A client who is basing their scrum adoption on the LeSS scaling framework recently sent me the following question about the role of manager in Large-Scale Scrum.
I’ve read that when scaling scrum with LeSS, cross-functional teams need to have one manager. The author advocated strongly for this, but in reality, I’ve seen this fail miserably. Losing the domain owner causes the group to skew heavily to the bias of the team manager, as well as lose the ability to strongly drive and foster domain expertise. I’ve seen product people be appointed, and the tech goes to pot. Also, I’ve seen technical people not want to report up through product. I’ve seen engineers as team managers, but it’s rare to find good engineering/product people, and you have the reverse problem. I’m not completely convinced that a team manager is a good idea. Chris, what are your thoughts?
My experience aligns with yours. I think teams work best when it is clear that their product owner is the one person who directs what objectives they focus on. The development team member’s job is to work with their teammates to build a high-quality solution to the problems/objectives selected by the product owner.
The role of manager becomes much more about coaching and mentoring, not assigning work. I’ve seen it work well when individuals have managers based on their primary skill area. For example, a Java engineer having a manager who is an even more skilled Java engineer. The manager helps the contributor to improve their skills and grow into an ever more valuable contributor. The managers also anchor communities of practice (COP), sometimes called guilds. All of the Java engineers get together on a regular basis in their COP/guild to discuss things related to Java development: tools, conventions, and architectural direction. These decisions influence how they do their work, but not what work they do. Sometimes, a COP/guild identifies a technical objective they feel is important to the business and may submit requests to specific teams’ backlogs to address the issue. In these cases the COP/guild will make the business case for why the product owner(s) should have their teams pursue the objective.
Managers also have an important role in creating and maintaining an environment where teams will thrive. This usually involves working with scrum masters to identify systemic impediments reducing teams’ effectiveness and implementing interventions to improve the environment.
All of this seems to align with the description of the manager role on the LeSS website.