Your organization is working through an agile transformation. While some praise the contribution of scrum masters and agile coaches in the elimination of obstacles, others commend the contribution of product owners when prioritizing business decisions.

As a manager, you are no longer able to tell the members of your team (often called a squad) what to do and how to do it. You were also told that the product manager is responsible for prioritizing activities and that improving operational processes falls under the oversight of the scrum master.

You suddenly feel rejected by members of your former team, which is now self-organized. You’re ready to accept the advantages of organizational agility, but you just can’t get to grips with your new role!

With all these changes, the question you find yourself asking most often is, “As a manager, what is my role in a self-organized team?”

The article entitled Paradigm shift for leaders raises an important point. Managers continuously develop and are rewarded throughout their careers for their involvement in the daily operations of their teams, so, how can they adopt a completely new approach when their organization undergoes an agile transformation?

This article explains the transition from traditional manager to agile manager. We will first introduce the main differences between the two roles and then focus on the new responsibilities you will have to bear as an agile manager. We will end by covering the skills you will need to develop to successfully transition into your new role.

Transitioning to the Role of Agile Manager: What Does It Involve?

Summary table

Former Role—Traditional Manager New Role—Agile Manager

A generalist manager responsible for the following activities:

— Managing the members of their team —Business knowledge and/or technical expertise

— Process or project management

A manager specialized in one (1) of the following areas of activity:

— People / talent management

— Product or business line management

— Project or process management


With unchanging responsibilities…

— Communicating the business’s vision and keeping everything aligned with the company’s values

— Removing obstacles that impair the team

— Defining the team’s business objectives


With changing responsibilities that need to be delegated to the team…

— Choosing tools and methods

— Hiring, integration (and firing)

— Performance reviews (individual and team)

— Skills development

— Budget management


And with new responsibilities to integrate…

— Implementing and supporting self-organization

— Coaching and mentoring in your new area of expertise

— Supporting the team’s continual development

— Creating a work environment that is conducive to motivation and performance

— Being a facilitator (not a supervisor)

The Different Roles of a Manager in a Traditional Business

(image by: Clem Onojeghuo)

In a traditional (or non-agile) organization, a manager’s contribution is generally based on one or several of the following responsibilities:

  1. Managing the members of their team. One of the main responsibilities of a manager consists of selecting, hiring, evaluating, promoting, supporting and developing the members of their team.
  2. Business knowledge and/or technical expertise. Many managers are contributors who, over the course of their career, have developed technical expertise or important business knowledge for the organization. Having demonstrated their expertise and contribution to the organization, they spend a significant amount of time using their skills (technical or business) to resolve problems encountered by their team.
  3. Process or project management. In addition to their other responsibilities, managers generally spend a significant amount of time managing their team members’ projects. In a traditional context, they are often responsible for determining which team member is assigned to which activity and are therefore responsible for monitoring the progress of the various aspects of the project. Depending on their expertise, they might also design the business processes used by their team members.


The New Roles of a Manager in an Agile Business

In a traditional context, the manager cumulates one or several of the responsibilities mentioned above. Implementing agility leads companies to segment these roles and possibly make them specialties.

(image by Rémi Walle)

While traditional managers contribute as generalists, in an agile environment, managers must choose an area of specialization between people management, product management, or process/project management. Some of the manager’s former responsibilities are transferred to the self-organized team (see below), and the agile manager becomes a coach for the members of their self-organized team. Therefore, the agile manager helps their squad to acquire and develop new skills.

People / Talent Management

In an agile organization, the people manager does not directly supervise the members of their self-organized team, as they are not involved in their team’s daily work.

Consequently, the responsibilities for hiring, integrating, reviewing and developing the members of a self-organized team are often transferred to the team itself. The new position of people manager is to support the team members through the integration of their new responsibilities, and through the development of the skills they need to succeed.

The challenge many traditional managers face when transitioning to this role is detaching themselves from their involvement in the team’s daily activities and instead focusing on the development of skills for each of the individual team members and of the squad as a whole.

Product or Business Line Management

In an agile organization, technical expertise (architecture, technological orientation, etc.) is generally repatriated to members of the self-organized team. This expertise is distributed to the team members or assigned to a specialist.

In parallel, the organization’s business-related expertise—products or services (financial management, business rules, product portfolio management, etc.)—is centralized under the position of product owner, who ensures the evolution of the product (or service).

The traditional manager who opts for a product-based (or service-based) specialization must develop market knowledge, strategic skills, and product lifecycle knowledge in order to optimize the use of the resources made available to them.

The manager therefore sets the priorities for the self-organized team. As product owners become responsible for profitability management, they need to develop business unit management skills and develop their understanding of the needs of their market.

One of the greatest difficulties faced by traditional managers in this new position is relinquishing the need to directly control the people who work for them. They must evolve from a micromanagement role to the daily management of a business line.

Project or Process Management

Organizational agility leads to an increase in project mode operations. Consequently, the need for project management expertise increases. This need for expertise is an opportunity for traditional managers.

Thus, in an agile environment, one of the roles which the traditional manager can take on is that of project (or process) manager, or scrum master.

This role revolves around the planning and organization of tasks that must be carried out by the self-organized team, and around the support and development of a healthy team dynamic. The project manager/scrum master becomes an agile project management process expert. They support the self-organized team by providing a framework that enables them to attain their goals.

