The Evolving Role of Managers in Lean-Agile Development


The scene above, which occurred following a SAFe class, illustrates one of the most significant challenges and opportunities that arise in the Lean Enterprise. SAFe emphasizes the value of nearly autonomous, self-organizing, cross-functional teams and trains. In addition to the general empowerment provided by Principle #9, Decentralized decision-making, the SAFe Agile Team roles highlight how responsibilities once assumed by managers are now delegated to the teams. These include:

  • The Product Owner, who manages the backlog
  • A Scrum Master who facilitates the team’s progress towards the goal
  • The Development Team itself, which is ultimately responsible for implementing and releasing value

And for many reasons, Agile seems to work best when a manager does not assume either the Product Owner or Scrum Master role.

This supports a leaner management infrastructure, with more empowered individuals and teams and faster, local decision-making. Productivity and quality go up and employee engagement increases. And time to market goes down.

However, this challenges the responsibilities of traditional line managers (i.e., development/engineering manager, hardware/software manager, QA/test manager, program manager, etc.), especially as these roles historically have been organized by discipline. But as the organization evolves to cross-functional teams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs), this means that individual, day-to-day employee instruction and direction are no longer required. So, to paraphrase our concerned SAFe student, what will these managers do with all that time?

What’s a Manager to Do?

First, all employees still need someone to assist them with career development. A manager still has to set and supervise expectations and compensation and provide the active coaching to advance individual and team skills and career goals. In other words, managers are ultimately responsible for ‘growing their people.’ While this is a traditional and continued responsibility, even then the approach is quite different, as is described in the Agile HR article.

Second, managers acquire and exhibit the new skills detailed in the Lean-Agile Leadership article, which describes how managers in SAFe evolve to become ‘lean-thinking manager-teachers.’ This way, they illustrate the values, mindset, and principles of Lean-Agile Leadership. In the Lean enterprise, that’s the prerequisite for success.

In addition to the roles above, new responsibilities and opportunities arise, as described below.

  • Lead the Change – As noted in the Lean-Agile Leadership article, and more thoroughly in the Implementation Roadmap series, the move to SAFe and Lean-Agile development is a significant organizational change. Many managers will participate in implementing it (as part of the ‘sufficiently powerful coalition for change’) by demonstrating their Lean leadership skills and their adaptability to the new way of working. Some will also assume the role of a SAFe Program Consultant (SPC), receiving the training and the resources they need to train and coach others to achieve the change.
  • Manage up and across the enterprise – The move to Agile teams gives the manager the time needed to eliminate impediments and relentlessly improve operations and flow in ways not possible before. And importantly, their sphere of influence may actually increase. In the new SAFe model, a manager may become responsible for more than one team; and that combination of teams may now include all the cross-functional skills necessary to deliver end-to-end value.
  • Coaching newly formed Agile teams – Everyone knows that creating Agile Teams is one thing; having them be effective is another matter entirely. In other words, leading and coaching is a significant job, one that’s best done by newly-minted, lean-thinking manager-teachers. And while the level of abstraction is higher—teams rather than individuals—it can still be labor intensive, especially in the beginning.
  • Build teams and define the mission and vision – Teams and ARTs may be largely self-organizing and self-managing, but they do not fund themselves or define their own missions. That strategy and responsibility lie with management. In addition to helping to form the strategy, managers play a role in recruiting talent, defining the mission and vision for teams, and helping them achieve their highest potential.

Clearly, adopting Lean-Agile development does not eliminate the need for sound management. However, these responsibilities now rest with those Lean-Agile Leaders who can adapt, thrive, and grow in this new environment.

Summary of Responsibilities

As we described above, lean-thinking manager-teachers still have a lot of work to do in this new environment. A more detailed review of their responsibilities is highlighted below.

Personnel and Team Development

As we noted, teams don’t form or hire themselves. Recruiting and retaining talent, and fostering high-performing teams, is a big job that includes:

  • Attracting and holding on to capable individuals
  • Establishing the mission and purpose for individuals and teams
  • Performing career counseling and personal development
  • Listening to and supporting teams for problem identification, root cause analysis, and decision-making
  • Defining and administering compensation, benefits, and promotions
  • Eliminating impediments and evolving systems and practices to support Lean-Agile development
  • Taking subtle control in assigning people to teams; addressing issues that teams cannot unblock; making personnel changes where necessary
  • Evaluating performance, including team input. Providing input, guidance, and corrective actions
  • Serving as an Agile coach and advisor to Agile Teams. Remaining close enough to the team to add value and to be a competent manager, while staying far enough away to let them problem-solve on their own.

Supporting and Reinforcing SAFe Core values

SAFe’s four Core Valuesalignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution—provide the value system of the SAFe enterprise. As shown below, this bestows significant operational responsibilities in reinforcing these values on Lean-thinking manager-teachers.

Responsibilities in Program Execution

Responsibilities for Alignment

Responsibilities for Transparency

  • Create an environment where the ‘facts are always friendly’
  • Provide freedom and safety so that individuals and teams are free to innovate, experiment, and even fail on occasion
  • Communicate openly and honestly with all stakeholders
  • Keep Work in Process (WIP) backlogs and information radiators fully visible to all
  • Value productivity, quality, transparency, and openness over internal politics

Responsibilities for Built-in Quality

  • Support infrastructure, culture, organization, and strategy for implementing DevOps and Release on Demand
  • Understand, teach, or sponsor the software and hardware engineering skills needed to support the development of high-quality code, components, systems, and solutions
  • Foster Communities of Practice (CoPs). Understand, support, and apply Agile Architecture and Lean User Experience (Lean UX)
  • Foster relentless improvement


In this article, we’ve seen how the role of the manager must evolve in the context of the Lean enterprise. The move from traditional, functional manager—responsible for the day-to-day activities of direct reports—to that of a lean-thinking manager-teacher is not trivial. Experience has shown that not everyone may take that journey. However, those who do will be rewarded with a more personally fulfilling, and indeed, more expansive role. Experience has also shown that these emerging Lean leaders are on their way to additional and more senior responsibilities. These individuals will become the executive leaders of the emerging Lean Enterprise.