When to stand back, when to step in

Part of my definition of a successful team is that the members of the team increase their knowledge and capacity as a result of their work on the team. That means that giving the team the opportunity to learn is part of the job.

One of challenges I see when managers first start working with agile teams is knowing when to step back, and when to step in. Swinging too far in either direction hampers team learning.

Helicopter Managers step in too soon. They swoop in at the first whiff of a problem to “rescue” the team. They deprive the team of the chance to think, solve problems, and decide together. These managers may believe they are doing the team a favor; what they really do is hamper the team’s development.

Absentee Managers throw up their hands and say “you figure it out,” no matter what the issue, or whether the team has the skill and authority to solve the problem. These mangers let the team flail and churn, wasting time and building frustration. People do learn from mistakes; but when people feel frustrated, hopeless or abandoned by their manager, increased capability is not the likely learning outcome.

Self-organizing teams still need managers. But those manager need to know when to step in, and when to stand back.

Here are three guidelines to help managers gauge their actions with self-organizing teams.

#1. If the team has the skills to solve the problem–or they are on the verge of having the skills–give them space to solve the problem. If they’re stuck or don’t see how to use the skills they have, ask questions to help them get unstuck. They will learn much more from wrestling with the problem than having the manager fix it. (Assuming it’s not a management problem. Then it’s managements job to fix it.)

#2. When time is not of the essence give the team time to work the issue. If it takes a day or two to solve the problem, will it bring the company to it’s knees? (If the answer is yes, you’ve got bigger problems than working with a self-organizing teams.) Keep in mind that many companies live in permanent fire-fighting mode and believe that everything is urgent. Or the manager believe that people won’t actually apply sufficient effort unless they believe the issue is urgent. Again, that’s a bigger problem. OTOH, if there’s information that will help the team solve the problem give the information. Withholding the information is just plain wrong. Likewise, if there’s a very simple solution that the team is overlooking, ask questions to help them discover it.

#3. If the solution space is limited in scope and impact, or the decision is reversible, give the team space to solve the problem, even it there’s a good chance they’ll get it wrong the first time. If the solution space isn’t bounded, then there’s something amiss with the way the problem or decision authority has been delegated. Bound the issue so that the team is involved and there’s appropriate fiscal and management oversight.

There’s always a trade off between expediency and a learning opportunity. Self-organizing teams can outperform manager-let teams….but only if the managers are willing to navigate the balance.

Shifting from a manager-led team to a self-organizing team is a little tricky. It calls on a different set of skills, and brings up questions about value and identify for many managers.

But there’s still plenty of work for managers to do. It just doesn’t involve task management and having all the answers.

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