In sum, the role of traditional manager—the person who leads a team (hiring, integrating, performance reviews, skills development, career development, salary evaluation, etc.), who is a “job” expert (technical or business domain knowledge), and who manages projects (assigning tasks and monitoring the progress of employees)—evolves to one of the areas of people, product, or project specialization in an agile organization.

The transition to a specialization in agile project management can bring some challenges for traditional managers. They have to evolve from a “command-and-control” type management mode to a role of influencer or “servant leader” who is there to help the self-organized team.

But Are There Responsibilities That Do Not Change?

(image by TAN Erica)

Assuming the role of traditional generalist manager disappears with the implementation of self-organizing teams, many responsibilities do change. However, regardless of the position of manager (people, product, or project), some responsibilities remain unchanged.

  • Communicating the business’s vision and keeping everything aligned with the company’s values. In their new role, the agile manager continues to ensure that the self-organized team’s work aligns with the vision and values of the company. The other managers working alongside the agile manager ensure that the team continues to function within these parameters.
  • Removing obstacles that impair the team. As agile managers are there to support self-organizing teams, they still bear the responsibility of removing obstacles that may prevent the team from completing their goals.
  • Defining the team’s business objectives. We have already established that the difference between a self-organizing team and a self-managed team is that an external manager defines the objectives of the latter. In this sense, managers supporting self-organized teams must continue to define the people objectives (skills development), product objectives (content, schedules and budget), and the (agile) process objectives.


Which Responsibilities Must or Should Specifically Be Transferred to the Self-Organizing Team?

(image by rawpixel)

Depending on how mature the team is, the following areas of responsibility may be entirely transferred to the self-organizing team. A game of delegation poker may help determine the appropriate level of delegation for each area of responsibility.

  • Choosing tools and methods. Choosing tools and methods is often one of the first elements transferred to the self-organizing team. As long as objectives are clearly defined, the team is left to establish the best methods of achieving their objectives and providing the tools necessary to do so.
  • Hiring, integration (and firing). Many of the activities linked to people management can be transferred to the self-organized team. With training and the necessary support, team members are usually able to take over the tasks linked to the formation of their team.
  • Performance reviews (individual and team). Given that agile managers are no longer involved in their team’s daily activities, individual performance reviews can now become the team’s responsibility. By implementing agile performance review methods, the team can develop the mechanisms needed to improve its performance.
  • Skills development. Like performance management, skills development is transferred to the team members. They are in the best position to determine the skills that are lacking within the team and those that need to be improved to reach greater levels of performance and efficiency.
  • Budget management. In a self-organized team with a pre-defined sandbox, management of the operating budget can be delegated to the team. However, setting the operating budget is normally the responsibility of the product owner.


What New Skills Does an Agile Manager Need to Develop?

(image by Daria Nepriakhina)

Within the context of organizational agility, people managers, product managers, and project managers who support self-organizing teams take charge of or contribute to these key skills:

  • Implementing and supporting self-organization. Very few employees have experienced being part of a self-organized team in a professional context. Consequently, acquiring the necessary skills to support the team in the effective implementation of self-organization is a specific skill. In this sense, agile managers have the opportunity to develop an expertise that is in demand in organizations taking the plunge towards agility in all their operations.
  • Coaching and mentoring in their area of expertise (specialization). Managers of self-organizing teams must develop coaching skills to evolve from manager-expert to manager-coach (or servant leader). It is unrealistic to think that the members of a self-organizing team have, from the moment the team is formed, the knowledge and skills necessary to be autonomous and effective. Consequently, traditional managers that have developed certain skills throughout the course of their careers (people management, product management, or project management) become coaches and mentors for the self-organizing team. They transmit their knowledge and share their expertise to help squads become autonomous and efficient.
  • Supporting the team’s continual development. Yes, project managers/scrum masters directly support teams through their continued improvement, yet, agile managers can also have a positive impact on self-organizing teams. Beyond iteration retrospectives, agile managers contribute to the company’s improved operations by supporting the integration of continuous improvement in all areas of activity.
  • Creating a work environment that is conducive to motivation and performance. Work environments significantly influence the performance of team members. Agile managers therefore must create an agile culture that fosters motivation and performance within their self-organized team.
  • Being a facilitator (not a supervisor). Making suggestions about how to overcome obstacles without imposing decisions. Supporting the squad when it faces obstacles and needs help.


What About the New Skills an Agile Manager Needs to Incorporate?

Agile managers do this Not this
Are there to help their team and promote collaboration Manage and control their team
Listen and use powerful questions Tell their team what to do and/or how to do it
Act as a coach and mentor Act as an expert
Facilitate their team’s autonomy and performance Put themselves at the centre of the team’s success
Trust their team and treat its members as competent, autonomous adults Control their team and treat its members as (incompetent, dependent) “children”
See their roles as a complement to the role of the team members See their roles as more important than the role of the team members


Although transitioning to organizational agility impacts the role of manager, the manager continues to play an important role in the company. As long as the generalist manager agrees to specialize and act as a people manager, product manager, or project manager, they can significantly contribute to the success of self-organizing teams. The main challenge lies in supporting agile managers while they transition into this new role.