their agile management skills. Startups can be led by agilists, too, such as Metageek’s CEO Ryan Woodings (see Scrum: It’s not just for software anymore [wood2015]). By studying successful agile managers, we can make our organizations healthier and more profitable.

Agile manager talents are a superset of good manager talents. This article has reviewed Gallup’s comprehensive analysis of manager talents, and their relationship to agile patterns. I have also mapped The Rockefeller Habits, a popular framework for good executive management, to agile base patterns. It turns out that the Rockefeller Habits offers a few concepts not well-articulated by agile methodologies, especially in so-called scaled methodologies. I’ll be talking about those in weeks ahead. Sign up for our mailing list if you want to see the analysis.

Thoughtful companies should work hard to place good managers in management positions, and redeploy low-talent managers into individual contributor roles. Good managers may not be the best individual contributors; we must use better discipline to identify and coach employees with innate management talent.

We must also create training and coaching programs to improve the agility of our good managers. The agile base patterns (introduced in Are We Agile? and gradually emerging in detail here) provide many guideposts. Try running the questions at the end of Are We Agile? on your managers and executives. If you’re like many colleagues, you’ll find the answers can help guide coaching and improvement.

Good luck.

p.s. As you encounter executives and high-level managers that are agile, in their own right, please introduce them to me. By interviewing agile managers, I can start to build an understanding of what to look for in hiring, and how to coach good managers to agile greatness. I promise to report my findings back to you. I dream of well-running, healthy companies that channel our happy collaboration to produce great products at little cost. More agile managers will help support that dream.


[gall2015] Gallup, 2015 State of the American Manager (March 27, 2015).

[gree2010] Dan Greening, “Enterprise Scrum: Scaling Scrum to the Executive Level,”Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) 2010.

[gree2013a] Dan Greening, “Release Duration and Enterprise Agility,”Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) 2013.

[gree2013b] Dan Greening, “Why Should Agilists Care about Capitalization,” InfoQ (Jan 29, 2013).

[gree2015a] Dan Greening, “Enterprise Agility Metrics,” Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) 2015.

[gree2015b] Dan Greening, “Are We Agile?”, Senex Rex blog, (2015).

[suth2014] Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, (2014).

[wood2015] Ryan Woodings, “Scrum: It’s not just for software anymore,” Metageek blog,


Thanks to early draft reviewers Jeff Lopez-StuittRon Lussier, Tony Grout and Kenneth Bobu.

By Dan Greening

Dan Greening is a serial entrepreneur working on his fourth startup, where he leads implementation of two agile practices, Lean Startup and Scrum. Between the third and fourth startup, he was the lead agile coach for Citrix Online, Skype, Overstock, and other companies. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UCLA. He is a Certified Enterprise Coach with the Scrum Alliance, and a Scrum@Scale Trainer. He has published innovative work on agile management, parallel processing, and chaotic systems.

One reply on “Develop Agile Managers, or Agile Dies”

Dan, your continued refinement of the base patterns is the only thing keeping my “tank full”, so to speak, these days. Highly motivating for me… it reminds me I’m not crazy. Keep it up… I’m actively following your exploration and journey!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.