McKinsey has published recently an article entitled “How companies can help midlevel managers navigate agile transformations?”, where the authors have created a very pessimistic vision of four major requirements that organizations put on modern leaders. They need to be incredibly agile and have multiple competencies. What are they and is it realistic to expect so much from one man?

In a nutshell – yes and no. We are only human and have limited capabilities, despite “impossible is nothing” commercials. It’s unlikely for a miner to become a CEO of a software company as well as for a swimming medalist to shift and become a fashion expert. People have a lifetime of knowledge, experiences, and domain expertise. It’s not that simple to know everything, even if our expertise is, indeed, vast. Yet, modern organizations require four key competencies from their leaders. They expect them to be:

  • visionaries who inspire people,
  • architects who can make an agile strategy and operational model,
  • trainers who enhance teams’ capabilities,
  • facilitators who create environments for better work.

Isn’t that a little too much, especially for mid-level managers, scrum masters, product owners, or whoever we imagine? Some people choose their roles in a given organization, some inherit it from a previously hired person, some are given a “deal that can’t be thrown away”. Either way, some people out there are put in a position where one full-time job falls a little short when it comes to expectations.

Chris Lukassen, the author of The Product Samurai handbook for product owners, said one time: “I like to think that organizations never actually reach the agile threshold but rather get better at it. Like an athlete that never stops his training. There are always obstacles on the way, I call it managing the system. What impacts your speed the most, when you go by car in the evening? Your attitude, skills, car? Most likely, it will be the traffic. If someone would get past us and free up the road, we will go as fast as possible. This is how management should look like in an agile organization – you manage the system, not the people”.

Trust – an ultimate currency of tomorrow

This is where the four previously mentioned expectations come to mind. It’s a lot for one person, especially in the position of middle management. This person is the missing link between “soldiers in trenches” and upper management, reporting to the CEO. They are in the most uncomfortable position out there. Middle management needs to present results, as well as train people, and remove obstacles for them. And have only eight hours a day to do it all; at least in the optimistic version of reality. With widely adopted remote work, this can easily turn into ten or twelve hours a day.

The good news is that Lukassen provided an easy way out. If you’re stuck in a middle management position, you don’t have to be a know-it-all. You just have to know what tools to use and how to play with them.

The key issue is to remove obstacles. For many years, I have worked on employment contracts. Many times, I was expected to improve organizations from within, even when this scope wasn’t a part of my job description. I was getting increasingly frustrated with managers that didn’t want to see value in my propositions. From fairly easy ones like shifting to remote work (the joke is on you, my friends!) to complicated rebranding endeavors. Luckily enough, I was able to make some moves and improve a few companies from within. The success factor wasn’t based on removing obstacles, but it should be. Here’s what I have learned over the years.

Tips on getting things done

Nobody listens to you until you bring the proof. Social proof, market proof, case study, whatever you call it. Managers don’t listen unless they can see for themselves. Many people lack the ability to imagine something, they need to travel the road already taken. Even if it means following, not leading.

Even then, nobody will take you seriously unless you provide an alternative. Many creative agencies like to play a little trick on their clients, who pay for a marketing slogan or a visualization. The agency brings three propositions to the table. Two are fairly weaker and one is really good. The trick is to shift the attention to the good one. Why? Because it’s scientifically proven that we, as human beings, are lost with too many similar choices. Did you know that it takes 17 minutes on average to pick a movie to see on Netflix? Too many choices, so little time… If you want your managers to pick a really good strategy, slogan, proposition to improve the company, give them choices but take away the pain. Make one that is brilliant and two that are just ok.

If you can’t inspire people, throw away what’s unnecessary. An interesting definition of a sculptor: it’s someone who removes unnecessary portions of a stone or marble to show the audience the rest. According to this definition, sculpting is not about creating a sculpture, it’s about removing the trash that distorts the view. It’s similar with product teams or any creative teams for that matter. If you, as a team, don’t know what to do, what direction to take with a project or you can’t personally inspire people (it’s just not in your nature), remove the noise to make the signal shine. For example: if your team struggles on picking the name for the product you’re currently working on and it takes hours to finally pick something that everyone can get behind, go back to the beginning. What does the product really need? What name will give it a market presence? What will resonate with the audience? What will enhance marketing messaging? In this particular example, it’s not about the name that resonates with you and “sounds nice”. It’s about what the product needs and what customers, not your team, can gather behind. 

Here’s a quick food for thought – true leadership and team inspiration, for that matter, is not about a Cuban-style, ten-hour speech. It’s about passing through when the team is stuck and lending them a fishing rod to finally catch something. True visionaries need seconds, not hours. With you, your team will need a second too.

Middle managers don’t need to know everything. Some things, like going back to the roots in the example above, can be trained. You just need a person who can point you in the right direction and teach you how to navigate through the maze. Then these previously mentioned four horsemen of the apocalypse… excuse me, four agile middle-management expectations, will not get so frustrating.

Removing obstacles

You can start with simple things. If an obstacle is a big one and there is not enough time in the sprint, just change the definition of the sprint. Make it two weeks instead of one. Why not, who cares? “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”, right? In agile, many things are contractual. If something doesn’t work, change the damn contract. If, for some reason, it’s not possible, remove another obstacle, which is the definition of done. Change it! Don’t be afraid! What would happen, if you couldn’t make a 100% but 80% or even 70% and finish up with the rest in the next sprint?

In this example, try to think like a parent talking to your child. Children don’t like discipline. They don’t want to start with hard things to remember or do. They would rather skip to the easiest part of the homework and forget about the rest, not doing it at all. For them, it’s counterintuitive. For us, doing it the hard way should always be a priority. Why? Because if we start with a portion of a challenge, we can actually do it and the missing 30% will fall into place naturally. The next time, when something hard comes along, it will be easier and easier, and easier, every single time. That’s how you build a team, by the way.

Removing obstacles in this particular example is about removing the noise and focusing on a signal. The noise is the easy part of the project that you can do anytime in the sprint. The signal is what makes your team hate you. If you make your team focus on the hard part of their job and not letting go, they will thank you in the long run because next time around the hard part will take less time to process and manage. And finally, it will take less time to figure it out and to implement it.

We don’t have to be perfect

We just need to be efficient. We all have challenges, faults, built-in thought patterns, favorite ways to handle things. It’s natural. When working in a team, it’s about a leader and his way of handling things that guides us. I have learned that the best way to handle the team is by letting the team handle itself. Remove obstacles. Inspire by little yet efficient examples. And let the upper management know that you don’t have to do and know everything. Especially if it’s way beyond your pay grade.

Be present, listen to the team, and simply manage. One crisis at a time. Contrary to a popular belief, it’s not that hard. Sometimes, the simplest things are those that give us the biggest headaches.