Bringing managers along


This is one for discussion. I’ve been talking to a few people dealing with large scale agile implementations. Examples include the Commonwealth Bank, Macquarie Bank, Vodafone etc. The feedback has been interesting and puzzling.

The CEOs and the top levels get agile and want to implement it. The teams want to use it. You have people from the bottom pushing, people from the top supportive and then it hits this wall in the middle and it all goes to hell.

So the question is how do you reach middle management in a transformation? How do we get beyond this state of the middle layer of the organisation acting as a major barrier to the implementation of meaningful change?

Many are rightfully scared of what it means for them. I’ve noticed a tendency to hollow out the middle and things start to get missed. If you have a sufficiently large number of people, and history, some level of organisation is required for things to function.

How can we move that structure to something that actively supports change rather than the status quo?


I don’t think it’s a one size fits all. I can foresee various reasons for the resistance. Here’s a few:

  1. They misunderstand what the hell this thing is, and they react out of fear of the unknown. They might also have seen failed change (to include agile) in the past and see this simply as the start of another cycle. In this situation, educate, show consistency and persistence.
  2. They’ve been conditioned to see the world in only a single way, and they’re not aware of their myopia. In this situation, show it works with a single team and grow the implementation from this source of success.
  3. They lack of the knowledge or are rusty in their craft to mentor their people, and they fear they’ll be evaluated as inadequate or as an impostor. In this situation, it depends. Maybe they simply lack confidence or maybe they’re no longer a good fit in the organization.


On number 3, if they are no longer a good fit, what can we do about it. If we move them on en masse we create an environment of fear. “Will I lose my job next?” and it can be almost a counter productive move. How do you do this with compassion and honesty, without setting off a dumpster fire?


By no means would I suggest moving them on en masse. I would hope this is a rare occasion, and how many places have we worked where those in the trenches recognize the shit birds, and yet those shit birds continue to thrive? It may, in fact, increase morale and make for a better work environment by removing toxic/unhelpful/counterproductive individuals.


Check out Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior…’s_Laws_of_Organizational_Behavior

Culture follows structure, and you’re fighting inertia. Being proactive with that middle layer (at Siemens Medical in 2006, we called it the “mud layer”) is important as they gain a lot of anxiety over their shifting job description and needing to obtain a different set of soft skills.


My personal view: mostly the idea of agile by the upper management and the teams is different, whereas the middle management feels like they are left on there own to sort out the differences if they agree to be agile - that’s why they refuse to participate.


I wrote a blog post about this, i’ll link it below. As an ex-middle manager for me it was a huge shift and it took me a bit, and I had peers that moved on instead of buying in. My biggest fear was the upheaval of status quo (even though the status quo was awful), and once I crossed that bridge it was like the clouds parted and the sun came out. Each middle layer manager is different and unfortunately it almost has to be approached on a case by case basis.

Food for thought:


That’s the way it is and it applies for every employee. I would say fortunately everyone is different :wink:


Middle management get seriously sandwiched in every organisation – leaders pushing down, employees beating them up. often middle management becomes a preservation exercise until such time you have been promoted to a senior role. And that often means ride out the latest fad of the day…and to @Tanner’s point there’s quite a few very valid reasons and all require a different treatment. I also concur with @hdietrich – it is often the layer the least supported in organisational transformation (“we gave you the pack and the templates, go hard!”)

Back to your question - how do we move that structure to something that actively supports change rather than the status quo. we start by recognising they are humans, who have needs, desires, aspirations and concerns. We talk to them. We listen to them. And then we go from there…when you find the common denominator that is a driver for them personally, bootstrap the buggery out of it! Amplify and repeat!


Never has a more Aussie quote been written. “Fair shake of the sauce bottle” doesn’t count… :slight_smile: